A Tale of the Turf Club

by Kasey McKee

A neighborhood bar is a peculiar thing. It can be a gathering place and a refuge from the daily struggle. When combined with live music, it can be the focal point of a thriving community.
St Paul’s Turf Club has been pivotal in fostering the Twin Cities’ unique musical culture. So why does this modest bar hold so much meaning for people in the local scene? And why are so many longtime customers feeling left in the dust?

According to county records, the stucco building at 1601 University Avenue West that is currently occupied by the Turf Club was originally constructed in 1922, and was operated under the name Kirch & Gillis for years. In the early 1950’s it was rechristened Turf Club, with a matching racetrack theme, and featured steaks, chops, and live entertainment.

The Turf Club began to take a more recognizable form when the St Paul Music Club, a music coalition started by Mammy Nuns member Rob Rule, began organizing shows at the bar as an alternative to other Twin Cities venues with more exclusive booking policies.

Rule discussed the Turf Club with me over the telephone:

“It was a neighborhood bar, there were old-timers and retirees, and they were open seven days a week, they opened at Ten in the morning. At that point, the Turf Club was what they called a ‘blue-haired bar’, because they did country shows Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. That was the only live music they had there. This would have been the early 90’s, maybe ’91, ’92…Mark Johnson, who was the owner when I was there, bought it from his Aunt Kathy, who bought it from her father. So it had been in the family for like 30 years.”

Dave Wiegardt was a bartender and later manager at the Turf Club between 1995 and 2011. He and Rob Rule were friends in their hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa and played in bands together throughout the 80’s. I met with Wiegardt on his front porch in St Paul.

“I think Rob was looking in the City Pages, and there was a band that we kind of knew called Smut, and they were playing at the Turf Club, and we were like ‘What the hell is the Turf Club?’ So we went over there and checked it out. The owner [Mark Johnson] was a young guy, at the time he was probably 32, and we just said, ‘Hey, how about we do once-a-month, and just kind of throw an event, have a party’. We were just doing Tuesdays at the time, we were trying to get a feel for this place. But the room was beautiful, it was a great size, and Mark was nothing but generous.”

I asked Rob Rule what the St Paul music scene was like at the time.

“St Paul was known for Hüsker Dü, but for the most part everything was Minneapolis-based. There wasn’t much of a St Paul music scene. There were a lot of musicians in the area, but they had no outlet to play…and it was hard to get people over the river to St Paul. But there were more bands than there were venues, and everyone wants to play somewhere, so pretty soon people would start coming over to St Paul.”

Rule and the SPMC were offered a Tuesday night slot by owner Johnson, which led to

Rule’s ten-year stint as de facto music director for the venue.

“We didn’t have a PA to start with,” says Rule. “At some point, we discovered that the stage used to be against the back wall, where it is now. And then we discovered there was a basement that was full of storage and shit, because the basement hadn’t been opened for years. Then we started talking about opening the basement up, which over time led to the Clown Lounge. After a while, we talked the owner into putting the stage back to where it was, and me and my Mammy Nuns, we were all construction guys, and we built the stage against the back wall there.”

“It was really cool, because on a normal night you’d have 20, 30, 40 people hanging out, and half of them were musicians. Most of them were in local bands. It got to a point where musicians really liked playing there because there were always people, there were regulars and a crowd of people that was built-in. So that kind of snowballed a bit with time. At the time it seemed like it took forever, but we didn’t see it happening. We just kept doing it week after week, because it was a place to go for musicians.”

Rule shared one of his favorite sayings: “Three words for happiness: people and music.”
The bar was notable among local bands for its fair treatment of the talent, and was long viewed as a rite of passage for many St Paul musicians.

“The thing I’m most proud of is that we gave 100% of the door to the bands that were playing that night. We provided the PA, the sound engineer. Everybody got paid something, no one left empty-handed. We started a policy of ‘TVs off while bands are playing’, we don’t want TVs on, they distract. We had a staff policy that the musicians are our honored guests that night: whether you like the performance or not, you don’t talk shit about them in public. So it got to a point where it was a very comfortable place for bands to be.”

Rule says that some words of wisdom from a local legend helped:

“I think probably the best advice we got was from Slim Dunlap: ‘Don’t go chasing nationals. The Twin Cities talent pool is so huge. Keep it local. Work with the local talent. They want to play, and they’ll bring people out.’”

Dave Wiegardt talked about his involvement with the Turf Club.

