Remembering Prince at First Avenue

First Avenue
The First Avenue exterior in 1990. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

On May 16, 1984, Prince released When Doves Cry, the first single from the movie soundtrack for Purple Rain and his first No. 1 hit. The movie opened in July of that year, propelling Prince into further stardom, and bringing the Minneapolis music club First Avenue along for the ride.

The movie was shot in the winter of 1983 and the club became as much a part of the cast as Prince, Apollonia, Wendy & Lisa, and Morris Day and the Time.

First Avenue opened in a former Greyhound Bus terminal in downtown Minneapolis on April 3, 1970. Originally called The Depot, the club brought in prominent national acts beginning with Joe Cocker on opening night.

After a stint as a disco club called Uncle Sam’s, and then Sam’s in the mid- to late-1970s, live music returned to center stage. Acts such as the Ramones, Pat Benatar, Bo Diddley, U2 and many others performed at the reborn rock venue.

Prince first played at Sam’s on March 9, 1981. Wearing a trenchcoat and shimmering bodysuit, he brought the crowd along for an energetic 95-minute set. One New Years Eve — Dec. 31, 1981 — Sam’s was renamed First Avenue and a legend was born.

Prince at First Avenue
Prince at First Avenue in the 1980s. Photo by Daniel Corrigan

The making of a music scene

Prince found a home at First Avenue. He liked the venue because of its edgy reputation and its excellent acoustics. It was also one of the only clubs in downtown Minneapolis that would host African-American musicians. Manager Steve McClellan regularly booked R&B acts in both the First Avenue mainroom and the adjoining 7th Street Entry, and he was pleased with the diverse crowds Prince drew to the club.

Over the years, Prince played nine concerts there, plus a handful of unannounced jam sessions and appearances with other artists. During this time, he tried out new music, new band members and new styles, working the crowd and giving them a hometown superstar to call their own.

A mecca for fans

By the fall of 1983, when movie producers approached First Avenue about renting the venue for the filming of Purple Rain, Prince was already a huge star. The club was closed for 25 days from late November to late December, and the movie crew installed new lights and built a new stage, which is still in place today.

But it was the way First Avenue was featured on screen that returned the most value. After the movie opened in July 1984, fans and news outlets descended on the venue to see where Prince reigned.

Even after the news crews left, fans from around the world made their way to the Minneapolis music club, and they continue to do so today. The venue had been struggling financially in the 1980s and according to Chris Riemenschneider in his book, First Avenue: Minnesota’s Mainroom, “First Avenue likely would not be here today without the influx of revenue that Prince mania brought to the club beginning in 1984.”

Depicting real life

The filming itself was also memorable. That winter was particularly cold, and call times were early. Following months of rehearsals, including dancing and acting lessons, the band performed flawlessly in front of the cameras.

Even though they were lip-syncing, it was hard work and the practice paid off: The performance scenes took only 10 days to shoot instead of the three weeks budgeted. Lots of locals made it into the movie, too. As many as 500 extras were cast, and First Avenue staff were hired in production roles. In the end, regulars said the movie’s depiction of the club mirrored real life.

The film opened on July 27, 1984, to sold-out audiences, and within two weeks it hit No. 1 in box office sales, ousting the summer blockbuster Ghostbusters.

A living legacy

Back in Minneapolis, Prince was preparing for a national tour with his band, The Revolution, but before heading out, they made an unannounced last-minute appearance at First Avenue on August 14, 1984, as a way of offering thanks. The following winter, Purple Rain won an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score.

The purple suit Prince wore in the film made its way to the Minnesota Historical Society, a gift of Prince, on display this month as part of First Avenue: Stories of Minnesota’s Mainroom, a new exhibit opening May 4 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

Prince fans can also explore behind-the-scenes, candid and casual shots of the artist in the new book Prince: Before the Rain by Allen Beaulieu, Prince’s personal photographer from the late 1970s into the early 1980s.

More info:

Jessica Kohen is the media relations manager for the Minnesota Historical Society. We may earn a commission via some of the links on this page – at no cost to you.