VFW’s local trivia night loses its turf to Trivia Mafia

Aaron Hartung (right) allows Karl Turba to eat his tie on Feb. 27 as he hosts his final night of trivia at the James Ballentine VFW in Uptown. Submitted photo

For the 251st Wednesday in the past six years, patrons of the Uptown VFW drank pitchers of beer on Feb. 27 and mulled over Aaron Hartung’s trivia questions, which he read — one every few minutes — in his sonorous, sardonic voice.

What animal has the longest gestation period of any mammal? What industrial rock band got its name from the spikes that affixed Jesus Christ to the cross? What unusual distinction is shared by Judy Garland, Lenny Bruce, Orville Redenbacher, Whitney Houston, and Elvis Presley?

As trivia regulars pondered the answers (African elephant, Nine Inch Nails, died in the bathroom), they also struggled with the evening’s larger questions: What had Hartung’s weekly trivia game meant to them? And what would they do now that it was over?

In January, the VFW decided to replace Hartung’s Two-Fisted Trivia with a Tuesday night Trivia Mafia game, thereby shuttering one of the few remaining independent bar trivia operations in Minneapolis.

The VFW cited low attendance figures and a desire to “try something new” with Trivia Mafia — a Minneapolis-based juggernaut that now runs trivia for 119 locations in the greater Twin Cities — but some Two-Fisted fans worried the decision might portend larger upheavals at their beloved dive bar.

In recent years, the James Ballentine VFW Post 246 has opened a 440-person capacity music venue, increased food options and introduced a new, brightly lit second bar on Lyndale Avenue. It has also abruptly dismissed well-liked staff, such as bartender Trish Mitchell and karaoke host Crystal Lollie.

But the VFW’s back room, with its diverse clientele, popcorn-sticky floor, and jarring neon lighting scheme, has hardly changed since it opened in the 1950s.

Kaylie Falk said the VFW has been one of her last remaining sanctuaries from “the general gentrification of the neighborhood.” She’s said she’s kept coming back even after being priced out of Uptown.

“This is my ‘Cheers,’” she said. “It’s how I met my core friend group here in Minneapolis.”

PH Copeland, an organizer with the St. Paul nonprofit Hope Community, said she’s “gone to trivia at one of the large, known spots, and there’s definitely a difference here.”

“The VFW has allowed multiple different communities to come together,” she said, “not in a kumbaya-ish, post-racial way — obviously there’s no such thing — but I appreciate the continuity and the creativity and the heart.”

Hartung said the “old-timey” atmosphere at the veteran-led bar was key to his style of trivia. A good host, he said, should keep their ego out of it and “focus on people hanging out, enjoying each others’ company.”

“The actual questions and the competition itself is in a way kind of secondary,” the East Harriet resident said. “This is more of a communal routine for people. You have people gathering every Wednesday just like you have people who go to church every Sunday morning.”

Crystal Lollie (left), a former karaoke host at the VFW, returned to celebrate the end of Two-Fisted Trivia with her friends Kaylie Falk (center) and Renae Totten. Submitted photo
Crystal Lollie (left), a former karaoke host at the VFW, returned to celebrate the end of Two-Fisted Trivia with her friends Kaylie Falk (center) and Renae Totten. Submitted photo

Two twists on trivia

Fernando Jackson started hosting Two-Fisted Trivia in the summer of 2009, after being recruited by his friend Hilari Bandow. (The “Two-Fisted” name comes from a drink special involving more beer than can be held in one hand.)

Together, Jackson and Bandow worked out the format. Two ten-question rounds, the first round themed, the second, general knowledge, followed by a lightning round in which Jackson asked teams to send “their drunkest member” to answer four rapid-fire questions. Winners were rewarded with wooden drink tokens.

The drunken lightning round motivated players to stay until the end, and Jackson learned to put his easiest questions at the beginning and end of each round. “You didn’t want people to get frustrated and leave,” he said. “It’s all about keeping the seats full.”

With a degree in radio broadcasting, Jackson concentrated on “being loud, clear and prepared.” After about a year, 15 to 20 teams per week were coming to Two-Fisted Trivia.