“It was sort of like a ‘build it and they will come’ thing. There was nothing cool about that bar in St Paul, initially. The stage lighting was duct tape and fishing line, little Hardware Hank clip-on lights. Over time, with the success we had, the money would come.”
The money did come, as the bar attracted larger and larger crowds, but Wiegardt says the Turf Club’s business strategy did not always meet with approval from the management at other venues.

“They didn’t like that we were doing low cover charges, they told me that we were undervaluing the bands. This guy told me one night, ‘It should be an eight-dollar cover’. And I said, ‘You know, I respect that, you might be right, but you could alienate the regulars that just want to walk into the place. Plus, if we’re getting 300 people paying three, four, five dollars, that might be a bigger take at the door than if you’re getting 100 people to pay eight dollars.’”

Wiegardt receives credit for creating one of the Turf Club’s legendary features, the Clown Lounge, located below the main room.

“I had a little PA in the basement. I would bartend and run the sound. I would tell the bands, ‘I’m gonna give you two microphones, you can place them anywhere you want, and I’m just gonna ride your vocal above the guitars, and then I’m gonna be bartending after that’.”

He talked about how its familiar moniker came about:

“After I don’t know how many times of being down there, I thought ‘I gotta name this thing’. So, Clown Lounge, I just thought of an association between a gin blossom nose, a drinker, and a clown, and you do ridiculous things when you’re drinking a bit, and I was thinking I could do this whole multi-colored carnival kind of thing. And then one day, I don’t know how many months into it, we finally blew a breaker. And I go in the back to take a look, and it literally said ‘Carnival Room’ where you write in next to the fuse.”

The Clown Lounge became known for hosting jazz, experimental music, and other small combos that might otherwise be out of place upstairs.

“I felt like it would be good to have it be a complementary thing. My father played trumpet. Somebody suggested I get a hold of this guy Doug Little. His rhythm section was JT Bates and Chris Bates. I said to them, ‘I’m really not a fan of house gigs, but this would be awesome’. I think the next week we started a ten-year residency that JT curated.”

Wiegardt noted the cooperative feeling of the club:

“The more people you had involved, the more it made it fun and quirky. It just seemed like the natural thing to do. And it was a byproduct of ‘Support Local Music’. It’s such a cliché, everybody’s heard it, but it’s true.”

Rob Rule left the Turf Club in 2004, relocating to rural Wisconsin with his wife and fellow Mammy Nun, Leah (who passed away in 2012). Although removed from the Twin Cities, the Rules would continue to host musical events from their farm.

Ryan O’Rourke became the venue’s primary booking agent around that time, a post he retained for the following decade (he now books music at Grumpy’s downtown Minneapolis location). I talked to him on the phone about his tenure at the Turf Club:

“It was about taking chances. Not just with the styles of music—noise, metal, garage rock—-but also taking risks with guarantees. So we were always taking bigger risks,” an attitude that, he says, was encouraged by the management.

Changes in technology also helped: “That was the beginning of Myspace, and it was the first time that a lot of bands were reachable. You could contact them online instead of finding them after a show at the Entry to bug them for their phone number.”

I asked him if he also was responsible for booking the semi-legendary Neil Hamburger performances, the self-styled “World’s Worst Stand-up Comic”.

“Yep, that was me,” answered O’Rourke. “He performed on the Old Stage that was used for acoustic shows. We were also able to get [comedians] Todd Barry and Tig Notaro there, too.”

O’Rourke talked about the Turf Club’s meaning for him: “It’s probably my favorite place to see music, and I think a lot of people would probably say the same thing.” He continued, “With the people there, my co-workers, it was easily the greatest years of my life so far. I made a lot of really good friends.”

Drew Ailes, 34, is a Minneapolis musician (Brain Tumors/Citric Dummies) and is also a music columnist. I asked him via e-mail if he’d like to share any early memories of the Turf Club and he responded with characteristic vitriol:

“I remember playing a show and dumping a candle on my head, giving me a waxy yarmulke. The Turf Club was also the site of Perfect Patrick’s Pretty Princess Pageant, which was some kind of demented scheme to put men in evening gowns, and Jason Wade of Cock ESP and Faggot drew on our faces using sharpie. And they let us do it. And thanked us. And didn’t complain about sweeping up the glitter.”

Ailes continued: “It wasn’t my bar and it never was. I was never a regular. But the way the Turf Club was, you didn’t have to be a regular to feel like a regular. Maybe it’s still great. I don’t really care, and maybe someone wants to roll their eyes and pin my attitude on some sort of ‘things were good when I liked them’ mentality, but fuck them. It’s not what it was and I think a lot of the people who call the shots see nothing wrong with that as long as they can suck another $20 out of some dickhead’s wallet so Best Coast or some shit can put everyone to sleep.”

