A piece of St. Paul's cultural history may be torn down for a parking lot.
The Victoria Cafe produced a recording of absolutely unique importance, as illustrated by this rough map of the origins of all 84 recordings on the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music. Even the two Chicago recordings were by recent arrivals in the Great Migration from southern states.
In May 2006, I realized that an internationally notorious recording from 1927 — "Moonshiner's Dance, Part One" — was the work of the house band of a nightclub at 825 University Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Nobody had understood this before, so I was astonished and overjoyed to find the building still standing 79 years later. Since then, I drive by it often, and each time my heart skips a beat until I see that the Victoria Theater is still there.
But now, not even 4 years into my researchfor a book on "Moonshiner's Dance," the Victoria building is being eyed for demolition to make way for a parking lot.
What disturbs me most is that, while my findings are enormously suggestive, the building's historical importance is not yet well understood. Like a species allowed to go extinct before biologists are even able to describe it, the Victoria Theater may be destroyed in the near-total absence of knowledge.
Other community members have great reasons to want the building saved.
I have my own reasons. Below, I've cracked my research notes wide open, in hopes of helping in the effort.
These unpublished findings, focusing on the historical importance of this endangered landmark, show that the demolition of the old Victoria Theater for a parking lot would be shortsighted at best.
Minnesota and The Anthology of American Folk Music
The Anthology of American Folk Music was crucial in setting the terms in which American folk arts would be understood and institutionalized after WWII. In particular, it was a founding document of the Folk Revival and of 1960s Rock.
Countless influential and popular musicians have used it as their first music instructor, openly borrowed from it, and/or paid tribute to it — notably Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, The Byrds, Lou Reed, Marianne Faithful, Elvis Costello, Philip Glass, Wilco, Beck, Steve Earle, John Fahey, The New Lost City Ramblers, Dave van Ronk, and David Grisman.
Poet Allen Ginsberg rescued the Anthology's editor, Harry Smith, from homelessness near the end of Smith's life.
Given its deep importance to America's cutlural history, it's striking that one — and only one — of the Anthology's 84 recordings was clearly from outside the American South. That sole northern recording was "Moonshiner's Dance, Part One" by Frank Cloutier and The Victoria Cafe Orchestra, the house jazz band at 825 University Avenue.
Before 2006, when I began my research, "Moonshiner's Dance" had never been studied before by anyone. In their 1997 reissue of the Anthology, everything the Smithsonian Folkways had to say about the circumstances of its recording was this:
"The Frank Cloutier Orchestra does not appear in any jazz or dance band discographies but is assumed to have been from the Minnesota area."
Despite its unique status and high profile in American musical history, previous research has utterly ignored the Victoria Cafe. Two separate, professional, officially commissioned historical surveys failed to even grasp that the building had ever been a nightclub at all.
Because its significance to national, regional, and local culture has never been understood, the demolition of the Victoria Theater would represent a reckless act of collective ignorance.
Polka and Jazz
"Moonshiner's Dance" is a strange record — difficult to grasp, especially when heard within the Anthology's original sequence.
My research has led me to see it as a very early blend of ethnic oldtime music (in this case, polka) and "hot" 1920's dance (or jazz) music.
Comparable blends of immigrant traditions and African American-inflected music became deeply consequential in the following decades. Think of the Cuban jazz of Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie, or the polka-swing blends of Minnesota's own Andrews Sisters or Whoopee John. Such syntheses would also become critical to post-war jazz and rock.
"Moonshiners Dance" was the Anthology's only cut featuring either jazz instruments or immigrant ethnic music. I think the multi-cultural complexities of American folk music might have been perused earlier and more often had Harry Smith more rigorously followed the train of thought implied by the moonshiners of St. Paul.
The Victoria Cafe — founded by European immigrants and briefly known as the Casa Grande in the 1930's — clearly represents the richly multi-ethnic cultural history of St. Paul.
Minnesota's Ethnic Groups and the Victoria Cafe
According to M. L. Wingerd's 2001 history of St. Paul's civic identity, residents of Minnesota's capitol city felt unusually strong ethnic ties, even across class lines.
And yet, unlike Minneapolis, St. Paul was also remarkably tolerant across ethnic divides, in part because the city's Irish political machine preferred it that way. Ethnic diversity could have a funny way of drawing this insular city even closer together.
The Victoria Cafe is emerging as a vivid case in point. The Cafe was initially financed, managed, and staffed by German and eastern European Jews, and its advertisements were targeted primarily to the Jewish community.
Beginning in late 1926, I find hints that the Cafe may have been purchased by two powerful Irish brothers — a County Commissioner and a leading real estate developer — sons of a railroad worker from County Kerry.
Their new manager, Sammy Markowitz, then made deliberate appeals to the wider community in major newspapers. The Victoria's top singer was a White Earth Native American woman, and its bandleader, Frank Cloutier, was a French-Canadian Catholic. Indeed, "Moonshiners Dance" itself is a medley of tunes drawn from a variety of traditions, as well as being a stylistic fusion.
