The photographs of Steven Laboe offer an amazing window into a wilder, more carefree hedonistic, disco past. They illustrate the grassroots camaraderie taking place at the club in those days and were a crucial component to our recent history documentary, First Avenue: Closer to the Stars. As a patron and employee – and friend of manager Stephen McClellan – Laboe had access to the club and dance floor unlike anyone else.

 

Feast your eyes upon the glory of late ’70s Midwestern adult nightlife culture. Looking through these photographs, it’s impossible to deny how much fun these patrons are having. On a personal note, I’m downright envious of the innocence of this scene, swinging dangerously between low and lower art.

Uncle Sam’s 1977. Yep, the club really had a mascot, Stanley Himes (a.k.a. Uncle Sam). “Not certain if anyone else other than him held this position, but he would dance on the stage during the days of disco.”
There were upscale discos in the Twin Cities in the mid-’70s: Scottie’s on Seventh and Schieks in downtown Minneapolis, to name a couple. But Uncle Sam’s, the chain discotheque that later became First Avenue, was a cheesy, frayed-at-the-edges adult playground.
Roberta (in the rainbow tank top) with friends at Uncle Sam’s, 1977.
Uncle Sam’s was a franchise, owned by a company out of Cincinnati, Ohio, and their cockeyed attempt at a big city disco was full of laughable ’70s kitsch. The nightclub’s signature cocktail: The Uncle Sam’s Firecracker.
Uncle Sam’s, 1977. Jodie Penhollow working the Souvenir Shop (this was to eventually become the mainroom access to the 7th Street Entry).
Uncle Sam’s, 1977. Steven “Stats” Laboe in the flesh. “This wasn’t actually planned, I was kill’n it on Capt. Fantastic and without warning, my buddy Mike ‘Rollo’ Freeman, grabbed my camera and said ‘Stats, give us a smile.'” – Steven Laboe
Uncle Sam’s Front Door Bouncer Richard Luka, 1977.
Uncle Sam’s Main Room, October 1977. That dreaded blue carpet.
Even though Uncle Sam’s was a disco where DJ’s played records, they still had live performances. Mondays were the concert nights.
Vicky Gominsky, 1977.
Uncle Sam’s, November 1977.
Uncle Sam’s offered full accommodations with its high-tech game room.
Danny the Disco Drummer – Uncle Sams, 1977. “To augment the intense disco beat, they actually had a live drummer on stage in front of the DJ stand.” – Steven Laboe
Miss Uncle Sam’s Contest, 1977.
Uncle Sam’s, December 31, 1977. “I believe the comment that preceded this moment was ‘C’mon Steve McClellan, show us your best side.'” – Steven Laboe
Sam, the waitress. Uncle Sams, 1978.
Saturday Night Fever Dance Contest, February 1978.
“During the summer of ’78, there were these weekly dance contests. I think these were on Tuesday evenings.” – Steven Laboe.
In 1979, the club became independent and renamed itself Sam’s for the following two years.
In the 7th Street Entry, from left to right, front: Randy Barber – Guitar (The Family Band), Mikel Barber – Guitar (The Family Band), Sonny Thompson – Bass (The Family Band), Joe Lewis – Drums (The Family Band). Rear: Chico Smith – Sax (The Original Family Band) in North Minneapolis….

This was a time of constant change in the club, with an eclectic blend of music that ranged from Billboard top 40 playlist to DJ’s playing European underground music.

