August 20, 2010
By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune
If these walls could talk — well, they kind of do. From the catwalks of what is now called the NorShor Theatre, evidence remains of when this space was a vaudeville house in the early 1900s. The gilded ceiling is visible — though now covered with a false ceiling — as are a few balcony rows of seats.
On Sunday, the space formerly known as the Orpheum Theatre celebrates 100 years since its grand opening.
Since that time, it has undergone a series of renovations, ranging from opera house to movie theater to strip club. The Duluth Playhouse, current caretakers of the venue since the Duluth Economic Development Authority bought the theater and Temple Opera buildings in mid-June for $2.6 million, is hosting events tonight and Saturday to celebrate the building’s history and to raise money for renovations.
“I think it’s wonderful that we’re going to add life into it,” said Tony Dierckins, a local historian whose video, “121 Years of Performance and Film,” will be shown today and during Saturday’s open house.
“The stewardship of the building has been lacking in quality. It’s kind of a heartbreaking thing,” Dierckins said. “It’s great we’re going to revitalize it. It’s a lynchpin to revitalizing Old Downtown.”
The Orpheum Theatre opened on Aug. 22, 1910, after “keen anticipation,” the Duluth News Tribune reported. Tickets for the maiden production sold out in 45 minutes and attracted upper-crust Duluthians to downtown. “Seldom has the city’s wealth and culture been seen so heartily,” said an article about the opening night, which quotes then-Mayor Cullum, referred to as “His Honor,” as telling those who gathered: “You look swell.”
The structure was built by G.G. Hartley and cost $150,000. It included a
marble-tiled lobby off Second Avenue East, and walls decorated with hand-painted canvases. Through the lobby, there were four fire-proof imitation mahogany doors leading to the parquet floor of the theater. Seats were covered in silk velour and had ample leg space.
There was a mezzanine for general lounging, and smoking rooms.
Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers were among those who performed.
In the early 1940s, the space went through a major renovation to movie house by J.J. Liebenberg. The stage area shifted 180 degrees, incorporating the Orpheum’s garage space, and the entrance was moved to Superior Street to give the space a presence among the other movie houses.
“The opulent boxes and drapery (from the opera house) were very difficult to keep up,” said Dierckins, who has researched public records and newspaper accounts. “It was the ’40s, and they wanted to go for a different look.”
Local historian Jim Heffernan remembers seeing the much talked-about religious film “The Robe,” starring Richard Burton, at the NorShor.
“In the halcyon days of movies, the lobby would be full of people,” he said. “It was such a big event, they allowed us to get out of school to see it.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, the NorShor became a stop for Minneapolis punk musicians like the Suburbs and Husker Du — whose performances followed edgy films like David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.”
“The space has an incredible sense of intimacy,” said Chris Bacigalupo, a local musician who played and worked at the NorShor
Theatre. “That’s apparent the second you walk through the door. You’re at one with the band, and at that second you’re intimate with the history there. There is a sense of legacy. … You’re playing with Charlie Chaplin’s ghost or something.”
This article originally ran Aug. 19, 2010, in the Duluth News Tribune.