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Remembering Minneapolis’ most infamous bar: Moby Dick’s

Patrons playing foosball and pinball at Moby Dick’s
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Patrons playing foosball and pinball at Moby Dick’s, July 1978.

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book “Closing Time: Saloons, Taverns, Dives, and Watering Holes of the Twin Cities,” by Bill Lindeke and Andy Sturdevant. The book, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, is “a multigenerational pub crawl through speakeasies, tied houses, rathskellers, cocktail lounges, gin mills, fern bars, social clubs, singles bars, gastropubs, and dives.” A launch event for “Closing Time” will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 7, at the Black Forest Inn — to which another chapter is devoted. 

For better or for worse, Moby Dick’s on Hennepin Avenue was a bar whose reputation preceded it. Moby’s was a constant subject of tall tales and watercooler reports, a bar that folks visited just to say they’d been there. At Moby Dick’s, you didn’t need a band or floor show; the bar itself was the entertainment. Inside the big doors, behind the blue whale, was the center of Hennepin Avenue, a bar that thrust you into downtown’s vital, jostling dance.

Moby Dick’s was smack in the middle of Block E, the most well-known example of the antiquated nineteenth-century naming convention whereby every block in downtown Minneapolis received its own letter of the alphabet. In the 1970s, as Hennepin Avenue was the heart of Minneapolis’s theater scene, Block E was the heart of Hennepin Avenue’s edgy arts community. As the Minneapolis poet Roy McBride put it:

It’s the main line

It’s the drag strip

It’s the edge

Down on Hennepin

Or as Tom Waits put it:

Well, it’s 9th and Hennepin

All the donuts have

Names that sound like prostitutes

And the moon’s teeth marks are

On the sky like a tarp thrown over all this

And the broken umbrellas like

Dead birds and the steam

Comes out of the grill like

The whole goddamned town is ready to blow

And the bricks are all scarred with jailhouse tattoos

And everyone is behaving like dogs.

The Hennepin Strip was the center of an entire world within downtown Minneapolis, a kaleidoscopic jumble of businesses, people, and flotsam that defined the city’s grittiest hang. Hennepin housed some of the best Minneapolis street life, boasting art galleries, theaters, the last remaining flop hotels, all-night diners, bowling alleys, arcades, music clubs, low-end restaurants, and newsstands offering magazines, newspapers, and porn from around the world. On Block E, everything and everyone was pressed together, jostling and bumping elbows to get closer to the action. And, of course, there were plenty of bars on this stretch of Hennepin — Mousey’s, Brady’s, and more — but, befitting its name, Moby Dick’s was the biggest and most fearsome of them all.

Whether Moby Dick’s deserved its reputation was a topic of heated debate for decades. To many, Moby’s was the poster child for vice in downtown Minneapolis, a symbol of the area’s crime, disorder, and immorality. In the eyes of certain people in the Minneapolis Police Department, Moby’s was the most wretched hive of scum and villainy the city had ever known; one MPD sergeant once claimed, “It is our estimation that if you go into Moby Dick’s bar you have a one in four chance of being assaulted.” Headlines routinely pilloried Moby’s, and the bar served as a convenient scapegoat for larger anxieties about crime and the future of downtown.To other observers, Moby Dick’s was a force of stability, even a civic pillar, of sorts. When asked about Moby’s dubious reputation, one Hennepin beat cop in the mid-seventies said: “Moby Dick’s, the worst bar in town? That’s a bunch of baloney! I can’t name a bar that doesn’t have drugs and fights; there must be something wrong at Moby’s though, because you can get in on the weekend nights now. It used to be packed to the rafters.”

Moby Dick’s was an easy stand-in for the conflicting views on downtown Minneapolis. One’s reaction to mere mention of the bar’s name was a quick tell about whether that person thought downtown should be a placid bourgeois office haven or a diverse, edgy mix of pell-mell nightlife.

From the outside, the bar was large and iconic. Its slogan, “a whale of a drink,” was mounted on a sign over the front façade, one among dozens of signs that hung above the wide Hennepin Avenue sidewalks. Moby’s was distinct: the blue whale, spouting, gleeful, a twinkle in its eye.

Moby Dick’s originated as the 620 Club in the 1930s, following the end of Prohibition.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Moby Dick’s originated as the 620 Club in the 1930s, following the end of Prohibition.

During the daytime, Moby Dick’s was relatively tranquil, but never boring.

As one observer described it, “Daytime sounds are some friendly haranguing among the players and muttered commentary from the old men watching along the wall. . . . It’s got a good racial balance and some of the best drinks in town.” You might even find, as one regular admitted, the occasional kid stopping in on his or her way home from school for a free pop from the bartender.

