From 1920 to 1933, Prohibition outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol—but Minnesotans found other ways to enjoy their spirits. St. Paul’s bootlegging business was booming and the city’s bands provided the soundtrack.
When the Volstead Act was enacted in 1919 and went into effect in 1920, saloons and beer parlors closed up shop and new establishments began to take shape. Soda shops flourished, ballrooms were built, and speakeasies nestled in mushroom caves. As Minnesota’s drinking culture moved underground, so did its music scene. Jazz musicians mingled with gangsters, dancers trotted to Dixieland, and new songs boasted about St. Paul’s freewheeling, moonshining underbelly.
These are just a few of the Twin Cities’ music venues that entertained audiences during Prohibition and kept the music flowing in a “dry” state.
The Victoria Cafe: Mixing music and moonshine
A rare 1927 recording from the Victoria Cafe preserves the sounds of St. Paul’s moonshining days. Located in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, the Victoria Cafe was a theme restaurant—like New York’s Copacabana, except instead of transporting its visitors to Brazil, it satirized the stuffy and outdated Victorian culture.
Gegenhuber has spent the past 15 years researching “Moonshiner’s Dance—Part I,” which the Victoria Cafe Orchestra recorded in 1927. The song is a snapshot of the cafe’s raucous shows that featured a band led by Frank Cloutier of around eight musicians wearing “yachtsman-style” costumes accompanying a scantily-clad group of women performers.
As Gegenhuber explains, “Moonshiner’s Dance” served as a souvenir of a bootlegging and gangster-run city for locals and tourists alike. “‘Moonshiner’s Dance—Part I’ was a stage show made by St. Paulites—that is to say people living in a very wet, drunk, freewheeling, lawless city during Prohibition, and a tourist town,” said Gegenhuber. “They were singing partly to the regulars, and partly to the people coming in from the provinces who were coming there to see real-life dancing girls and real-life gangsters at the next table.”
Than’s: Playing a baby grand for Baby Face Nelson
In Twin Cities speakeasies, jazz musicians played for some of the Midwest’s most notorious gangsters. Singer and pianist Nettie Hayes Sherman sat on the floor at the downtown St. Paul speakeasy Than’s in front of a baby grand piano playing a blend of ragtime, Dixieland jazz, and popular tunes. Than’s regulars included Midwest mobsters Tommy O’Connell, John Dillinger, and Baby Face Nelson, as well as railroad pioneer James J. Hill.
The Green Lantern: Danny Hogan’s hideaway
The Green Lantern saloon was one of the most infamous Prohibition-era hangouts. Pianist Red Dougherty, drummer/vibraphonist Eddie Tolck and drummer Chief McElroy played at the saloon, located on Wabasha Street, where they would see famous criminals like the saloon’s owner, Daniel “Dapper Dan” Hogan, and on occasion, Al Capone. “They’d sit in a booth and divvy up money and sometimes deal with the St. Paul police,” Tolck describes in the Jay Goetting book, “Joined at the Hip: A History of Jazz in the Twin Cities”. “Gangsters didn’t bother the general populace. All the violence was within themselves.”
Hollyhocks Club: Glamour and gambling
Not everyone had to sneak into speakeasies to enjoy alcohol during Prohibition. “If you were in a certain station in society, you didn’t need to bother with speakeasies or homemade bathtub gin,” wrote Andy Sturdevant and Bill Lindeke in their new book, “Closing Time,” which looks at the history of Minnesota’s drinking establishments. “If you were a reasonably well-off couple who owned some formalwear and were looking for some drinks and maybe the thrill of fraternizing with gangsters, you could find your way into Hollyhocks.”
St. Paul’s Hollyhocks Club is just one example of the private clubs that allowed well-off Minnesotans to carry on with their glamorous drinking habits during Prohibition. The club’s owner, John Peifer would visit City Hall each week with an envelope of cash containing 20 percent of the Hollyhocks’ earnings. With this bribe, the police allowed him to run his business, which included selling alcohol to high-paying clients.
Guests wore tuxedos and evening dresses, and Sturdevant says this glamor provided a stark contrast to the scruffy speakeasies. One of the things that created this elevated atmosphere was live music, supplied by big bands.
