Feature: History of NorShor

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.

Feature: Orpheum Theatre turns 100

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

The old space on East Superior Street has been a vaudeville theater, and it has been a strip club. At one time it housed a milk bar. It has been the site of Geek Proms and a deli.

Bands from the Minneapolis punk scene have rocked the main stage, and local bands have left their graffiti backstage. Films have been shown in the balcony theater. A local theater company wrote and produced the comic opera “Phantom of the NorShor.”

On the cusp of its 100th birthday, the venue formerly known as the Orpheum Theatre — now the NorShor Theatre — is about to be reinvented again.

Those involved with reviving the building at 211 E. Superior St. say it will become another portal for music, theater and art — in a stretch of East Superior Street that’s becoming an entertainment district with Carmody Irish Pub, the Sheraton’s Restaurant 301, the Black Water Lounge and the Zeitgeist Arts building.

“This can and should be the arts and entertainment center, not only for the community but for the entire region,” Duluth Mayor Don Ness said.

The place has been spit-shined for events this week celebrating the building’s century mark. A fundraiser will be held at the NorShor Theatre at 7 p.m. today. An open house is planned for Saturday afternoon with an eight-band lineup later in the evening.

It’s just a glimpse of what could happen in this space, if all goes according to plan.

‘A cultural lightning rod’

The Duluth Economic Development Authority bought the NorShor Theatre and Temple Opera buildings in mid-June for $2.6 million dollars, bringing an end to the venue’s era as a strip club known as the NorShor Experience.

For the next two years, little will change at the venue while decisions are made about renovation, use and scheduling and a fundraising campaign gets under way, said Christine Seitz, executive director of the Duluth Playhouse, the group charged as caretakers of the space.

Meanwhile, expect plenty of music. Starting in September, there will be concerts at mezzanine level every Thursday night at the NorShor Theatre.

“As far as getting the NorShor back on line as a cultural lightning rod, the music community has been asked to work together to provide a rhythm of events there,” said Chris Bacigalupo, who is part of a committee to fire up the venue’s music scene. “They aren’t going to be able to have movies right away, or theater right away. The mezzanine represents the first active space.”

Events have been held in the building in the last few months. During Homegrown Music Festival in May, two local bands with international audiences played back-to-back. Retribution Gospel Choir and Trampled by Turtles drew a maximum-capacity 800 people to the main stage. In June, the Sound Unseen Film Festival used the balcony theater during part of the week-long newbie event. The Playhouse hosted Unplugged at the NorShor in June and July, which involved six nights of acoustic acts, also in the balcony theater.

Readying the theater space for concerts requires electrical upgrades but isn’t hampered by structural issues that put live events on hold several years ago.

According to records from the Duluth Fire Department, the venue is inspected every three years unless they receive complaints about the building. The last inspection was in 2007, and another is scheduled for the fall. Eight items from the last inspection were noted, including making sure exits are not obstructed, adding visible exit signs in the upper balcony, securely fastening a light in the basement, and documenting annual inspections of fire alarms and sprinkler systems. Each of these violations was corrected by Jan. 1, 2008, according to a report from the fire marshal.

The movie screen has a gouge in it and needs to be replaced before they can host films. There are lighting issues in the balcony theater, and a shallow main stage without dressing rooms or fly space.

Another priority: The liquor license. The NorShor was a destination bar into the early to mid-2000s, open even when there weren’t events on site. The Duluth Playhouse is applying for a full license — more than the beer and wine license that the ballet, opera and local playhouses can get away with. But for now, the bar will only be open when there are performances.

Convergence of the arts

It was like the scene from the “The Godfather” when heads of all of the Mafia families converged to plot strategy for the future.

Representatives from most of Duluth’s arts groups gathered on the mezzanine level of the NorShor to talk about the future of the building, how and if their organizations would use the space, and what would be required to make it operational.

There were opera singers, choral singers, ballet dancers and rock promoters; local historians, media and venue operators; those affiliated with theater, and a University of Minnesota Duluth dean; the head of a film festival and the manager of Bayfront Festival Park.

Participants drew up a wish list and discussed ways to use the space:

* Should it remain as it is, with three venues — the main stage, the balcony theater and the mezzanine — or would it make sense to revert the space back to its original incarnation, a single-stage house where seats extend to the rafters and opera boxes line the wings.

* What style of stage would work best in the main stage area? Black-box style like at the Duluth Play Ground, or a thrust stage surrounded on three sides by audience?

* What were the needs for each organization? Risers, sound system, lights, dressing rooms.

* Would they use the space if they had the chance?

Robert Gardner would. The artistic director for the Minnesota Ballet wasn’t at the meeting, but he had the chance to tour the facility a few weeks ago. It’s already an acceptable space for fundraisers with solos and duets. And with some work, the balcony theater would work for smaller shows like the company’s September event dances at the Board of Trade, which includes contemporary and new dance.

After getting a taste of the balcony theater during the Sound Unseen Film Festival, a Twin Cities import, director Rick Hanson is itching to get back inside. He considers the NorShor a dream venue for filmmakers and enthusiasts. And if he has his way, he’ll be in there by the end of 2010.

“When I first started coming to Duluth to see if it was a place where we could pull off this type of festival, I saw the NorShor and said: ‘Please, please, please.’ This is exactly what the film festival needs. It’s a centerpiece, within walking distance of anything downtown.”

There is still time to sort these things out. Ness said that the decisions will be made with input from the arts community and architects who specialize in stage design. But that’s three to five years away.

“We hope every night of every weekend some band or vocalist is using the space,” Seitz said. “We want this space to pop, and keep it active and make it the home it’s supposed to be for our local arts groups.”

This article was originally published August 19, 2010 in the Duluth News Tribune.