In October 2013, an article in Star Tribune announced that Tom Scanlon, who had owned the Turf Club since 2005, would be selling the bar in order to focus on his other business (the Dubliner, also located on University Avenue), and that First Avenue was buying. The venerated downtown Minneapolis music hot-spot had been operating their adjacent 7th Street Entry and Depot Tavern for years, but this would be their first business acquisition across the Mississippi. The transfer of ownership was finalized in December 2013 (Ramsey County property records indicate a sale price of $190,000).

I asked Ryan O’Rourke, who worked during the transition, what the staff’s reaction was at the time: “It was a long wait leading up to it, but I think the entire staff was happy. We knew First Avenue would be financially capable of keeping the club up to par…that they would have a good handle on it.”

According to the Star Tribune, First Avenue invested heavily in the acquisition, and a period of closure due to a six-figure renovation occurred during the summer of 2014, which included long-needed updates to the bathrooms and HVAC system. Booths were replaced with high-top tables, and the Old Stage was removed. A pre-show greenroom was added for performers, and the Clown Lounge and kitchen were also remodeled.

A highly-anticipated re-opening ceremony was to take place at the end of August 2014, attended by St Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, representatives from 89.3 The Current, and other notables. First Avenue representatives emphasized that they wanted to keep the bar the way it had been.

So has anything changed?

“It’s no longer a local bar, it’s a venue,” says Laura Hoenack, 45, who is co-owner of Hymie’s Records with her husband Dave.

Hymie’s Records is an independent business in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis, and is known for their annual Record Store Day block party, a free event that features live music. The Hoenacks also curated a “Records Roadshow” at the Turf Club, which was a DJ residency/traveling shop: the couple would bring in crates of vinyl from their store and spin selections, while bar patrons could browse through the records, all of which were for sale.

Laura Hoenack described the atmosphere of the bar as welcoming and inclusive, and remembers making Christmas ornaments, a tradition started by veteran bartender Felix. “Like an Arts & Crafts night,” she says. “It was just a group of people showing up, expecting to see each other.”

Hymie’s Records Roadshow was a recurring event held on the first Wednesday of every month from 2011 until December 2013. Hoenack says the program was cut by incoming management: “I understand it’s a big organization and there need to be rules, but everything changed. It feels like there’s not much local stuff anymore.”

When asked how she would describe the current relationship between Hymie’s Records and the Turf Club, she replied, “Non-existent. It’s too bad, because I had my 30th birthday there. It’s nice that they have a kitchen now, but if that’s the only positive?”

St Paul singer-songwriter Martin Devaney first visited the Turf Club in 2001 and soon became a devotee, regularly attending the Tuesday night performances (he also attended the re-opening event in 2014).

When asked to describe his early impressions of the bar, he says, “It was communal, inviting…it was meeting people who made it easy to feel welcome. It became a hangout for other musicians, and you could count on seeing other people there. I remember seeing Slim Dunlap’s band play there and going ‘this is where I belong’.”

When asked if he felt there had been a change, he said, “It became less of a neighborhood bar. I miss hanging out for a casual night, but we’re lucky to still have it around.”

Manny Castro, 38, plays violin in Trash Catties, among several other projects. He is also one-third of UnderCurrentMPLS, a Twin Cities collective that exhaustively records and archives local live music shows (UnderCurrentMPLS’s YouTube page lists around 3,000 video uploads at the time of this article’s writing). As their name suggests, UnderCurrentMPLS has a particular interest in acts that might escape the notice of FM radio.

I spoke with Castro about the Turf Club at St Paul’s Como Dockside, where he recalled the times when Nate Nelson (of American Cream/ex-STNNNG) would bring homemade pastrami to the bar, dishing out sandwiches, while the regulars watched episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I asked Castro if anything has changed since First Avenue’s acquisition. “It’s no longer a dive bar,” says Castro.

Indeed, the days of operation are strictly limited to those with scheduled performances, leading to a somewhat unpredictable calendar. The weekend brunch menu has also been jettisoned within the past year. Doors open no earlier than 5PM on any day of operation, according to the Turf Club’s website. One conspicuous new addition to the venue is a set of large flat-screen TVs in the main room (perhaps in preparation for the upcoming Allianz soccer stadium across Snelling-University?).