Roy Freid (a.k.a. DJ Roy Freedom) in the Main Room at Sam’s, 1979. (When the DJ’s were located front and center on the stage.)
The Ramones play Uncle Sam’s, November 1979.
Chrissie Streich and Lori Barbero dancing in the Main Room at Sam’s, 1980.
Dance Fever Contest at Sam’s, 1980.
Manager Jack Meyers holding the Heineken at Sam’s.
Janet Jones of Dance Fever’s ‘Motion’ (Denny Terrio’s backup dancers for the TV show Dance Fever) after the contest. Dance Fever Contest at Sam’s, 1980. (Jones went on to star in Grease II, The Beastmaster and Police Academy 5).
Hüsker Dü performing at 7th Street Entry, 1980. From the left front: the late Shawnian Pike, behind him is Tim Mitchell, Bob Mould, Eva Mosey Etoll, Tommy Hinsberger , Kelly Linehan, Mike Madden, Pat Woods is right front.
The All-Male review on Tuesday nights, Ladies Night! Summer, 1980.
“The POOL” at Sam’s, 1980. “I remember that, one night, one of the male strippers dove in and lost his G string. I was the life guard by the pool, summer splash party.” – David Thomas
After the pool had been removed, there was more than enough space to move around on the dance floor.
Contestants for the big lip-sync contest, “Great Pretenders.”
The Main Room was packed for the finale of the Great Pretenders contest.
Dance Floor at Sam’s, 1980. Disco regular Johnny Jones.
“My gut tells me this was shot in 1980/81 due to the blue tablecloth and carpeting. This wasn’t The Great Pretenders because there would have been a judges table in the middle of this packed humanity. So I’m assuming this was taken during a performance of some kind in the Main Room.” – Steven Laboe
Dance Floor at Sam’s. “This was part of a photo shoot I did for Cosmopolitan Magazine.” – Steven Laboe
Prince in the Main Room at Sam’s, April 1981.
Main Room Bar at Sam’s, 1981. “That DJ booth was a temporary platform,” says Stephen McClellan, former Sam’s manager. “I say temporary, because we did NOT have to call in the building inspectors when we installed it – and the city codes did NOT specify any time duration for ‘temporary structures.’ We bought it from a company that put ‘temporary’ shelving and storage structures in warehouse spaces…. And, I don’t suppose if the inspectors didn’t examine it after the ceiling caved in a few years back, it’s still good as a temporary structure….”
Chrissie Dunlap, an essential employee of the club.
The photographs of Steven Laboe show a time of incredible change at the club. The club was moving from a top 40 disco to a place where original music drew the crowds.
Main Room and Dance Floor at Sam’s, October 1981.
“We knew him before he went national…” – Steven Laboe. (Left to right: Richard Luka, Donald Clayton Holzschuh and the one-and-only Louie Anderson.) December 1981.
Jeans, jeans, jeans on the Dance Floor at Sam’s, 1981.
THE RAYBEATS from New York City with former Minneapolitan and Overtone Danny Amis. (Through the power of Facebook crowd sourcing, the blonde woman dancing has been ID’ed as Karin Allers.)
Sam’s, 1981 — With Kevin Cole (DJ) and BJ Crocker (Radio DJ – WWTC).
7th Street Entry, 1981.
Purple spandex on the dance floor at Sam’s in 1981.
A cameo appearance by Charlie Burton and the Cut Outs at Sam’s, 1981. (The raised, lit-up, neon dance floor has seen better days).
“What time is IT!?” – Morris Day and The Time at First Avenue, March 1982.
Overlooking the Dance Floor and Game Room Bar at First Avenue, 1982.
U2 in the Main Room at Sam’s, 1982.
Summer fashion trendsetters on the Dance Floor! First Avenue, July 1982.
Upstairs lounge: After the remodel of First Avenue, 1982. “Great looking ‘lawn chairs,’ but they lasted about one month in use before they started falling apart.” – Steve McClellan
Neon Gone Wild – First Avenue Dance Floor, 1982. “Jack Meyers did a FANTASTIC job converting what most clubs would have tossed into the dumpster – but instead turned into usable ‘new’ features. Of course, you are aware this is the old neon from the dance floor and light wall.” – Steve McClellan

Special Thanks: JT Apollo, Lori Barbero, Ron Clark, John Kass, David Thomas

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This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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Continue your exploration of First Avenue history – before it was known as First Avenue – by stepping even further back in time with this collection of photos shot by Mike Barich in the early 1970s.

First Avenue was one of many venues that punks flocked to in the 1980s – but before that, there was Jay’s Longhorn, a cornerstone of the punk and New Wave movements locally and nationally. A new documentary film explored the venue’s legacy.

Take a stroll down the seedy, late-night streets of downtown Minneapolis, circa 1981, in this time-machine tour.