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Not Your Father’s First Avenue

As rock-club operators go, 34-year-old former TV exec Dayna Frank isn’t typical. And neither are the changes she’s making to Minneapolis’s most iconic music venue.

Not Your Father’s First Avenue
Photo by TJ Turner/SIDECAR

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“It was really difficult,” Dayna recalls. “You grow up in Minneapolis, and First Avenue is legendary. The thought of it closing symbolizes something much darker than I could have comprehended.”
After a series of lawsuits, Byron eventually walked away with full control of both the property and the club. “He never wanted to be a nightclub owner, ever,” Danya explains. When her father met with the club’s talent buyers, Nate Kranz and Sonia Grover, they asked their new boss for the chance to prove themselves. “They said, ‘Give us six months. Let us show you what we can do booking our own room,’” Dayna recalls. “And they never looked back.”

By 2009, Dayna was working at VH1, overseeing scripted series for the network, hiring writers, and working on the set of a comedy show, when her father suffered a stroke. “He basically used his trump card and said, ‘If we don’t have a member of the family watching out for this, I’m going to sell the club,’” she recalls. “And I was like, I can’t let that happen! Growing up, going to First Avenue, knowing how important it was—I just can’t see it go to somebody who’s not rooted in Minneapolis. So I stepped in, thinking I’d kind of tide things over until he was well enough.” She pauses and grins. “And then I really liked it.”

Byron has since recovered and retired, leaving the venue in his daughter’s hands. But Dayna is quick to credit her father with many of the significant changes. “When I was growing up, the club was definitely known as First Attitude,” she recalls. “It was black and it was intimidating, and you walked in and kind of hoped no one was going to punch you. The first thing [my dad] did was make sure all the employees knew that they had to be nice to all the customers. It sounds so trivial, but I think it made such a big impact on the business.”

Dayna credits that subtle shift in disposition—and the fact that her father approached his role as an accountant rather than a “club guy”—for changing the course of First Ave. “I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the bags of cash that promoters carried around or what kind of back-room deals were made, but I think if you don’t come from that world, then you run it like any other business,” she says. “And First Avenue is very much run like any other business, where you have to have a product, and you have to treat the customers right, and you have to do everything above board and trust that people will come back.”

In the decade since the Frank family took control of the club, more than $3 million in profits has been funneled back into the business. Over the past five years, the improvements have come fast and furious: the Mainroom was reconfigured, with a staircase moved and a bar reconstructed to open up sight lines and space. The exterior and all 435 of its iconic white stars were reformatted and repainted. A new sound system was installed. The garage was remodeled to accommodate tour buses. And a portion of the building that was formerly rented out to a check-cashing business was transformed into a family-friendly restaurant and bar, the Depot Tavern, which attracts many Twins fans who have never been to a First Ave. show.

Dayna is expanding the club’s reach—literally—by planning a First Avenue–branded, outdoor summer festival. It was scheduled to launch this summer, on athletic fields near the Sculpture Garden, but things hit a snag when two headliners fell through. Mention of the festival’s postponement (until 2014) causes the typically upbeat Dayna to frown and let out a heavy sigh. “It was devastating, personally,” she says. “I mean, I spent a year of my life working on getting permission for the site. But you know, if we’re not going to do it right, we’re not going to do it at all.”

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