“Live music was a huge part of the environment,” said Sturdevant. “It was fashionable to have dinner and then dance and have live music. You would go to these places and not only would there be booze, not only would there be other people in your social network, not only would there be gambling, but there would also be music and dancing.”
The Coliseum: Roller skating with the jazz greats
The Coliseum was built in 1918 as an ice rink, which was later covered to become a vast 100-by-250-feet ballroom—at the time it was the world’s largest. The Coliseum hosted regular dance nights with music from a variety of bands, usually large orchestras like Wally Erickson and his Coliseum Orchestra. When it wasn’t dance night, Coliseum also doubled as a roller skating rink.
With alcohol outlawed, ballrooms became the new centers of urban nightlife, as the focus shifted from drinking to dancing. Even though the venue couldn’t serve alcohol, patrons would sneak in ginger ale spiked with bootleg whiskey. The Coliseum attracted a number of legendary jazz performers, like pianist Fats Waller and drummer Ben Pollack, aka the “Father of Swing.”
Boulevards of Paris: Bringing the legends to Minnesota
The Boulevards of Paris sat next to the Coliseum, on the corner of Lexington Parkway and University Avenue. The club had a more sophisticated air than the hot dog–serving Coliseum. Like the Hollyhocks, tuxedos and evening gowns were standard.
Many of jazz’s biggest stars, including Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong, played at the Boulevards of Paris, and their performances would have a lasting impact on Minnesota’s jazz scene. Margeurite Junterman, daughter of owner John Lane, would also sneak backstage at the Orpheum Theatre and bring the night’s singers, actors, and comics to the Bouelvards for surprise shows.
Big clubs like the Boulevards were rarely racially integrated, meaning that bands performed almost exclusively for white audiences. “Much of Minnesota’s early jazz was played by white musicians imitating the sounds of famous artists who toured the state,” Jay Goetting notes in “Joined at the Hip.” Young musicians in like cornetist Paul “Doc” Evans and bandleader Paul Wilke were inspired by the jazz greats and would imitate their styles in their music.
The St. Paul Hotel: Bootlegging headquarters and bustling ballroom
The St. Paul Hotel opened in 1910 on Rice Park. The hotel became one of the city’s most popular venues, as well as a major bootlegging headquarters. In 1930, Leon Gleckman, known as the “Beer Baron” or the “Jewish Al Capone” for his highly successful bootlegging business, set up offices on the third floor of the St. Paul Hotel and used the space to send bribes to the police and other city officials.
Just a few floors below was the hotel’s ballroom, where you could see performances from legendary musicians like tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Lester Young. Young was born in Mississippi, but he lived off and on in Minneapolis in the 20s and 30s. His father, Willis Handy Young, led the Young Family band, which is where Young cut his teeth as a soloist.
The Young Family Band later became the 11-piece New Orleans Strutters. The Strutters toured the Midwest in the early ‘20s, and frequently performed at the St. Paul Hotel, as well as other Twin Cities venues like the South Side Ballroom in the Seven Corners neighborhood. In his book titled “Joined at the Hip: A History of Jazz in the Twin Cities”, Jay Goetting wrote that the New Orleans Strutters “became one of the most in demand in the Twin Cities and virtually the only one of that size.”
The Marigold: Dancing to Dixieland
The Marigold Gardens (later renamed the Marigold Ballroom) opened in 1919 on Nicollet Avenue. The ballroom was such a popular spot for dancing that Nicollet streetcars stopped in the middle of the block to let off patrons right in front.
The Marigold played a pivotal role in the rise of Dixieland in the Twin Cities when the New Orleans Rhythm Kings performed at the ballroom in 1925. The band’s musicians hailed from Chicago and New Orleans, the incubators of a rising new style of jazz called Dixieland.
The key components of Dixieland were improvisation, syncopation, and contrapuntal ensemble playing (meaning that different members of a band would play contrasting melodies). Dixieland, also referred to as “traditional jazz,” predated the lightning-fast melodies and jarring key modulations of bebop. After the New Orleans Rhythm Kings’ 1925 Minneapolis performance, Dixieland spiked in popularity locally, and its improvised solos and dance-inducing beat became the de facto sound for ballrooms, hotels, and country clubs across the Twin Cities.
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.