The Uptown Bar & Café’s original location is history, but staff and patrons hold out hope for an encore.
The words burst from Terry Walsh’s mouth like a warning, resonating off mirrored walls, dusty light fixtures and grungy brown furnishings before colliding with patrons sipping cheap beer from familiar pint glasses emblazoned with the name of their ill-fated hangout, the Uptown Bar & Café.
“Precious time is slipping away,” Walsh crooned with an uncanny resemblance to Van Morrison, the song’s author. “You know you’re only king for a day. It doesn’t matter to what God you pray. Precious time is slipping away.”
Two weeks later, time would escape the Uptown Bar. After more than half a century at 3018 Hennepin Ave. S., the neighborhood icon closed its doors Nov. 1. It will be demolished late this fall or in early spring and replaced with a three-story retail building. A tenant has not been named.
Longtime patrons lament the change as corporatization’s latest stab at the area’s once eclectic, independent scene. Having hosted countless local and national bands, the bar’s significance to Minneapolis’ music culture is indisputable.
Still, others see the transition as an opportunity to build Uptown’s retail density and enhance its appeal as a shopping destination.
The Uptown Bar is coming down regardless of the debate, but its story might not be over just yet, as owners and management work with the developer to find a new home for the area’s most storied dive.
A family business
Long before it established itself as a music venue, the Uptown Bar was a much smaller tavern that served burgers and weak beer.
It started out in the 1930s as the Granada Cafe, but the name changed by the time Frank Toonen bought the business in 1950. A pharmacist by
trade, the Uptown Bar was Toonen’s first foray into the entertainment industry. He did it for a girl who several years later became his first wife.
“Because of that relationship I decided I’d buy it,” said Toonen, who still has plenty of pep at age 88. “I had never been in the business before or anything. It was more or less at that time just an investment and because she worked there and she liked it, so I bought it.”
In addition to the business, Toonen purchased the property a decade later and has hung onto it since.
He expanded the building gradually over the years, but even in those early days it was every bit the neighborhood hangout it stayed until the end. It was a place to relax and find a familiar face.
“You didn’t want to miss a day in there because you might miss something,” said Toonen’s second wife, Arlene (the two both lost their first spouses, but were in the same circle of friends who frequented the Uptown Bar).
The bar was also heavy into sports, sponsoring local bowling (there was once a big alley across the street), softball, football and hockey teams. Music wasn’t a focus, but musicians were occasionally booked and shows grew increasingly popular as time went on. Rockabilly, a fusion of country and early rock and roll, was a common genre performed at the bar in the ’50s and ’60s, Arlene Toonen said.
She later worked in the bar as a cook and several other Toonen family members also helped run the place, including Frank’s son, Kenny.
The Toonens sold the business in the early 1980s and it was remodeled in an art-deco style still evident today in the bar’s metallic exterior and “Uptown” script. Live music became the bar’s draw that decade and the Toonens didn’t change that when they repurchased the business in the early 1990s.
Kenny Toonen, who suffered from multiple health problems, ran the bar’s day-to-day operations until he died about a year ago. He would be the last of his family to oversee the establishment.
“Kenny, when he passed, was really kind of the catalyst. That was the end,” Arlene Toonen said. “When you can’t be hands-on in a business like this, you don’t belong there. This kind of a business, you have to have one of the owners or some family member in and out of there all the time.”
When an offer for the property came along this year, the Toonens said they couldn’t pass it up, but it wasn’t without heartache.
“We’re doing our very best to relocate [the business],” Frank Toonen said. “I hate to see it go in the first place, after 60 years it’s tough, but everything has got to come to the end.”
A hard goodbye
Slicing lime wedges at the end of the bar on a Tuesday morning, Uptown Bar employee Anita Stinson smiled while recalling memories from her roughly 35 years on the job.
As the mom of local rock legends Tommy and (the late) Bob Stinson of The Replacements, she’s a bit of a celebrity, but most patrons wouldn’t know to ask. Wearing a bright orange Halloween sweatshirt and matching cobweb earrings, the bespectacled 67-year-old talked as only a mother could about watching The Replacements’ single Uptown Bar performance.
The bar was so packed that she had to be snuck in through a small loading door behind the stage, she said. She sat on the stage steps all night.
“It was awesome. It was absolutely one of the things that you only experience once in your life,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience.”
Countless others have had memorable moments at the bar.
Regulars Dusty Burnham and Troy Tindal both met their girlfriends there — Burnham said he and his girlfriend shared their first kiss on the dance floor. Band booker Brian McDonough had his first legal beer at the bar.
And just about every patron has a memory tied to a show.
