A Brief History of Duluth’s Historic Arts & Theater District

Part 1: A Brief History of Duluth’s Historic Arts & Theater District

By Dave Grandmaison – Co-Founder & CEO

The performing arts have a long history in Downtown Duluth. The story of Duluth’s arts scene covers economic boom & bust cycles, passionate and visionary civic leaders, inspired performers & creators, and even a couple of unexplained and tragic fires. At the core of the story is a town challenged by the idea of, and desire for, a quality of life that includes entertainment and creative energy that is accessible and representative of our rugged Northwoods sensibility.

I’m encouraged by the creative energy that has returned to Duluth – in the Lincoln Park Craft District and downtown’s Historic Arts & Theater District. It’s an energy that is infusing itself in a new Duluth identity and it’s something to certainly celebrate as Duluthians.

In this brief retrospective, we’ve highlighted the historical context for the exciting recent developments in Downtown Duluth – namely, the Historic Arts & Theater (HART) District. In Part 2, we look more closely at the renovation of the NorShor Theatre and what it will mean for this renewed sense of place in historic downtown.

Duluth NorShor Restoration

Duluth Mayor Don Ness and developer George Sherman celebrate the planned restoration of the NorShor in 2015 (Photo: Duluth News Tribune).

Related: Part 2: A New Legacy for the NorShor Theatre

Duluth’s Grand Opera House

Let’s go back to the 1880s. At the time, Duluth was experiencing a bit of economic recovery from the financial panic of 1873. The grain trade was booming (see this interesting article in Substreet for a great retrospective on Duluth’s grain elevators: Grain Elevators of The Zenith City) and civic leaders decided that Duluth needed a venue large enough to attract musical and theatrical productions. On September 20, 1883 the Emma Abbott Opera Company performed the popular opera, “Martha” to a sold out crowd at the brand new 1,000-seat Grand Opera House. It was opening night and it was… well, grand.

Duluth’s Grand Opera House served as Duluth’s cultural centerpiece and was home to the Chamber of Commerce, the Kitchi Gammi Club, and the Ladies Literary Library which later became the Duluth Public Library.

Unfortunately, the Duluth Grand Opera House had a short run. After only 6 short years, the building burned to the ground in a “disastrous fire of unknown origin” (learn more about the theater’s architecture and eventual destruction in this excerpt from Tony Dierckins’ book “Lost Duluth”: Duluth Grand Opera House). The theater was not rebuilt.

Duluth Grand Opera House

1887 photograph of The Duluth Grand Opera House (Photo: Duluth Public Library).

Related: The Beating HART of Duluth

Temple Opera House

With Duluth’s Grand Opera House in ruins, construction of a new performing arts center on Superior Street and 2nd Avenue East neared completion. The Temple Opera Block facility, commissioned by the Duluth Masons to replace their first temple built in 1869, became home to the Temple Opera House.

According to a historical profile on the NorShor History website (click here for the full article), the Duluth Daily News described the building on opening night as: “Grand, imposing, beautiful! The Temple is indeed the ideal of the artist’s dream and the actor’s cherished hope. Beautiful in design, nothing of the practical has been sacrificed for effect, but rather has been made to lend to the beauty of the whole.

Duluth Temple Opera Block

Duluth Temple Opera Block

Unfortunately, like the Grand Opera House before it, Duluth’s Temple Opera House exploded in grand fashion on the night of October 12, 1895, and was lost in roughly 30 minutes. A firewall prevented total destruction of the Temple Opera Block but the opera house site would remain vacant until 1905 when a roller skating facility was built to make use of the space.

The Orpheum Theater

In 1910, a fellow by the name of Guilford Hartley (think Hartley Nature Center) built The Orpheum Theater to replace the lost Temple Opera House (learn more about the theater’s architecture and history in this excerpt from Tony Dierckins’ book “Lost Duluth”: Orpheum Theater). The Orpheum was the city’s premier vaudeville stage and was graced by acts including WC Fields and his juggling act, Mary Pickford, The Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, and Charlie Chaplain.

Fast forward to the 1920s when the rising popularity of a new form of entertainment – “talkies” – began to quickly replace the vaudeville craze. By 1929 the Orpheum added movie equipment was converted into a movie house. Sadly for the Orpheum, competition among the various downtown movie houses resulted in an extended closure from 1934 to 1939. In 1939 the building was transformed into the NorShor Theatre.

The Story Continues: Part 2: A New Legacy for the Norshor Theatre

Duluth Experience Border

If you’d like to explore The HART District and go behind-the-scenes to learn more about these exciting businesses, check out the HART of Duluth Walking Tour. The Duluth Experience has partnered with Duluth Coffee Co., Blacklist Artisan Ales, Lake Superior Art Glass, and Zeitgeist Arts to create an exclusive behind-the-scenes sensory experience that includes food samples, art demonstrations, craft cocktails and locally brewed beer.

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