Hartung played as a member of a team called “Love with Effortless Tickles.”

“At the time I was a little arrogant, and would kind of critique questions,” Hartung said.

“I wouldn’t say he critiqued me,” Jackson recalled slightly differently. “But he’d always have a follow-up question.”

When Jackson moved to San Diego in 2013, he picked Hartung as his replacement.

“I’m a little more outlandish, but he’s got a good clear voice and demeanor,” Jackson said.

Hartung kept Jackson’s format and continued to “pepper in some risqué questions,” but he injected more of his own personality and background.

“For the first two years, every other week there was a question where the answer was Chile,” said Hartung, who is half-Chilean. “It became an Easter egg reward for the regulars, a little layup point.”

Hartung would spend three or four hours a week writing questions (the best ones, he said, “actually start a debate or even an argument at the table”), and he took special pleasure in personalizing questions for special occasions.

When he learned that Matt, a longtime player on Team Dragon, was moving to Michigan, he asked Matt’s teammates about his favorite movies and music. On Matt’s final evening at the VFW, Hartung wrote the questions just for him.

“That’s not going to happen with Trivia Mafia — it’s going to be the same thing whether you go to Bar A or Bar B or Bar C,” Hartung said.

‘Advertising and networking’

In early 2007, when Trivia Mafia co-founder Chuck Terhark started hosting trivia at the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis, there were just a handful or so places to play bar trivia in the Twin Cities, he said.

Today, the company he grew with his friend Sean McPherson serves 44 bars and restaurants in Minneapolis, including 11 in southwest. Terhark and a team of five part-time writers produce more than 200 questions a week, enough so you could play Trivia Mafia every night of the year without answering more than the occasional repeat.

Along with the quality of its questions, Terhark said much of Trivia Mafia’s allure to businesses has been its strength in marketing.

“People will check out a new bar or brewery or distillery or taproom just because we are there,” he said. “We have thousands of fans around the metro who are hopping around to different Trivia Mafia nights.”

Jimmy Berg, a bar manager at the VFW, said the decision to replace Two-Fisted Trivia with Trivia Mafia was purely financial.

“The numbers weren’t doing awesome,” Berg said, “At Trivia Mafia, they have their own built-in advertising and networking, which makes it easier for people to find a location.”

Terhark said he supports independent trivia and noted that the VFW reached out to Trivia Mafia, not the other way around.

“We’re also local,” he said. “Despite our name, we’re not really a mafia. We’re not walking in like, ‘Nice trivia night, shame if anything happened to it.’”

Hartung said he wished that the VFW had tried advertising Two-Fisted Trivia on its events flyers, but he isn’t bitter about the bar’s decision.

“You can consider yourself a regular of an area or a city or a neighborhood when you’ve been there long enough that you can complain about an old place leaving,” he said.

Fun fact: Aaron Hartung’s final night hosting trivia was only the second time he hosted in a suit. Submitted photo
Fun fact: Aaron Hartung’s final night hosting trivia was only the second time he hosted in a suit. Submitted photo

Wise guys

Loren Woodman, a soft-spoken counselor at Lincoln International High School, has been coming to Two-Fisted Trivia since it started.

His favorite part was walking up to the front of the bar with his answer. After each question, teams would submit their response on a torn slip of notebook paper to Hartung, who would announce the correct response before reading the next question.

“You get to interact with a lot of different people,” Woodman said. “I like meeting people I wouldn’t meet normally.”

Over the years Woodman banded together with other solo players and formed a variety of trivia teams — Teacher’s Pet, Southsiders, Jeff, and Lucky Pierre (the answer to the sixth question of the evening).

On the last night of Two-Fisted Trivia, Woodman was adamant that he would not be attending the VFW’s replacement program.

“With Trivia Mafia, it’s too easy to cheat,” he said. “Trivia Mafia is like a franchise when we had our own independent.”

But Woodman’s tablemates thought he might be pushing things too far.

“Don’t slam, be nice, don’t be ugly,” one advised him.

“Don’t make an enemy of the mafia,” said another.