Whether you have ever stepped into Arnellia’s to enjoy a meal, have a drink or to catch live music, the Twin Cities establishment’s popularity was matched by a beloved regard for owner-proprietor Arnellia Allen a/k/a “Momma.”
More than merely a nightclub/restaurant to gather for a good time, it was dating back a quarter-century, a St. Paul cornerstone as culturally historic as the nearby Rondo neighborhood and just as synonymous with the Black community’s rich heritage. As well as a successful businesswoman, she was a down-to-earth, warm-hearted, good-natured lady who earned her affectionate nickname by not putting profit ahead of caring for people.
Her beginnings were modest, growing up in rural Lena, Mississippi, helping her sharecropper parents raise cotton and tend to livestock along with 14 brothers and sisters. She struck out for St. Paul in 1957, where she had two sons and took up work at a paper factory. As a single mom, she waited tables and tended bar in the evenings to make ends meet. Eventually, she learned of a liquor license for sale and invested her life savings in the Metro Bar and Grill (downtown St. Paul). The building was converted into office space in 1992, so she opened Arnellia’s in the city’s Midway area. The rest is Twin Cities’ history.
Other venues have seen great success with a rich variety of acts, but Arnellia’s specialized in soul, deservedly termed the Twin Cities answer to Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater. Music genres ranged from blues, reggae, gospel, R&B, jazz, neo-soul, spoken word to hip hop.
The popular nightspot drew to its stage artists of national renown, including Prince (a frequent patron who once borrowed a guitar to jam with the musicians), Sounds of Blackness, Bobby Blue Bland, Alexander O’Neal as well as humorists Rudy Ray Moore (Dolomite) and Melanie Camacho (The Jamie Foxx Show). It sustained such local luminaries as Debbie Duncan, Ray Covington, Kevin Johnson and Fancy Ray McCloney.
In April, upon the club’s closing due to Allen’s failing health, regular performers and guests returned in tribute to her years of enterprise in and service to the community. Among them were Tracey Williams-Dillard, MSR publisher and CEO, who frequently hosted Sister Spokesman gatherings at the club; and Duncan, Code Sweat, Backbeat Reunion, Tina The Vocalist, Truth Maze and Willie Walker, in a four-day celebration April 27 through April 30, the night before the doors closed for good.
Arnellia Allen was 79.
A funeral will be held at Progressive Baptist Church, 1505 Burns Avenue in St. Paul, Wednesday, Jan. 3. Visitation is at 11 am. The service starts at 12 pm.
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