An entertainment destinationby William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul's University Ave. has a history as an entertainment destination and a gathering place that changes with the times.
St. Paul, Minn. — For 60 years the corner of University Ave. and Lexington Parkway attracted fans of the national pastime. Lexington Park was home to minor league baseball's original St. Paul Saints.
By the 1950s, the Saints and their cross-river competition, the Minneapolis Millers, had developed a rivalry that mirrored one of the fiercest in the major leagues.
The most talented Saints were promoted to the Brooklyn Dodgers, while the Millers were a farm team for the New York Giants.
So before they did battle in Gotham, stars like Duke Snider and Willie Mays played at Lexington Park, and tried to hit home runs onto the roof of a roller skating rink that also fronted University.
Twin Cities baseball historian Stew Thornley says some of the highlights of the season for local baseball fans occurred on summer holidays.
"The St. Paul Saints and Minneapolis Millers would play a doubleheader, with a morning game in one ballpark and an afternoon game in the other," Thornley said. "The fans would get onto the streetcars, and it was probably about a seven-mile ride."
Streetcars also carried dancers to St. Paul's Prom Ballroom. When Glenn Miller's orchestra played the Prom's opening night in 1941, the floor was reportedly crowded by nearly 6,000 dancers, with half as many turned away at the door.
The Prom became part of a ballroom circuit that attracted the leading big bands of the era. There were even radio broadcasts for those unable to make it to University.
When trumpeter Jules Herman and singer Lois Best left Lawrence Welk's orchestra to form their own group, they settled in as the house band at the Prom, playing regular dates there for 30 years.
In the 1950s, rock 'n roll acts came to the Prom. Buddy Holly played one of his last shows there.
Some Twin Citians remember nights when big bands and rock 'n roll combos would alternate sets at the Prom so that parents and teenagers alike could have a turn on the dance floor.
By the 1960s St. Paul, like most American cities, was changing. New interstate highways allowed people with means to commute to the city from new suburban homes.
To compete with the suburban cineplex, a historic movie house at University and Dale reinvented itself, embracing a new type of feature film that emerged in the 1970s. The Faust Theater turned to pornographic movies to draw customers.
Retired St. Paul police chief Bill Finney remembers the Faust anchored what became a district of sex-related businesses that attracted men from throughout the Twin Cities area.
"Kitty-corner from the Faust was the Belmont, which was a topless dancing bar," recalled Finney. "Topless, and occasionally bottomless. Going east toward the Capitol, there was a place called the Bunny Patch. And then there was a number of little X-rated stores. It moved the prostitution. The streetwalkers moved from Selby Ave. and downtown to University Ave."
Finney says women who lived near University were commonly harrased by men cruising for prostitutes.
Former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer remembers riding along with police as they arrested a steady stream of men who propositioned undercover officers.
Clearly, this was not the kind of destination city leaders wanted University Ave. to be. But First Amendment protections prevented St. Paul from unilaterally shutting down the strip joints and porn shops clustered there.
Finally, Latimer says, the city resorted to negotiating a purchase of the offending properties -- essentially buying out the smut peddlers.
"It seemed kind of crazy at the time to be spending public dollars to buy up porn shops," Latimer said.
The city quickly changed the area, turning the Belmont Club into a police station. A public library now occupies the site of the Faust.
But the exile of the sex industry from University was accomplished by societal changes as much as any policy decision. Video cassette tapes made X-rated theaters obsolete. Finney says much of the prostitution migrated to escort services and, more recently, to the Internet.
These days, University is home to several gathering places that cater to particular clienteles, but together paint a picture of the Twin Cities' diversity.
When Arnellia's bar on University was threatened with the loss of its business licenses, many African-American residents rallied around the nightspot, telling city officials Arnellia's has an importance in the black community that makes it more than just another watering hole.
Tracey Williams is president of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a Minneapolis-based newspaper serving the African-American community. Sitting in Arnellia's, Williams says it is the only Twin Cities bar owned by a black woman.
"We do an event here called Sister Spokesman," Williams said. "And it brings 200 women around on a Saturday afternoon once a month. It's a gathering place for us, and it's a place where we have a venue to sit down and network and talk about issues that're important to us as African-American women."
Not far from Arnellia's sits the Town House Bar, an establishment that dates from the 1920s and today is popular with gay and lesbian residents. A
nd a little farther down the avenue is another decades-old bar. Owner Tom Scanlon says in 70-plus years, the Turf Club has evolved from a grocery store, to a cafe, to ballroom dancing, to country-western music -- to its current place as St. Paul's leading venue for up-and-coming rock bands.
Scanlon says the club draws music fans from all over the Twin Cities area.
"The Turf Club is definitely a destination," he said. "I'm not so sure we get a lot of walk-in traffic. We kind of live and die with the music here. If we have the right music, that's when we get the crowds. So, it's all about the music."
Scanlon says the places that have remained on University Ave. for decades are those that have managed to change with the times.
- All Things Considered, 05/28/2008, 5:46 p.m.