It was the spring of 1986 and Charles Smith and his aunt were driving through Hollywood when the image ahead started to come into view. Rising high above Sunset Boulevard was Smith’s cousin Prince on a billboard touting what would soon become his third number-one single, “Kiss.”
Prince had already achieved international superstardom, with eight studio albums to his credit and a second major motion picture, “Under the Cherry Moon,” on its way to theaters that summer.
Of course, none of this was lost on Smith, who was there the day Prince first strummed a guitar just before the two of them started their first band together, Grand Central. Still, there was something about this billboard that resonated a little differently.
“Wow. Look at this,” Smith thought to himself as his eyes fixed on his cousin now staring back at him, bigger than life. “He really made it.”
That same sentiment came to mind when he gazed upon the brand-new signs that designate a seven-mile stretch of Minnesota State Road 5 as Prince Rogers Nelson Memorial Highway.
“I think it’s dope,” he declared while wondering aloud what Prince would think of the tribute. “He might say, ‘It’s just a road.’ But it is a great honor for our family. And it speaks to Prince’s impact on our culture. Not just here in Minnesota, but around the world.”
“This is a Prince day!”
The bill proposing Prince Rogers Nelson Memorial Highway was authored and introduced by State Representative Lucy Rehm of Chanhassen (DFL) in December 2022. This bipartisan effort was also led in part by Minnesota Senator Julia Coleman (R), who represents the citizens of Carver County.
HF 717 was passed by a vote of 121-0 on the House floor and 55-5 in the Senate, before being signed into law by Governor Tim Walz at Paisley Park in May.
Then on Thursday, August 3, 2023, four purple signs were finally erected officially rechristening Minnesota 5—starting from Mitchell Road in Eden Prairie and extending westward just beyond the site of Prince’s longtime Galpin Boulevard home in Chanhassen—as Prince Rogers Nelson Memorial Highway.
One of those signs sits right outside the fence at Paisley Park, literally a stone’s throw from the Riley Creek tunnel, which has become a sacred site and continues to bear the tributes of Prince fans from both near and far.
And it was here where family, fans, former Prince associates, and members of the media gathered for the official unveiling of the sign, hearing from Prince’s eldest sister Sharon L. Nelson and Mark Webster, who may have played the most significant role in helping this day come to fruition.
“This is a Prince day! This is a Prince Rogers Nelson Memorial Highway Day!” Webster proclaimed to the assembled audience. Getting the highway renamed has been a mission of his since joining the Paisley Park staff in 2019. Webster’s passionate testimony in front of Minnesota legislators proved instrumental in making sure that the signs were purple.
What’s more, Webster secured private donations to ensure that not a single Minnesota taxpayer dollar was spent on the new signs. “This is my job,” continued Webster, “I never worked for Prince, but I think I’m working for him now. So, I’m trying to do the best I can in his honor.”
In addition to Rep. Rehm and Sen. Coleman, Webster cites the support of MnDOT’s Jennifer Witt and Ann Meyer in getting the highway effort completed.
It turned out to be a “purple day” all day as a number of those present had the chance to celebrate later that night too. August 3 marked the 40th anniversary of Prince’s historic First Avenue concert where he debuted several songs that would be included on “Purple Rain,” including the live recording of its title track.
Minneapolis legends in their own right, Dr. Mambo’s Combo took over the club that Prince made world famous and treated a capacity crowd to the very same set Prince & The Revolution performed that very evening in 1983.
The party continued back in Chanhassen on August 7, where Paisley Park opened its doors to the public to once again rejoice and revel along the highway that now bears Prince’s name. The festivities were included on a live radio broadcast from KMOJ.
Although not part of the highway initiative herself, another individual who is duly impressed by this accomplishment and has also done a lot to preserve Prince’s legacy in the public arena is archaeologist and historian Kristen Zschomler.
In her former role as manager of MnDOT’s Cultural Resource Unit, Zschomler researched and authored “Prince: 1958 – 1987,” a multiple property document that has chronicled and cataloged scores of Prince-related sites throughout the Twin Cities, including those that may become eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
“Absolutely fantastic,” Zschomler asserted when discussing the new Prince Rogers Nelson Memorial Highway.
“There are so many things as a state that [we] must do to honor Prince and all that he means to us,” she noted before adding that she’d love to see a similar designation along the stretch of Highway 55 that cuts through the North Minneapolis neighborhood that nurtured Prince and his contemporaries as they established the Minneapolis Sound.
Likewise, whether thinking about that Hollywood billboard so many years ago, or the newly minted signs out in Chanhassen, Smith’s mind is immediately drawn back to the old neighborhood and all that his cousin overcame on his way to the top.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he explained. “I mean, look at this brother. Coming out of this town at the time when he did. Prince broke through so many barriers.
“Now, I don’t like to brag,” Smith continued. “Nevertheless, all things considered, I am going to brag. My cousin conquered the world. He is worthy not only of this tribute but so much more.”