Nonetheless, researching the business history of this venue is slow and subtle work — the Victoria Cafe was a notorious speakeasy frequented by mobsters, after all, and its owners thus left a very slim paper trail. Much careful research remains to be done.
St. Paul in a Regional Context
"Moonshiner's Dance" is more familiar to national and international roots music enthusiasts than to local historians, which might explain why its striking regional implications have gone unnoticed.
My research very strongly suggests that "Moonshiner's Dance" was essentially a vinyl flier — a 78 rpm record advertising the musical and theatrical offerings of the Victoria Cafe.
The target audience for this flier was potential visitors from outside of St. Paul, in Minneapolis and elsewhere in the Upper Midwest, where it was well known that Minnesota's capital city was ignoring Prohibition and enjoyed a strong vice economy.
"Moonshiner's Dance" was thus an audio postcard for the rest of the Upper Midwest, a self-conscious statement of St. Paul's civic identity in a regional context.
During 4 years of research, I've found the recording to be rife with references to the region's complex ethnic and urban-rural divides — most obviously in its jazzy urban approach to the rural polka form.
Judging from my only visit inside the Victoria Theater (in near-total darkness), the surviving hand-painted murals and architectural details also strongly suggest deliberate commentary on St. Paul's role in the region.
The Politics of Prohibition and the Culture of St. Paul
Due to two controversial actions by Federal authorities, the Victoria Cafe twice made front-page headlines across the region and was the subject of editorials in multiple newspapers.
The first action occurred only weeks after the recording of "Moonshiners Dance" — a recording that, in a way, openly mocks Federal authority and the 18th Amendment. In fact, "Moonshiners Dance" pretty overtly advertises the Victoria Cafe's frequent clientèle, gangster culture being the subject of intense fascination throughout the region.
A year later, a late-night raid resulted in injury to both a Federal agent and a former Assistant Ramsey County Attorney. It also ignited a very heated political struggle between the U.S. Congressman from St. Paul's district and Federal authorities in Washington. The Mayor of St. Paul spoke at the Victoria Cafe before a gathering of University Avenue businessmen the very day the main Federal indictment was expected as a result of this raid.
Both Federal actions put the Victoria squarely in the middle of freshly exposed tensions between local opinion and the U.S. Constitution. Further research on these incidents are proceeding very slowly, because they now require me to become a kind of paleo-paralegal.
What is already obvious is that the Cafe is symbolic of the long history of brewing in the city of Pig's Eye. Thanks to that symbolism, The Victoria Cafe found itself at the center of American musical history. But beyond symbolism, the Victoria Cafe of St. Paul was an active player in one of that history's most pivotal moments.
Twin Cities Women, Victorian Values, and the Victoria Cafe
"The Victoria Cafe Orchestra" is the name given on the original 78 rpm record, and The Anthology followed suit. But I have discovered that the band was otherwise always called by a different name — "The Victorians."
This would have been a rather obvious quip to make if you were the house dance band at the Victoria Cafe in 1927.
After all, a lively and persistent debate swirled in the press, relentlessly contrasting the current "Jazz Age" with the "Victorian Era." The debate constantly centered on women and changing gender roles, with Jazz Age flappers compared (always unfavorably) with that civilizing angel of the house, the Victorian woman.
"Moonshiners Dance," as you might expect, sides with the flappers. It is a medley of old-fashioned Victorian songs — mostly sentimental love songs — rendered in the ironic, worldly, intoxicating light of Prohibition jazz.
The Twin Cities boasted a strikingly high percentage of working women living independent of families. And as the author of Women Adrift writes, "Wage earning women who lived apart from family were a vanguard in the decline of Victorian culture."
Considering that women bought the vast majority (by a wide margin) of Jazz Age dance records, music such as "Moonshiner's Dance" should often be heard with a woman listener in mind.
And so, my research shows that "Moonshiners Dance" advertised the glamor of the Victoria Cafe's gangster clientèle — and that it simultaneously took sides in a kind of early "culture war" by satirizing Victorian-era gender roles for a substantially female audience.
Although this line of research is very new, it's already very clear that the Victoria Theater was a complex battleground in the cultural history of women in the Twin Cities.
Save the Victoria Theater
Saving the building will take more than just raising hell about tearing it down. The community needs a long-term plan for finding a proper use for the Victoria.
But raising hell is definitely the first step.
Please join the Save the Victoria Theater Facebook group, if you're into that — you'll be able to catch up on the background and the discussions there.
Mostly, please contact anyone and everyone who you think can help.
Particularly if you are a resident of the neighborhood, you could start with polite contacts with the following St. Paul City Council Member, as well as the CEO of the company that wants a new parking lot:
Melvin Carter III, Council Member
310-A City Hall 15 Kellogg Blvd.,
West Saint Paul, MN 55102
Phone: (651) 266-8610
Beverley Oliver Hawkins, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer
Model Cities, Inc.
Phone: (651) 632-8350
Update: The offer to purchase has been withdrawn. But until a buyer or tenant respectful of the site's heritage is found, the Victoria remains a cultural resource in grave danger.
The first — mostly outdated — entry on The Victoria Cafe