At night, it had a different vibe. The “whale of a drink” slogan referred to the potent pours you’d get at the bar. At Moby’s, shots of liquor went for a dollar, for which you got almost two ounces of rail booze, well below the prices at other bars. As a result, Moby’s was the best place to get drunk on a budget, which was why it attracted almost every type of boozehound in the city: black and white, rich and poor, office stiffs and bums, men and women, hustlers and rubes, tourists and locals, conventioneers and pool sharks, drunks and more drunks, and “swarms of pool players and pinheads.”

“It was a place you’d meet your friends before you went to a concert or out to eat. Or you’d just wait at Moby’s because it was great for people watching,” remembered one Block E regular. “They did a lot of things you couldn’t do today. If you turned in your AA medallion to the bar, they’d hang it up on the wall and you could drink free for the rest of the night. That used to happen every night.”

Years before, the bar had originated in a classier vein, when it was known as the 620 Club and was famous for its turkey sandwiches. The 620 was a massive place owned by boxing promoter Ernie Fliegel and future Minneapolis Lakers and Minnesota Vikings owner Max Winter, and the downtown movers and shakers would hang out there every night. (According to legend, the deal that sent the Lakers to L.A. was made at a back table in the 620.) In 1971, a new owner rechristened it Moby Dick’s, and for a while, Moby’s operated as a disco.

A Minneapolis Star reporter described Moby Dick’s whirlwind of excitement during a 1978 visit:

Pudgy matrons in dashikis, flirtatious girls in ruffled dresses, bearded youths with shoulder length hair, old men in pork pies and pulled coats, hot shots posing in white summer suits and hats next to bankers in stolid grey mingle in the low-ceilinged main room. Flamboyant glitter-rockers and sinister-looking super flies, everyday folks in jeans and sport shirts . . . By mid evening, the air in Moby’s windowless rooms is as dense as 800 smoking guests can make it. It is sodden with cigarettes, women’s heavy perfumes, patchouli from a smattering of long-haired youths, and whiffs of marijuana from the men’s room.

Another regular recalled, “I’ve never seen a bar before or after with such a mixed group of people. Businessmen, pimps, prostitutes, neighborhood people, and people from all walks of life and they all got along. And you really didn’t have to worry too much.”

The bouncers at Moby’s were big and tough and perhaps as legendary as the place itself. The most famous was named Clarence; if he didn’t like you, that was the end of your night there. The Moby Dick’s bouncers also may have done more policing than some of the cops who patrolled Block E. They did not always handle things properly, however. The record is scattered with various lawsuits charged against Moby’s bouncers for being excessively rough with unruly customers in the 1970s. In fact, watching people get bounced from Moby’s was almost its own form of entertainment, and provided the source of some of the best stories about the place.

“If someone was giving you a hard time, you’d just tell the bartender and the bartender or the bouncer would just throw the person out,” one regular patron said. “I remember one day I was walking along Hennepin Avenue with a friend on Block E. We were a few yards away from Moby’s, and this guy came flying out of the front door in the air, just like a cartoon, and landed on his butt.”

Closing Time bookThe flying exit from Moby Dick’s was a Hennepin Avenue staple, right up there with swingers strolling like Travolta down the wide sidewalks, or beat cops nudging a bum along his way.

“There were two methods of being bounced,” recalled another customer. “If they throw you out the front door, you didn’t do anything too bad, just enough to be thrown out. But if you went out the back door, you did something real bad. There was a dark alley back there, and they got in a little bit of trouble for beating people up back there. Anyway, you wanted to stay in line at Moby’s.”

By the 1980s, the police department and the downtown business interests had Block E in their sights. The dingy art galleries, porn theaters, and bar scene were viewed as the cause of downtown’s slipping business and retail culture. Following a misguided plan to transform the block into an urban mall, by the early 1980s the city evicted and bulldozed almost all the businesses on the block.

“Moby’s is the perfect example of the type of cesspool that breeds crime; you’ve got to attack it,” declared the police chief at the time, and attack they did.

When the last closing time hit the bar, and the final crowd passed through the big door with the whale on the front, the bulldozers came for the old brick building. One city council member was so elated with the demolition of Block E that he composed a song for the occasion, to the tune of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and sang it onstage at the ceremony for the new surface parking lot that would occupy the block:

    Pack up all your rime and porn, Block or scorn, be reborn.

    Bye-bye Block E!

    Moby Dick’s is beached at last, problems vast, now are past,

    Bye-bye Block E!

    No one here can stop and aggravate us,

    No more hard-luck stories will deflate us.

