Topless, but not classless

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November 22, 2004 // UPDATED 4:43 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Can a not-quite-nude club improve Downtown? Neighbors, business people and city officials say yes.

Don't call The Seville a strip club.

At least not around Dean "Dino" Perlman, the nightclub's owner and operations director, who winces when he hears the word.

Although the new nightspot at 15 Glenwood Ave. N. features topless dancing, Perlman has a different way of describing his new business.

"This is the upper echelon of sophisticated, adult-themed cabaret entertainment," Perlman said during a recent interview in his new club across the street from the Target Center, 600 1st Ave. N. "It's the modern-day incarnation of burlesque."

Perlman, 39 -- who looks like a clean-shaven version of his rock star brother Marc Perlman, a bassist in the local alt-country band The Jayhawks -- has created a club with a different vibe than other Downtown topless bars.

There's no tacky neon exterior or stripper's poles on the runway. Instead, the bar has an elegant and demure quality with dimly lit lounge areas and posh furniture around the club's stage. An old sign from the bar's early-20th-century namesake, The Seville hotel, hangs above the bar's first floor.

Seville performers and servers wear provocative clothing, but they maintain what they insist is an elegant and classy look.

"This isn't a bar. It's a show club. The show comes first," Perlman insisted.

The show is in the same vein as Lili's Burlesque Review, a variety act that performs in a space next to the Urban Wildlife, 327 2nd Ave. N. The performers are true to Downtown's '40s and '50s entertainment scene, when burlesque theaters dominated Hennepin Avenue and featured comedy routines, dancing and performers who strip down to pasties.

Later this year, Perlman plans a weekly cabaret show featuring some of Lili's dancers.

The burlesque revival is a tribute to Perlman's late uncle Benny Melton, who worked as an emcee for a traveling show that performed in clubs nationally and at Downtown's Alvin Theater (roughly where the Hard Rock Caf/ now stands). Melton was also known to stay at The Seville when it was a hotel, Perlman said.

The vaudeville entertainer collected autographed photographs of some of the performers, including the Three Stooges and burlesque divas Sally Rand, Tempest Storm and Gypsy Rose Lee. Another performer in the photo collection is "Flip Saunders" -- an entertainer who apparently shared a name with the Minnesota Timberwolves head coach.

The photographs are prominently displayed on a wall in the back of the club, a point of pride for Perlman.

The nightclub has made a dramatic transformation in recent months, erasing any trace of The Seville's shabbier predecessor, The Alley, a blues bar and pool hall. Perlman worked on the makeover with property owner, Chris Diebold.

The pair enlisted help from tenants who lived above The Alley in low-rent apartments. He hired 18 residents as laborers who helped with renovations and has offered jobs at the club to three residents.

Forty-two people who lived above the club have been relocated. Some were referred to new apartments or the Central Community Housing Trust, which developed the nearby Lamoreaux at 706 1st Ave. N., efficiency apartments for formerly homeless people.

Perlman's efforts to help out his new neighbors and improve conditions on the block have also won over nearby businesses. The Seville's immediate neighbors, O'Donovan's Irish Pub (700 1st Ave. N.), First Avenue (701 1st Ave. N.) and a parking lot owner, embraced Perlman's business concept earlier this year when he pitched his plan to City Council.

In a letter to City Councilmember Natalie Johnson Lee (5th Ward), O'Donovan's owner Dermot Cowley wrote: "The concept of a new upscale cabaret-themed nightclub will enhance our block and will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood."

To ensure top-notch security, Perlman has hired veterans of the adult-entertainment business he has worked with at other Downtown adult entertainment clubs.

Before opening The Seville, Perlman, a St. Louis Park native, worked as the general manager at Rick's Cabaret, 300 S. 3rd St. Before Rick's, he worked at Schiek's Palace Royale, 115 S. 4th St. and its predecessor, Solid Gold.

When Perlman informed Rick's that he planned to open his own nightclub, he said staffers were skeptical he'd be able to secure a license. But he made it through the city-approval process without opposition from neighborhood leaders -- a rarity for adult entertainment clubs.

To feature topless entertainment, bars need to obtain city approval for a Class "A" liquor license. In a 13-0 vote last spring, the City Council approved Perlman's application.

Perlman signed off a license addendum to limit the entertainment to topless dancing. Performers are not allowed to be fully nude.

Ken Ziegler, a city licensing inspector, said The Seville had a couple of things going for it -- its location, which is isolated from residential areas on the outskirts of the Hennepin/1st Avenue entertainment district.

City officials rejected another recent plan for a topless bar called Trocadores in the old Nikki's Caf/ space, 107 3rd Ave. N., after facing an uproar from residents. That proposal didn't square with a city ordinance that requires adult-entertainment clubs to be more than 1,000 feet from residential properties. Trocadores changed to an upscale restaurant/nightclub.

Said Ziegler of The Seville, "Number one, there really isn't a lot of high-buck residential [development] present or planned in the vicinity of The Seville, like there was with Trocadores. Number two, [Perlman] did his homework regarding the distance requirement from residentially zoned areas, schools and churches."

Johnson Lee, who represents Downtown west of Hennepin Avenue, supported the North Loop Neighborhood Association in its efforts to keep Trocadores a fully clothed nightclub. She briefly considered a moratorium on new strip clubs in her ward after receiving several calls from concerned constituents.

However, she agreed with Ziegler that The Seville's location made an adult entertainment venue more palatable.

"Basically, they are legal businesses. Our job is to make sure we regulate them to the best of our ability," Johnson Lee said.

Tom Hoch, head of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association, agreed.

"These adult-entertainment establishments need to be located somewhere, and the city -- I think wisely -- several years ago decided that they should be Downtown, and not in outlying neighborhoods," said Hoch, whose company also manages the city-owned Hennepin Avenue theaters.

Perlman acknowledges that The Seville might turn off some, but is hopeful others will be pleasantly surprised when they look inside.

He's determined to improve Downtown.

"I want to leave a legacy," he said.