Skyway Theatre: Minneapolis' newest music venue

CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER | Updated 10/15/2013

It’s not a strip club! It’s new downtown music venue Skyway Theatre.

Destroid performed last week at the Skyway Theatre.
Photo by Leslie Plesser

You need not have seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Dirty Dancing” there to recognize the Skyway Theatre’s former self. From the faded orange and red carpet and disabled escalators to the bars that look suspiciously like they used to sell popcorn and sodas, the former movie haven in downtown Minneapolis still has ’70s cineplex written all over it.

Thanks to a booming electronic dance scene and now the strong booking arm of Live Nation, the script of the former Skyway 6 — which closed to filmgoers in 1999 — is being rewritten.

“We’re starting to be known as a legit music venue,” said Crissy Kabanuk, who runs the theater and adjoining venues the Loft and Bar Fly with her husband, David, a veteran bar owner.

Wednesday’s Franz Ferdinand gig kicked off a fall Skyway schedule that also includes Janelle Monáe, Matt Nathanson, Third Eye Blind and — this Saturday — Los Angeles songstress ZZ Ward. Legit or not, at least the theater is finally being recognized as something other than the former tenant that helped give the 700 block of Hennepin Avenue something of a seedy reputation.

“We’re not a strip bar!” Crissy barked with a laugh, echoing widespread confusion between the three-story theater and the defunct, ground-floor Skyway Lounge.

All the more confusing: Nick and Eddie’s operators opened a restaurant and music bar last year called the Belmore/New Skyway Lounge (an inside-joke tribute to downtown Minneapolis’ bosomy past).

The strip club was the Kabanuks’ only tenant when they took over the building in 2001. David Kabanuk previously ran the ’90s Warehouse District night club Tropix, which became a trouble spot targeted by city regulators for serving minors and fire-code violations. Crissy Kabanuk chalked up those problems to “the enormous popularity” of Tropix and said, “The media got a kick out of reporting anything bad there.”

National media took note of the Skyway Theatre in 1991 when one teenager was killed and five more wounded by gunfire following a screening of “Boyz N the Hood.” More local media reports surfaced in the mid-’00s over a legal dispute between the Kabanuks and the Graves family, who opened the Graves 601 hotel around the corner on Block E in 2002 and wanted to tear down the Skyway building for a condo tower.

Clearly, the Kabanuks won. After opening Bar Fly and then the Loft (both about 700-capacity bars), they reshaped the biggest of the six theater spaces to host metal shows and electronic dance events in the mid-’00s — genres that First Avenue and other venues sometimes overlook. The dance parties especially took off.

Skrillex’s 2011 concert is now seen as the theater’s turning point. Live Nation and its club-level House of Blues promotional subsidiary took note. After Live Nation hired local booker Josh Lacey away from the Varsity Theater last year, Lacey set his sights on the bigger theater.

With its seats long since taken out, the Skyway’s official capacity is 1,956. Lacey said Live Nation keeps its shows below 1,800 capacity — but that is more than twice the size of the Varsity and about 300 more than First Ave.

“It’s a unique layout that works well for certain acts looking for a general-admission venue bigger than the average club,” Lacey said. He also credited the electronic dance community for “putting it on people’s radar and bringing it to life.”

The Skyway was certainly full of life last Friday, when the theater hosted a dance party headed by Destroid, a costumed, Daft-Punk-meets-GWAR electronic band led by Canadian dubstep DJ Excision. I’d never heard of them, either, but they drew around 1,500 fans — many with marker-X’ed hands (for being under 21), and even more carrying around ravers’ tried-and-true psychedelica gear (glowsticks, pacifiers, hula hoops).

Many of the young dance fans talked about the Skyway like it was their second home.

“It doesn’t have a lot of the [expletive] security like a lot of other clubs,” said Jake Homstad, 19, who made a regular trek down from Duluth with three friends for Friday’s show. He and his pals actually think the dated cineplex vibe of the place is kind of cool.

“I like that they kept it this way,” added Homstad’s friend, Mac Hedin. “You can tell exactly what it used to be, which is different for a nightclub.”

The question now is whether or not rock acts and audiences will warm up to the Skyway. Performers have grumbled about the difficulty of loading in gear to the third-story venue. Once you get past the lobby and the feeling you should call Dad to come pick you up in two hours, patrons may find it makes a decent live music venue — albeit one that still feels ad hoc.

Acoustic improvements made near the end of the Skyway’s movie era still hold up to this day. Credit the cinematic past for also providing excellent sight lines, whether on the sloped floor or the tiered balcony.

Both Live Nation and the Kabanuks seem confident the Skyway will take hold with the non-glowsticky music set.

“This section of Hennepin has turned a corner, I think, especially in the eyes of the new generation of fans,” Crissy Kabanuk said, explaining that the young dance fans who go there “don’t know about any sort of seedy reputation here, or if they do, they think it’s kind of cool.”

I think that was Kabanuk’s polite way of calling the rest of us old and out-of-touch.