    Say good-bye to urban blight, now we’ll light up the night,

    Bye-bye Block E.

Like much of the old downtown core, the site of Moby Dick’s, and all the other establishments that filled Block E, was just another parking lot for the next twenty years. Then, in the early 2000s, the city turned the block into the long-envisioned urban mall. Christened Block E, the new retail building opened to great fanfare in 2002. It even boasted a bar (Applebee’s) in the skyway level next to a multiscreen movie theater. Within less than a decade, most of the shops of the new Block E had failed, and the entire structure was eventually remodeled and rechristened Mayo Clinic Square in 2014. Somewhere underneath the new gray façade lies the grave of Moby Dick’s bar, and every once in a while, someone walking down Hennepin Avenue will invoke its name — a legend that has stood the test of time.

Comments (40)

  1. Submitted by Jack Lint on 10/25/2019 - 10:59 am.

    I had heard the big brandy snifter full of AA medallions was an urban legend. But a regular would know more about it than my hearsay.

    Also the story goes that for the final night, KARE sent a crew down to cover the closing of Moby Dick’s. Given its reputation, they probably wanted to get the dregs of society stumbling out at closing time. When faced with the lights and the camera, the crowd just waved and smiled. (At the time KARE would end their 10 o’clock news broadcasts with various groups of people waving and smiling to the camera.)

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/25/2019 - 11:16 am.

    It was an OK place. Miss Moby, Irv’s and Stand-up Franks. Stiff drinks there, too.

  3. Submitted by paula pentel on 10/25/2019 - 12:29 pm.

    Drinking age was 18 so we’d leave North at lunch and go down and play foosball…several of my friends worked at the Great Northern Market and this was one of our go-to spots….Mayor Hofstede would stop in after City Council meetings….the Rand hotel on the block had a letter scratched out on their door sign so it said they had reasonable rat s. Good times.

  4. Submitted by Dave Carlson on 10/25/2019 - 12:37 pm.

    I always liked the conspicuous “whale of a drink” sign strolling down Hennepin Avenue.

    Our occasional visits to Moby Dick’s were mostly early evening. The last time we went in was one night with a visiting friend, a tough Chicago cop, who right away was a bit nervous as he sensed a “bad vibe”…

    Just the other night I saw someone with a Moby Dick’s T-shirt on while, appropriately enough, attending the screening of the documentary about Jay’s Longhorn Saloon, which was also right near Block E.

    • Submitted by Jack Lint on 10/25/2019 - 03:20 pm.

      There’s a company (Bygone Brands) that sells shirts with the logos of gone but not forgotten businesses broken down by location. They sell a Moby Dick’s shirt. (Also a Jay’s Longhorn shirt which is relevant to your comment.)

  5. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 10/25/2019 - 01:08 pm.

    Looking forward to it. I was a cabdriver in 1975-6 and served the day drinking crowd. I knew where all the bars were, but not all the bootleggers, earned the scorn of more than one passenger.

    An after hours place operated just around the corner from out house on Portland, I discovered only because fare gave m directions there.

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 10/25/2019 - 04:02 pm.

      I heard a lot about the tippling houses where people would go after bar close. A few made the book, as I recall.

      • Submitted by Harry and dana DeWilde on 11/06/2019 - 12:33 am.

        Tippling houses for sure. Outside the bar people handed out addresses on little slips of paper invites to “Birthday party”. Couple gals had a house that charged for food and beer, etc for a flat fee, Attracted lots of players, there were so many ppl they double parked on the street, It s when we started seeing heavy drug use, finally one brave cop wrote a disorderly house ticket for 700 that they had to pay on the spot of go to jail. When they were finally back in the house it mysteriously burned to the ground, Another dollar house giveaway, destroyed.

  6. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 10/25/2019 - 01:09 pm.

    “Our” house, not out house.

  7. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/25/2019 - 01:35 pm.

    It was the Foosball mecca of the 70’s.
    As a casual visitor and player I don’t think I ever won a game.
    Maybe also been due to the vodka gimlets…

  8. Submitted by John Ferman on 10/25/2019 - 01:38 pm.

    Do the writers have anything on any of the other Hennepin bars. There was a Crombies (sp) on lower Hennepin. Either the mother or wife of the owner lived in our apartment building in the 30s.

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 10/25/2019 - 04:05 pm.

      The other Lower Hennepin / Gateway bars we have in there are the Saddle Bar, the Persian Palms and my personal favorite: the noisiest joint in town, the Great Lakes Bar and Fun House!

  9. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 10/25/2019 - 01:42 pm.

