Editor’s Note: This story originally ran May of 2017. We are re-posting it to honor the memory of Arnellia Allen, who according to family and friends, passed away December 21. For more on Allen’s passing and legacy, go here.
Shortly after the one-year anniversary of the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, another bittersweet feeling resides in the Minnesota music scene, as well as in the Black business community.
Hundreds of people in the Twin Cities called Arnellia Allen “Momma.” For 25 years, Arnellia’s club was a home for good music, good friends and good food.
Dubbed the “Apollo” of the Twin Cities and across Minnesota, many hometown musicians performed at the establishment, including — but not limited to — Kevin Johnson, Ray Covington, Debbie Duncan, The Maxx Band, Sounds of Blackness, Alexander O’Neal, and even the world-renowned artist and hometown legend Prince.
To celebrate and thank Arnellia for 25 years of business and service in the community, regular performers such as Code Sweat, Backbeat Reunion, Debbie Duncan, Tina The Vocalist, Truth Spoken Word Artist, and Willie Walker, among others, gave their final performances with a four-day celebration April 27 through April 30.
Arnellia started the business in 1987 with a partner; they opened the bar and restaurant as Metro Bar and Grill on Robert and 7th Streets in downtown St. Paul. In 1992, Metro Bar & Grill relocated to University Avenue. Shortly after the business opened in the new location, Arnellia bought the business from her partner.
The monumental achievement in this respect was that Arnellia Allen became the first African American woman in St. Paul to own a liquor license and nightclub.
“At that time, individuals had to buy the license from previous business owners. After she…bought [the license], city hall changed the law where [each year] she had to buy a license from the City. She lost the value of her license at that point,” said Jerry Allen, her son.
Although it started out slow, word of the club quickly spread, especially in the Midway area of St. Paul.
“I live in St Paul, right down the street,” said Lauren Mitchell, a regular patron of Arnellia’s. “Coming up here on a Friday night was awesome. Every Friday night, I couldn’t wait to get off work and celebrate with a cocktail. [The place] would be packed! We would leave at 9:30 and everything would be just fine.”
Mitchell has supported Arnellia’s since it first opened as Metro Bar & Grill. Her most vivid experience, however, was her personal relationship with Arnellia herself.
“We both served on the Aurora St. Anthony board helping out the community,” Mitchell told the MSR. “We don’t work on the board anymore, but we always talked about it every time I came back to visit.”
Mitchell said she doesn’t go out too much, but “Arnellia’s was a place where you could get live music.”
Now 79 years of age, Arnellia established an empire that gave many local performers a platform to showcase their talent, and where some have even gotten their start as regular performers of blues, reggae, gospel, R&B, jazz, neo-soul, spoken word and hip hop.
“The R&B was cool,” said Jerry, “but the rap, unfortunately, the young people didn’t know how to act.”
The showcase was not limited to just local acts — there were national acts as well, including Bobby Blue Band, Shirley Murdock, and Zapp. “My favorite was Lenny Williams [from Tower of Power],” Jerry Allen recalled. “Unfortunately, I was at my son’s baseball game. They called me [from the bar] when he was singing “Cause I Love You.” That’s the one I really regret missing.”
Dolomite also made an appearance. “He was here a couple times, and did the signifying monkey performance too,” said Jerry Allen.
“This [Arnellia’s] is our legend, and to have somebody come in and change it will be hard,” Mitchell soberly stated. “I’m not going to come in here and listen to country western music. These keyboards belong to her; this is her name every time we come up University. I’m not going to be looking in this direction as much, if at all. It’s going to be a big loss.”
Publisher Tracey Williams-Dillard, of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, shared the sentiment. Williams-Dillard often held Sister Spokesman networking events at Arnellia’s. “No matter what I came and asked her to do, she would open her doors for me. She’s always been there for the community.”
Williams-Dillard, who had recently heard Arnellia’s described as one of only 10 Black-owned businesses in Minnesota, sadly commented that although she knows there are more than 10, there are still far too few. “We cannot afford to lose those Black businesses we do have. We’re not just losing a nightclub; we are losing a part of our community that is not easily filled.”
Some people could not understand why Sister Spokesman would be held in a bar. Williams-Dillard’s response: “Do you know Arnellia’s is the only African American club in the state of Minnesota? Why would I not! We don’t have a lot of people in a position to step up and open a business. This is a sad day.”
The news of Arnellia’s closing spread rapidly through many media and social outlets. Arnellia decided to close the club after she was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.
“Right now, she says she’s not in any pain and still likes to make her trips to the casino,” said her son. “She has a lot of people [helping her]. A lot of her friends have been coming over. We had to get the carpet cleaned a few times.”
To support her through this difficult time, close friends such as Tyrone Terrell (who spoke on the final day alongside NAACP St. Paul Chapter President Dianne Binns) and community activist Spike Moss organized a booth on Sunday afternoon where people could buy dinner that would be brought to her house each Sunday.
“Everything she has done is coming back to her,” Jerry Allen said.
In 2015, Arnellia was honored with the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association’s Tavern of The Year award. She also received a Humanitarian Award on April 29 by the Queen of Sheba Prince Hall Affiliation.
“It’s a good lesson not to be so selfish,” said Jerry Allen. “You’ll never know when it will come back to you.”
Ivan Phifer welcomes readers’ responses to firstname.lastname@example.org
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