After 25 years as 'Apollo of St. Paul,' Arnellia's is closing

Sonya Troy took a break from volunteering to hit the dance floor.
Sonya Troy, center, took a break from her volunteer waitstaff position to hit the dance floor at Arnellia's on Thursday. Troy said she's one of the "original foxes" who worked for Arnellia Allen when she first opened the club 25 years ago.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Arnellia's, the nightclub some call the Apollo of St. Paul because of the many African-American artists who played there, is closing this weekend after 25 years.

Prince. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Alexander O'Neal. Those are only some of the greats who performed at the music venue on University Avenue. The owner, 79-year-old Arnellia Allen, is closing her place because of illness.

"I'm going to miss the live entertainment," she said Thursday. "And a lot of my friends. Now they're coming by, I haven't seen them in 15 or 20 years. They're coming from all directions. I'm going to miss that."

Arnellia Allen, center, talks with Tina Nunn, left, and niece Hazel Bowie.
Owner Arnellia Allen, center, talks with longtime friend Tina Nunn, left, and niece Hazel Bowie on Thursday.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Those who know her well call her Momma or Ms. Arnellia.

When she got her liquor license and started the business back in 1992, she was told she was the first black woman in Minnesota to do so.

"I was the first one. I'm the only one that I know of," she said. "I don't talk too much about it, just did what I had to do."

Pressed about her many accomplishments and awards — just two years ago, her business won Tavern of the Year from the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association — she smiled and said she's not sure why she won, or gets any attention at all. Her website is filled with photos of herself and famous musicians.

Arnellia's Bar and Restaurant on University Ave. W in St. Paul.
The last days of Arnellia's are scheduled to be non-stop celebration.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

She laughed as she recalled the night Prince stopped in. "He came in one day, and played the guitar, threw it on the stage when he got done, and broke it," she said. "But he paid for it, and then he walked out the door."

Jackie Hicks, a longtime friend who used to work at the club, said Arnellia Allen isn't only a successful businesswoman. She was also a community leader who took care of anyone who came to her club.

"She did something for everybody, everybody," she said. "That's the kind of person she was. That's the kind of person she is. And she doesn't like the limelight at all."

Hicks is still in disbelief that the club is closing. "I never thought this day would come," she said.

Johnny Howard said Arnellia's closing will leave a void.
Johnny Howard said Arnellia's closing will leave a void.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

Neither did Johnny Howard of St. Paul, who was a patron for years.

"It's her baby, and I think she's going to miss it," he said. "But I think it's a good thing, health-wise. It's time."

The sounds of R&B, jazz, reggae and spoken-word poetry will be missed, said Howard. "I think it's going to be a void in the African-American community, but for Ms. Arnellia, I'm glad for her."

Rita Cunningham has come to dance at Arnellia's in St. Paul for 20 years.
For 20 years, Rita Cunningham has come to dance at Arnellia's.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

He said the club is more than a music venue. "You know sometimes they say in the black church, it's a place where you can come get the information, get consoled, you can meet people and find out what's going on," he said. "It was a place where you can talk politics, talk shop, talk work, but also talk family, because we are a family."

Arnellia's nightclub is hosting celebrations through Sunday. Artist Demonica Flye, also known as D'Flye, organized the music for the closing festivities.

"Now I'm going to start crying," she said. "She's always been a fighter. She's a legend, a warrior, an icon to me. When the club closes, I don't know what we're going to do, because as black entertainers, this is home."

Kaylee Allen bartends at her grandmother's business, Arnellia's.
Kaylee Allen bartends at her grandmother's business.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Matina Watkins, aka Tina the Vocalist, was emotional too.

"We wish it could stay open, a historical site," she said. "This is like, Minnesota Apollo Theater! She put a lot of hard work and sweat and tears into this building for us as musicians ... so my suggestion is we make it an historical site. She earned it."

Deborah Johnson used to work at Arnellia's and came back for the finale.
Deborah Johnson is one of a number of people who worked at the original Arnellia's and who came to volunteer their time.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Arnellia's Bar and Restaurant will have three last evenings of entertainment before it closes officially Sunday night.

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