    The 331 Club was a pretty gritty place in the pre-Oulman’s era. Likewise, the Double Duece — or so I’ve been told.

  10. Submitted by James Miller on 10/25/2019 - 02:42 pm.

    Between Moby’s, Plantation Pancakes, Shinders and the original Sutton’s, downtown was a great show. One afternoon in ’75, I stopped in to Moby’s for a drink, and saw most of my MCAD Life Drawing Class. Easily one of the best of the (many) Mpls sleazy bars!

  11. Submitted by Carl Brookins on 10/25/2019 - 02:58 pm.

    I’ll read the book. I well remember eating and hanging out at the 620 and many summer nights up and down “that scurrilous street” as ir was frequently called. In my era, 1949-1957, when we wanted some change from placid Midwestern life, we knew there was the Persian Palms, 620 / Moby’s, New Frolics, and lots of other sources of visual action for our cameras. No air conditioning in those times so doors to the places were open to the avenue. I heard a strip bar band playing a Bach Toccata one night as we sauntered by. It was often an exciting if somewhat seedy time.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 10/25/2019 - 04:01 pm.

      Persian Palms is also in the book. I am intrigued by a Bach Toccata! I love Bach keyboard music…

      • Submitted by Carl Brookins on 11/01/2019 - 05:46 pm.

        Pete Warren was the pianist. His drummer/cornet player was Snookie ?? and something of a grump. He and the manager didn’t approve of Bach in a strip joint, but the girls loved it. Pete later went on to be featured withe the orchestra at the hotel over on 7th (?) The Radisson(?) He also played in several piano bars around town.Later I featured his talent on a music series on Channel 2 when the station had real call letters. Pete WARREN was a marvelous talent. There was hardly ever a time when you could suggest a song he didn’t know and could play. The Golden Strings? WAS THAT THE ORCHESTRA?

  12. Submitted by Jacki Anderson on 10/25/2019 - 03:57 pm.

    Who could forget moby’s…
    The good ol days…I still run into clarence here n there.. He’s a legion ! Is goofy’s mentioned in the book?

  13. Submitted by ian wade on 10/25/2019 - 04:48 pm.

    Moby’s was a hoot. The best part was eavesdropping on the conversations taking place on the payphones back by the restrooms. There was a lot going on.

  14. Submitted by Jim Swanson on 10/25/2019 - 08:30 pm.

    The book looks fun! Mousey’s, however, was relatively far from Block E at 11th & Hennepin.

  15. Submitted by Leslie Davis on 10/26/2019 - 03:39 am.

    When we moved to Minneapolis my brother’s and I opened an office in the Frank Sherman Merchandise Building on 6th and Hennepin, across from Shinder’s. Eventually my brother Marvin opened the Phase I clothing store a few doors down from Brady’s and he grew that operation into 20 stores. We would often hang out at the 620 with the hoods and hustlers at the big round table. Lots of stories from there to Moby’s and the end but your story doesn’t read like you know anything personally about it so I won’t go into it. Rifle Sport, Best Steak, and all the rest should have had a mention in your story.
    The most interesting block in Minneapolis (E) was converted into the Mayo Block which is more fitting in this Land of Bland.

    • Submitted by Brian Gandt on 11/01/2019 - 11:12 am.

      My first thought when I read Rifle Sport was the band (I lived there in the early 90s). From what I could tell by some quick research is that they are named after the gallery.

      Great stuff!

  16. Submitted by Naomi Williamson on 10/26/2019 - 10:37 am.

    At 18, I was a waitress at the Cork & Fork (now Lyon’s Tap), next to Murray’s and across from The Dykeman Hotel! One evening, our new head cook, Phillip, said, “Let’s go over to Moby’s and grab a cocktail!” “Noooo!” I replied, “That place is too scary for me!” He grabbed me by the hand and said, “No! It’s fun!”

    We walked past Shinder’s Corner (with its perpetual interesting collection of nighttime characters), the Rand Hotel (owned by the retired cop Dad of my high school best friend) and into the heart. He bought me a Firecracker (tall curvaceous cocktail) and we headed into the depths. The graffiti in the Ladies was the most graphic I’d seen in my young life! But it wasn’t scary.
    He was right! It was fun! Great people watching, cocktails, and vibe. And for years I kept my ‘souvenir’ tall curvaceous Moby’s cocktail glass in memory. Partly as a badge of courage. Partly for fond memory.

    The demolition of Block E – like so much of the demolition in downtown Mpls – didn’t remove the crime or improve the neighborhood. It just removed energy and personality. Crime relocated off that block (mostly), but, of course, it didn’t go away.

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane MinnPost.

