The Fingerhut catalog family heir oversaw the legendary rock club from its 1970 inception as the Depot through its "Purple Rain" heyday.
By Chris Riemenschneider Star Tribune
OCTOBER 15, 2020 — 12:00PM
STAR TRIBUNE FILE
Allan Fingerhut at the club that would become First Avenue (then the Depot) in 1971.
When his two-years stint as a truck driver in the U.S. Army ended in the late-1960s, Allan Fingerhut could have easily gone to work for the namesake corporation that made his family one of Minneapolis’ wealthiest. Instead, he took a much rougher and wilder road to create one of Minnesota’s richest cultural landmarks.
The original owner and longtime backer of First Avenue nightclub, Fingerhut died Monday at age 76 surrounded by family at his home in Northern California.
Daughter Rain Fingerhut said he suffered from Lewy body dementia, the same disease that afflicted actor/comedian Robin Williams.
“He only showed dire signs of this little-known disease within the past two months,” Rain said, happily reporting that her dad “continued to drive his favorite car, enjoy dinners out with the family and enjoy his hobbies well into his final months.”
Fingerhut had not been formally involved in First Ave since 2004, but he still factored heavily in its story as recently as this year, appearing in a TPT TV documentary and Minnesota History Center exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the venue where Prince filmed “Purple Rain.”
“I have many friends who shared a long and impactful ride in the music world,” former First Ave general manager Steve McClellan said Wednesday, “and for many of us, it started with Allan Fingerhut.”
DUANE BRALEY, STAR TRIBUNE
Allan and Rose Fingerhut near the end of Allan's 34-year run at First Avenue in 2004.
In a 1970 piece subtly ridiculing the downtown Greyhound bus depot’s conversion into a rock club, Minneapolis Star columnist Jim Klobuchar described Fingerhut as “a boy impresario [who is] squat, mod-groomed, flawlessly mustached and lathered with suntan oil.”
The stylish scion was the second of three children born to Rose and Manny Fingerhut, co-founder of the Fingerhut catalog retail empire. After graduating from St. Louis Park High School in 1962, he studied art and photography in New York and then joined the army as the Vietnam War escalated.
Allan had no experience as a bar owner or rock promoter when he turned the old bus station into a music venue originally named the Depot in collaboration with musician Danny Stevens.
“It really looked like it was meant to be a rock club when we went in there,” Fingerhut recalled in a 2015 interview.
He got a crash course on opening night, April 3, 1970, when a manager for British rocker Joe Cocker saw the packed house and demanded more money. Fingerhut paid up, and the shows were legendary.
When Ike Turner similarly shook him down for more money before a show a few months later with then-wife Tina Turner, veteran booking agent Marsh Edelstein remembers the young club owner rounding up pennies and other coins to fulfill the request.
“I don’t know how he did it, but he came up with tons and tons of change,” recalled Edelstein, who said that “sounds just like the Fingerhut family” and credited the surname for helping make the club go.
“Allan had a big name... and could back up his ideas financially.”
After paying out to other rising legends such as B.B. King, the Kinks, Frank Zappa and Rod Stewart’s Faces through the summer of 1971, the Depot faltered financially and closed. It reopened the next year as part of the Cincinnati-based Uncle Sam’s disco chain, which paid Fingerhut for use of the space through 1979.
With disco clubs quickly fading, Fingerhut once again made the decision to invest in rock ’n’ roll.
“Allan, to his credit, believed in us,” said McClellan, who then oversaw the venue’s conversion to the more experimental rock club Sam’s in late-1979 and then finally First Avenue at the start of 1982.
When Prince transformed the club into an international tourist destination in 1984, Fingerhut became friendly with the similarly petite singer.
“Everyone thought he owned the club,” Fingerhut recalled years later. “And I was OK with that.”
As the club temporarily flourished in the early-’80s — when local bands the Replacements, the Time and Hüsker Dü and touring acts such as U2, the Ramones and Run-DMC also played there — Fingerhut turned his attention to his original passion of visual art and photography. He opened the first Fingerhut Gallery in Edina and would later open more galleries in California.
Allan and his wife Rose Fingerhut — who held their wedding ceremony at First Ave in 1985 — relocated to Northern California in the 1990s and largely left McClellan and his partner Jack Meyers to run the club. He abruptly fired the two managers in 2004, though, and filed bankruptcy on the club during a series of lawsuits with his longtime accountant and childhood friend Byron Frank, who would take over as First Ave’s primary owner.
McClellan still credits Fingerhut for the original vision behind the club, and for his 34 years of fostering it through thick and thin (more often the latter). First Avenue’s current owner Dayna Frank, daughter of Byron, also recognized him as the originator.
“Thank you, Allan, for having the crazy idea 50 years ago to put a rock club in an abandoned bus station,” Dayna Frank said. “First Avenue past, present and future are all eternally grateful for your dreams and contributions to our music community.”
A longtime DJ and former employee at the club, Paul Spangrud posted to Facebook, “Thanks Allan for giving us all a place to work and play. A gift and legacy we will cherish always.”
Former Treehouse Records and Oar Folkjokeopus store operator Mark Trehus said, “If, for no other reason, the fact that he gave [McClellan] so much leeway in allowing unprofitable booking decisions for the sake of art, he qualifies for sainthood.”
Rain Fingerhut said her dad’s illness as well as the lockdown from COVID-19 led to quality family time for him this year.
“These past two months have given the family more clarity and resolve in knowing who our father really was,” she said.
“Without a doubt in our mind, we know now more than ever that dad’s intimate legacy was not only one of music, art, and creativity, but also one of joy, having vision for the people and projects he loved, and being a true nurturer of loving greatness.”
In addition to Rose and Rain, Fingerhut is survived by two more daughters, Shawna Fingerhut-Zweber and Bouket Fingerhut; son Justin Fingerhut; siblings Beverly Deikel and Ronald Fingerhut, and grandson Noah Zweber.
A memorial service will be held at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis on Monday at 11 a.m., which will be open to the public or can also be viewed via a Zoom link.
Chris Riemenschneider has been covering the Twin Cities music scene since 2001, long enough for Prince to shout him out during "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)." The St. Paul native authored the book "First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom" and previously worked as a music critic at the Austin American-Statesman in Texas.
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