Laura Westley-Williams, 38, is a seasoned pub quiz host, live music fan, and she is also a bartender at another St Paul music venue, Amsterdam Bar & Hall. She gives a pragmatic view of the situation: “I don’t feel like it’s changed so drastically that people can’t have a good time. Dive bars can really only draw so much [of a crowd], and if it wants to stay relevant it has to change.”

Westley-Williams moved to the Twin Cities in 2008 and compared the Turf Club’s situation to that of the similar-sized 9:30 Club in her hometown of Washington, D.C.: “Whenever any new place takes over, they will have new opinions about how it should be run. Transitions are gonna happen, you can’t fault a place for trying to stay viable.”

If the Turf Club has taken an increasingly play-it-safe approach to management, they may have good reason, as several small- to medium-sized St Paul music venues have faced serious obstacles in the past few years: the former heavy metal club Station 4 (formerly Ryan’s Bar) has remained vacant since its closure in 2013, despite plans to open a brewpub on the premises; the multi-purpose Bedlam Theater folded in late 2016; and the shuttering of funk haven Arnellia’s last April dealt another blow to the city’s live music community. Additionally, the jazz-oriented Artists’ Quarter closed in 2013, although the subterranean space was re-opened in 2015 as Vieux Carré under the aegis of Minneapolis-based Dakota Jazz Club.

Much of the conversation regarding the management of local music venues seems to be informed by a simple dichotomy: the community-based grassroots model versus the no-nonsense corporate model. But is this a false choice? Or should Rob Rule’s motto perhaps be updated to “Three words for happiness: Money and music”?

Speaking about the possible effects that a dearth of accessible venues might have on younger musicians, Martin Devaney said, “It’s much harder to stick with it and people get discouraged. There aren’t as many springboards, and the ones who have gotten the springboards have gotten older.”

The Turf Club is now one of two music venues east of the Mississippi operated by First Avenue, as they have since partnered with the City of St Paul and Chicago-based Jam Productions to manage the Palace Theater in downtown.

The Palace Theater is an impressive, century-old vaudeville stage that fell into disuse in the early 1980’s. After three moth-balled decades, it underwent a long process of renovation beginning in 2014 (at a cost of $15.6 million in state funds, according to Pioneer Press). The cathedral-like Palace Theater opened in March of this year to great expectations. Although the space is owned by the city, First Avenue and Jam Productions handle the management.

I was able to speak with Joe Spencer, Director of Arts & Culture at the St Paul Mayor’s Office. Spencer was appointed by Mayor Coleman in 2006, and has been heavily involved in bringing the Palace Theater back to an operational state.

I asked Spencer how St Paul’s partnership with First Avenue and Jam Productions came about.

“We knew what the size of the venue was gonna be, and we looked at other markets around the country. It’s a pretty tough marketplace, fierce competition, especially with [music promoters] AEG and Live Nation really dominating the landscape across the country. We were gonna need somebody who was big like that, who could book a number of shows there. Also, knowing we were gonna use a fair amount of public money to do this project, we were gonna need some guarantees and somebody with some wherewithal going into the project.”

Since opening, the Palace Theater has primarily hosted a handful of national touring acts per month, like Beck and Spoon, with tickets typically in the $30-$50 range. Similarities between the stage and its Minneapolis mothership prompted Star Tribune music writer Chris Riemenschneider to refer to the Palace Theater as “First Avenue East”.

The contract between St Paul, First Avenue, and Jam Productions indicates that the venue must also be made available for non-profit, school, and community events, but Spencer commented it has been a challenge to arrange that sort of programming.

“It’s definitely part of the agreement. How that plays out, we’ve really yet to see. The reality, though, is it’s a really big venue, and so there’s probably gonna be limited opportunities where it will be a good fit for the event. In order to sell 2400, 2500 tickets, it’s gonna be a pretty big show. They’re a real challenge because the room is so big, and it’s expensive just to turn the keys. With no rental fee and with no profit-making on the part of the venue, it’s just expensive to staff it and run it. But the contract says if the dates are available in a reasonable time frame, that community groups can get access, for whatever the costs are for using the venue.”

I asked Spencer whether this would be at the discretion of the city, or First Avenue/Jam Productions.

“It’s run by them,” says Spencer. “They’re the managers, they’re the responsible party.”

As a final note, I contacted First Avenue management for comment at the beginning of my research for this piece. I initially received a reply from their Marketing & Communications Director, who told me an interview with a spokesperson could be arranged, although I ultimately never heard back. My periodic follow-up e-mails and phone calls during the subsequent six weeks have not been replied to or returned.

 

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