A New Legacy for the NorShor Theatre

Part 2: A New Legacy for the NorShor Theatre

By Dave Grandmaison – Co-Founder & CEO

As the popularity of vaudeville faded, Duluth’s Orpheum Theater was renovated with a new Art Deco interior to become the NorShor Theatre in 1941. A new entrance was constructed on Superior Street and the theatre layout was completely reversed to accommodate its new purpose as a movie house. The new theatre featured a “hall of mirrors,” “an ultra modern powder puff room,” a snack bar, and the first milk bar that served only dairy products and served as a lounge area for moviegoers during the NorShor’s heyday.

Duluth Grand Opera House

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

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

The NorShor Theatre’s famous 65-foot tower marquee was installed in 1942. Weighing in at over 300 tons the marquee, and its 3,000 lights, was visible from up to 60 miles away. According to NorShor historians, a Duluth News Tribune story about the theatre stated that “The Northwest’s most spectacular theater… features an entirely new style of theater architecture, a style so radical from accepted standards that the NorShor has already earned the distinction of being more sensational than New York’s Radio City.

On July 11, 1941 the NorShor Theatre opened with “Caught in the Draft” a slapstick military film which stared Bob Hope as Don Bolton, an actor who tries to avoid the draft but mistakenly enlists in an effort to impress a colonel’s daughter played by Dorothy Lamour.

NorShor Mezzanine

NorShor Mezzanine in 1941. Photo: Jim Heffernan’s Blog.

Related: Jim Heffernan’s Blog: NorShor and Duluth’s Historic Theaters

Turbulent Times for the NorShor

The iconic NorShor marquee was removed in the 1967 and the theatre changed ownership a number of times in the following years finally ending up in the ownership of Duluth physician Erik Ringsred. From 1982 thru 2010, the historic building experienced what most would consider “turbulent times”. By the mid 2000s, the building – and its former status – had significantly deteriorated. I remember seeing a couple of regional music acts on the NorShor stage in 2001. By 2006 the theatre’s marquee announced its new operation as an “Adult Club” – basically a strip club with the occasional “midget wrestling” match. According to a NorShor retrospective by Perfect Duluth Day editor, Paul Lundgren, during “the club’s four-year run, neighboring business owners and citizens complained, and legal battles and fire-code issues stalled operations at times.”

Norshor Theatre 1997

Duluth’s NorShor Theatre in 1997. Photo: Josh Meltzer / Duluth News Tribune.

Fortunately, the NorShor is on a path towards a much brighter future. The corner was turned when The Duluth Economic Development Authority (DEDA) purchased the NorShor and adjacent Temple Opera buildings in 2010. Shortly thereafter, Sherman Associates and The Duluth Playhouse joined forces to oversee the theatre’s $30.5-million restoration.

A Plan for Revitalization

2014 marked an important milestone for the NorShor when the restoration project received $7.1 million in funding through a legislative bonding bill and additional funding from Federal Historic and New Market Tax Credits. The Duluth Playhouse committed to raise $4.5 million for much needed renovations and facility enhancements to ensure that the theatre would be fully equipped to support world-class performances. Then, in late 2015, The City of Duluth designated “Old Downtown” as a historic arts and theater district (HART) with The NorShor Theatre recognized as a cornerstone for economic development in the HART.

Duluth Playhouse

When completed at the end of 2017, the renovated NorShor will feature 650 seats and The Duluth Playhouse will manage the property as a dynamic venue where local, regional, and national artists will perform. To kick off the NorShor’s grand opening, The Playhouse will perform “Mama Mia” February 1st – 18th, 2018.

A recent update from our friends at The Duluth Playhouse listed the following project features:

  • A beautifully refurbished 650-seat theater with two reception lounges and bars.
  • An orchestra pit, dressing rooms and rehearsal studios.
  • Skywalk access directly into the NorShor Theatre from the Greysolon and adjacent parking ramp.
  • A street front box office and community arts kiosk center.
  • Spectacular performances in theater, music, dance and more!
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: Tickets for Mama Mia go on sale October 2nd

This is an exciting time for Duluth’s HART District and I’m excited to experience The NorShor Theatre as it was intended to be – a community space for celebrating Duluth’s amazing theater and music scene. I’ll see you there!

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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