The Uptown Bar has played host to some big names in music, from high-profile groups such as Nirvana, Oasis and The Flaming Lips, to homegrown heroes Atmosphere, Hüsker Dü and The Jayhawks.
“I wish I could just have a small piece of that dirty green carpet that they’ve got up on stage,” said Justin Reinke, 26, who was hanging out with his fiancée in front of the Uptown Bar on a recent Friday night before catching a show. “How many people have trampled that, how much musical genius has walked on that and that dirt, it means something. It’s special. Music is a powerful thing.”
Standing nearby was Richard Reber, 77, puffing a skinny Capri cigarette, but not looking out of place among the crowd. That feeling of inclusion and equality among people three times younger than himself has brought him back to the bar nearly every day since the early 1990s.
“They talk to me like we’re equals, like we’re on the same page,” he said. “Not like, ‘what are you doing little grandpa?’ More like, ‘what’s up?’”
Reber, who doesn’t drink alcohol, said he orders a pot of coffee and a glass of water and chats it up with whoever’s willing. On this night, he also made it out on the dance floor to see the God Damn Doo Wop Band, headed by four girls wearing thrift-store prom dresses who were happy to make it on the bar’s little back-corner stage one last time.
“I think I’m in love,” Reber shouted with a big grin as the shoo-bop, shoo-bops reverberated through the crowd.
Moving the Uptown
When Kenny Toonen died, his longtime friend and colleague Dennis Willey took the reins of the Uptown Bar.
He’s been a manager there for 15 years and recently, finding a way to keep the bar alive in a new location has been his top priority — one that has clearly exhausted him.
“My goal right now, and when this all came through, is I have 35 to 40 people who work for me, a lot of them have been here nine, 10 years,” Willey said. “What I’m trying to do is save their jobs. And nobody wants to see it get away. The neighborhood doesn’t want to see it get away.”
The Toonens said if the bar is going to move, they want Willey at the helm and they want to keep it in the area because an Uptown Bar outside of Uptown just wouldn’t make sense.
Willey and developer Jeffrey Herman have looked at several potential sites near the Hennepin Avenue and Lake Street corner but had better luck in the Lyndale Avenue and Lake Street node. Herman said they were in the process of negotiating a letter of intent for a property there, but he wouldn’t give the address.
“We started looking outside of our immediate area, but also tried to stay within the greater Uptown area,” Herman said. “Lyn-Lake to people who live in the core is Lyn-Lake, but for people who are coming to Uptown it’s still Uptown, so by placing the Uptown in Lyn-Lake it still takes on an aura of being part of Uptown.”
The biggest hurdle, Herman said, would be negotiating a liquor license that would allow the Uptown Bar to operate as it has, without a 60-percent food sales and 40-percent alcohol sales requirement. Bar staff have put together a petition to move the bar’s liquor license. It had several thousand signatures after just a couple weeks.
Linda Roberts, the city’s lead license inspector, said a liquor license is tied to a property’s address, but the petition might at least bring awareness to the situation when it’s time for the bar to apply for a new license.
Though employees and patrons said the bar would never be the same in a new location, they’re willing to give it a go.
“It’s not all about the physical setting here,” said waitress Sarah Haug. “Although that’s a huge part, it’s about the people and the experiences, so I think if we change as little as possible, it could work.”
Most employees share her optimism.
“It is what it is,” said bartender Jason Haire, who’s been with the bar about a decade. “If they open a new place it might be cooler than this. It could have a patio potentially and better sound. That could actually be a big bonus. Yeah, this place might close, but it would be the same people working there, it would be a lot of the same bands, the same customers, and things might be a little bit nicer.”
Ron Upton, a gray-bearded 50-year-old who’s worked security for almost 15 years at the bar, said the people are more important than his income.
“It’s a job for me, yes, but basically, I’m 50 years old, but I don’t feel it,” he said. “Being with the kids in this area kind of keeps me young, keeps me in touch with what’s going on. I’m definitely going to miss these people.”
One more show
The Uptown Bar has hosted shows seven days a week for its last month. But that wasn’t enough to squeeze in everyone who wanted one last shot on stage.
Terry Walsh and The Belfast Cowboys were among the lucky few who got a time slot. Walsh, who first played at the bar in 1984, tailored his set list to the event, with “Precious Time” as the first song.
“Oh the memories, oh the memories are just flooding back one after another,” he said into the microphone between songs. “It’s really a sad thing to see this bar go. … We thought we weren’t going to get another chance, so it sure is nice to be here.”
And just in case the crowd didn’t get what he was singing about, he made the warning clear: “That wrecking ball is coming soon.”