Duluth’s historic NorShor Theatre stages a revival

Arts & Culture Dan Kraker · Duluth · Feb 1, 2018

Most anyone who's lived in Duluth for a while has a story about the NorShor Theater.

"You'll hear people talk about going to see dime movies on Saturdays," said Duluth Mayor Emily Larson. "They'll talk about a photo of their grandparents standing in front of it."

More recently the theatre served as an informal incubator of the city's burgeoning music scene, helping launch such notable acts as Trampled by Turtles, Low and Charlie Parr.

The art deco theatre originally opened on Superior Street on the east end of Duluth's downtown in 1910 as a vaudeville house called the Orpheum. It hosted big names like the Marx Brothers and Jack Benny.

In 1941 it was transformed into a movie house and became the NorShor.

By the late 1990s the shabby charm of the place may have appealed to hip music fans.

"But really it was kind of falling apart," said former Duluth Mayor Don Ness. "All sorts of water issues, and code violations, and the fire marshal would come in and shut things down for a time."

And then, as other music venues popped up around Duluth, the NorShor stopped hosting shows.

"And it became a strip club, a strip club that had a lot of prostitution and drug dealing and gang activity and was a real blight in our downtown," Ness said.

Fast forward a couple years. Ness was elected mayor in 2008. Then, in 2010, the city's economic development authority bought the NorShor for $2.3 million.

It was a big risk at the time. The city had only recently climbed out of a budget hole, and there was a lot of criticism for spending taxpayer dollars on a crumbling old theater.

"It's financially a big commitment," acknowledged Mayor Emily Larson. "It's a lot of political capital. It's a lot of relationships, it's an enormous amount of time."

But Larson and Ness say if the city didn't act, Duluth was on the precipice of losing its last grand historic playhouse.

So the city partnered with a developer, Twin Cities-based Sherman Associates, to reconstruct the building. Sherman had already invested in the Sheraton Hotel a block away and other properties in Duluth.

The public-private partnership also featured the nonprofit Duluth Playhouse to operate and eventually own the theater.

They put together a complicated $ 30.5 million package that Sherman called one of the most complex deals he's ever worked on. "This was an incredibly difficult project to finance," he said.

It included about $7 million in state funding, plus about $15 million in historic preservation and other tax credits. Sherman's firm kicked in more than $2.5 million.

It also included some construction surprises that required installing new steel beams and blasting an orchestra pit out of solid Duluth bedrock.

The result is a meticulously restored 650-seat art deco theater, with giant restored murals on the walls, and a steep balcony high above the stage.

Duluth envisions the NorShor as the anchor of its newly branded Historic Arts and Theater District to help revitalize the east side of its downtown.

"Historic theaters play such an important symbolic role in cities the size of Duluth," said Ness, who now heads up the Duluth-based Ordean Foundation. "It's a demonstration of a community's commitment to its historic past in downtown, but also a commitment to its future."

Ness and Larson both point to restored theaters in Fargo, and the Palace Theater in St. Paul, that they say helped rejuvenate downtowns.

The district also includes the Zeitgeist theater and arts center, the Fond du Luth casino, and a new restaurant and live music venue Sound.

Across the street from the NorShor, Blacklist Brewery opened a taproom last year in large part because of the theatre's redevelopment.

"We figured it was only a matter of time before this place became the cool new hip spot in Duluth," said co-owner Jon Loss. "Storefront by storefront, we're making it a cooler place."

Blacklist moved into a building formerly occupied by the infamous head shop Last Place on Earth, whose owner, Jim Carlson, was notorious for flaunting federal drug laws and selling synthetic marijuana. Lines often spilled out on to the sidewalk.

The city took over the building after Carlson was sent to federal prison.

"We're bringing the east end of Duluth alive, and bringing the community back to this side of Duluth," said Sherman.

Plans call for the Duluth Playhouse to assume ownership of the theatre in seven years. The century-old local theater company will also manage the space and be its primary tenant.

The Playhouse is contributing $4.5 million to purchase sound, lighting and other equipment. Executive and artistic director Christine Seitz said the group has so far raised $1.4 million for the theatre.

Seitz said the group has also added six staffers as it begins to not only produce its own productions, but book and present shows as well.

"It's a venue for our entire community to use, and all the local arts groups, and of course the broader vision is to bring in regional and national touring acts as well."

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