    • Submitted by Jim Swanson on 10/26/2019 - 05:46 pm.

      Most of us recall the Firecracker from Uncle Sam’s (two different glasses through the years and you kept the glass). I don’t recall Moby’s having a drink with that name.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 10/28/2019 - 02:10 pm.

      “The demolition of Block E – like so much of the demolition in downtown Mpls – didn’t remove the crime or improve the neighborhood. It just removed energy and personality.”

      Well put.

  17. Submitted by Dan Emerson on 10/26/2019 - 10:59 am.

    Moby’s was by far the best setting to hear Willie and the Bees.
    I remember hearing that the Vikings had banned their players from going there.

  18. Submitted by Greg Claflin on 10/26/2019 - 03:37 pm.

    Moby’s was a great place to get lubricated cheap drinks before heading to someplace else. Like going to listen to a new band in town which usually didn’t before 8:00-8:30pm. It was convenient to Jay’s Longhorn and First Ave. being actually the midpoint between the two.

  19. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 10/28/2019 - 09:57 am.

    I visited Moby’s with a friend a couple of times during the middle 1970’s. I remember one night realizing that I’d seen every deviant Minneapolis subculture as I wandered around the horseshoe bar: frat boys and women on the make, gays, bikers, older black guys with pinky rings playing pool, off-duty cops, etc. I’m sorry it’s gone.

  20. Submitted by chris cowen on 10/28/2019 - 10:55 am.

    We would start out the evening at Lyle’s. Howie and Cam were the bartenders. The main part of the evening would be spent at The Cabooze and The Joint and then we would finish at Moby’s. And the main reason we went to Moby’s was their clock. Most bars set their clocks ahead 15 minutes to get everyone out the door by the 1 am closing time (Oh how we hated that state law early closing time back then! Heck 1 am, a person was just hitting their stride! I digress). Moby’s had a “straight clock” meaning the time was accurate. And a person could order right up to 1 am. On a rare occasion a person might be disciplined enough to have some beer at home; but usually not.

    One story: January of 1977, one of the coldest winters ever around here with some days having high temperatures that did not get warmer than 20 below without the windchill. We of course were out on the town; but this night we got to Moby’s closer to 11 rather than the usual 1 am. Two things I remember: first, there were so few people in there that night you could see the walls and two, there was that guy who came in wearing a parka and snowpants (no so unusual considering the temperatures) but he also was wearing goggles, had a large backpack and what looked like mountain climbing equipment including two long coils of rope. You know, he just happened to be walking around 6th and Hennepin….. Yes you could have seen just about anything or anybody at Mobe’s.

  21. Submitted by Jim Camery on 10/28/2019 - 02:28 pm.

    Cullas on Riverside, near Augsburg. The pool table slanted downhill and the entertainment was a radio. The woman who ran it (Culla?) had no problems kicking a biker-type out for hassling a regular.

    • Submitted by David Straka on 03/23/2020 - 03:03 pm.

      Yes, she went by Culla; a childhood nickname, according to an internet post I recently read.
      Bill Lindeke, have you posted your book’s Table of Contents anywhere, for folks to take a peek? Looks like a book I’d enjoy! Thanks

  22. Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/28/2019 - 02:39 pm.

    Can’t wait for this book!

  23. Submitted by Kevin Smith on 10/29/2019 - 02:57 pm.

    I spent a number of years working in public alcoholism treatment centers – the original Pioneer House at Medicine Lake, Pioneer Extended and eventually Hennepin County day treatment at 1800 Chicago. The joke was that we could use someone being a regular patron at Moby’s as diagnostic criteria for needing treatment.

  24. Submitted by Bernie Hesse on 10/29/2019 - 05:26 pm.

    I worked downtown (when there were still factories) across the street from Lee’s Liquor bar and liquor store (a tale for another time), but Moby Dick’s had an honest pour as we would say and the drinks were cheap and I don’t remember many fights. good piece.

  25. Submitted by Laura Stone on 10/30/2019 - 10:04 am.

    I downloaded book and was disappointed that it seemed very “safe”. Either some people boycotted the access to history and quotes or the authors wanted to create something without controversy. Where is “The Gay 90’s” and many other bars with edgy culture of the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s? There is way more history in that block and by digging deeper the two authors might just have a great follow-up book on their hands. There are dynasties that held court there, no mention. I was glad that they included the New French Bar as an example of the 80’s transformation and the arts district, and its demise, but the content of the arty conversations would be a great addition. Surely there are people with clear memories….

  26. Submitted by gary soberg on 04/24/2020 - 12:51 pm.

    That’s Tom Ramsdell at the pinball machine talking to Val.

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