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.

For more than four decades, the dim, cavernous confines of First Avenue have hosted some of the most legendary happenings in Twin Cities music. It’s where Prince tested out new material and filmed Purple Rain. Where punk legends Hüsker Dü and the Replacements dominated the local rock scene. And where bands like U2, R.E.M., and the Red Hot Chili Peppers played to intimate crowds before graduating to the 10-times-larger Target Center across the street.

But on this rare quiet day in First Avenue’s Mainroom, the giant black stage sits empty and the smell of fresh paint lingers in the air. Dayna Frank, the club’s new executive vice president, leads a crew of construction workers and planners around the building, plotting out the next steps of its seemingly constant renovation.

Frank is petite and casually dressed, her dark brown hair pulled back into a neat ponytail that gives her a youthful look. The 34-year-old Golden Valley native isn’t who you’d expect to see running the state’s most iconic rock club. And she never pictured herself in the business, either.

Long before bands had Twitter accounts, before Spotify, iTunes, and Pandora, fans connected with their favorite musicians at First Ave., lining up along  the sidewalk waiting for shows, tracing their fingers over the names on the Hollywood-style stars painted onto the one-time bus depot’s LP-black exterior. Gruff bouncers eyed music fans from Mohawk’ed head to combat-boot-shod toe as if to assess whether each cool kid were cool enough to pass through the club’s hallowed doors.

While it may not be the most glamorous metaphor, these days the club’s past, present, and future seem to be represented by the bathrooms that service its side-room venue, 7th St. Entry. On the right, the former unisex facility, now the men’s room, is dimly lit and covered in an absurd amount of paint, with layers of graffiti and stickers coated in thick black tar. The mirror is scuffed and scratched, the floor bleak gray cement. And the toilet is topped with a steel seat that looks like it belongs in a prison cell.

But on the left, the newly added women’s restroom glimmers like a jewelry case at Tiffany’s. It’s lined, floor to ceiling, in sparkling, bleach-white tile and has a staff person stationed outside to ensure only one well-behaved female enters at a time. It’s surely the nicest rock-club bathroom in the Cities and indicative of the way Frank’s management has flushed away some of the club’s aloof, grungy past in order to broaden its appeal.

Surveying the mainroom from its second-floor balcony, Frank presents a friendly-but-commanding demeanor as she explains the club’s recent changes. “The first thing we did was clean it inside and out,” she says. “Now, every nook and cranny in the building is beautiful. It’s all repainted; every speck of dust is cleaned. You can actually walk through with the lights on!”

Frank paid frequent visits to the landmark venue, in all its grunge and glory, throughout her childhood. (Her maiden First Ave. show was the Pixies—as an 8-year-old.) She graduated from Hopkins High School and studied photography at NYU. After working in New York for a short time, an interest in film led her to Los Angeles (where she still resides three weeks a month). There, she became an assistant at the powerful Creative Artists Agency and then a junior executive at a production company, helping develop Hollywood films.

Just as Frank’s career was blossoming, she received distressing news from her father back home in Minnesota. Byron Frank had worked for years as First Ave.’s accountant (the reason an 8-year-old got into a Pixies show), alongside a childhood friend who was the club’s original owner, Allan Fingerhut. In 2000, Byron had negotiated the purchase of the property and had become the club’s landlord, but it was not a profitable time for First Ave. (When the New York Times reported on the club’s financial troubles, it noted the business had recently lost “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”) By 2004, the two business partners were embroiled in a bitter and much-publicized dispute. The partnership that owned the building, which included Byron and other investors, ultimately served Fingerhut with an eviction notice. Fingerhut then closed the club and took it into bankruptcy.
 

 

“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.”
 

 

When Dayna isn’t in Minneapolis clocking on-the-ground hours at First Ave., she’s working remotely from her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her wife and their 15-month-old son.

Starting a family led her to boldly state the business’s position on the same-sex marriage issue. During the last election cycle, she purchased a downtown Minneapolis billboard ad that read, “Don’t limit the freedom to marry. First Avenue supports same-sex marriage and equality for all people.”

Would the old First Ave. have put money from its coffers toward such a personal political issue? “Some things are more important than business, to be honest,” Dayna reflects. “It feels like music is always the progenitor of social change, and we really consider ourselves a cultural hotbed of what the emotions are in the Twin Cities. So it felt like an issue where, if our staff cared about it and our customers cared about it, then [the business] should care about it also.”

With the help of Kranz and Grover, Dayna is shaping First Avenue into a more collaborative, inclusive, transparent, and innovative business. Her success as an entertainment entrepreneur recently earned her a panel seat at UCLA’s well-respected Women in Business Leadership Conference, alongside high-powered corporate executives from the likes of CBS, Taco Bell, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“There are very few women who manage to stay independent and really carve their own path—it’s a lot riskier,” says Dayna. “But when you have this chance to go on your own and really take a risk and do something that you feel is truly meaningful, both for your family and your community—it seems too good to even imagine.” 

Andrea Swensson is a music reporter at Minnesota Public Radio’s 89.3 the Current and the voice of the Local Current Blog.
 


10 Things You Might Not Know About First Avenue

★  500,000 people visit First Ave. each year.

★  You get in free on your birthday, regardless of whether the show is sold out. Plus, they even toss in a drink coupon good for a free bottle of champagne.

★  First Ave.’s beloved stage manager, Conrad Sverkerson, is celebrating his 25th anniversary with the club this summer.

★  Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak was so invested in the club’s future that he did a stage dive when First Ave. reopened in 2004, something he repeats from time to time.

★  The Record Room (formerly the VIP Room) was remodeled in 2010. It got its new name from the club’s actual record room—a closet that was used to store the deejay’s vinyl records and turntables back before everyone had laptops.

★  Roughly 10 percent of the stars on the outside wall are left blank, for the staff to add to as they see fit. The newest addition was Macklemore.

★  Speaking of the stars, they are repainted every 10 years, most recently in 2010.

★  The stars weren’t on the building when Purple Rain was filmed, nor were they there between 1997 and 2000, when the owner didn’t have the cash to cover the paint job.

★  The club’s staff designed its own system of “trouble lights” to alert security about problems in the crowd. When a particular light on the ceiling flashes, staff know to run to the corresponding space to address the emergency.

★  200 employees are on the payroll at First Ave., and at least 50 are working at any given show.
 


 

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