Orpheum Theatre

A lithographic postcard of the Orpheum Theatre made shortly after its opening in 1910. (Image: Zenith City Press)
8–12  2nd Avenue East | Architect: J. E. O. Pridemore | Built: 1910 | Lost: 1939 (façade extant)

In 1912 Duluth businessman Guilford Hartley purchased the Temple Opera Block and the site of the Temple Opera House. He also purchased the block of property east of the Temple Opera Block, from 207 to 213 East Superior Street.

On the site of the old Temple Opera House Hartley built the Orpheum Theatre. On the outside the building’s only architectural interest was its Neoclassical façade along Second Avenue East, with its awning of ornamental iron covering the entrance. Inside it was opulent. Patrons entered upon a marble-tiled floor, and marble staircases with ornamental iron railings led them to their auditorium seats. The auditorium itself held two balconies and ten private boxes. The seats were built of mahogany and upholstered with silk velour. It was one of the first theaters to utilize cantilever construction, allowing the auditorium to stand free of visible support columns, ensuring every seat in the house had a clear view of the stage.

On his Superior Street property Hartley built the Orpheum Garage. The Garage adjoined the theater; it operated as a parking garage and included offices for the Orpheum. Like the Opera House, the Orpheum included a small art gallery, with an entrance at the lower left corner of the building. The sign above the entrance advertises the Orpheum Garage’s services: welding, washing, and greasing.

The Duluth Herald reported that on opening night, August 22, 1912, “the audience filled every seat from boxes to gallery. It came with a rush, flooding the street for a block on either side lined with autos. All of social Duluth was there…. The spirit of freedom was infectious, all were there for enjoyment of the splendor of the theater in every detail and the completeness of its appointment brought a feeling of satisfaction that let loose the floodlights of appreciation.” The theater’s manager claimed Duluth’s audience “is more metropolitan than any I have seen outside of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.”

Mayor Marcus Cullum addressed the audience, told them they were “looking swell,” and gave a short speech that included the following remark:

“It takes confidence as well as money to build such a house as this and it does Mr. Hartley credit and shows his confidence in the future of Duluth. High class vaudeville is as essential in metropolitan life as street cars and automobiles. No city can pretend to verge upon the metropolitan until it can claim such a line of amusement features as the Orpheum provides.”

The Orpheum was, until about 1925, Duluth’s premier vaudeville stage, competing only with the Lyceum Theatre for quality acts. As a member of the nationwide Orpheum Theatre circuit, Duluth’s Orpheum was all but guaranteed to book the nation’s  finest talent. Mary Pickford, W. C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, and a young Jackie “Uncle Fester” Coogan all graced the Orpheum’s stage; Al Jolson played there as well, in blackface.

But in the 1920s the popularity of talking motion pictures began killing vaudeville. When Guilford Hartley died in 1922 the buildings became the possession of the Hartley Company and later the Hartley Family Trust. In 1929 the Orpheum added movie equipment. That same year its main entry was moved to 207 East Superior Street, the first bay of the Orpheum Garage. The Second Avenue awning was also relocated to Superior Street at that time and a large vertical sign for the Orpheum was attached to the Temple Opera Block. It was managed by the same company that ran Duluth’s Garrick Theatre.

But those changes weren’t enough to keep the grand vaudeville theater lucrative, especially since many movie houses had popped up in downtown Duluth by then. From 1934 to 1939, the theater was closed except for a few sporadic attempts to make it work once again as a venue for live theater and movies. In 1939 the building was gutted and, along with portions of the Orpheum Garage, transformed into the NorShor Theatre and the NorShor Annex.

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Orpheum Theatre
From the National Register of Historic Places Registration for the Duluth Commercial Historic District prepared by Mike Koop of the Minnesota State Office of Historic Preservation, 2005. The entire document is available at the Duluth Public Library.

This four-story Neoclassical brick building has a 68-foot by 128-foot-deep rectangular plan. The sidewalls are of common brick with simple double hung wood windows, while the primary façade is constructed of reddish-orange brick laid in a Flemish bond highlighted by darker brown sintered headers that are vitrified or “glazed.” Decorative elements of off-white glazed terra cotta divide the façade into five bays at the second through fourth floors with four three-story, fluted Ionic pilasters supporting a shallow applied architrave and pediment.

The first floor was altered in 1985 by the Duluth Transit Authority through infill of the existing openings and the addition of a small, one-story enclosure in off-white glazed block covering the central three bays and original main entrance. Prominent structural anchors visible on the central two pilasters between the second and third floors suggest that the central entrance was originally covered by a decorative canopy, now missing. Original off-white terra cotta blocks are visible at the sides and top of the two outer bays, each of which contains a pair of double doors with a simple terra cotta surround.

A terra cotta water table with a running Greek key pattern separates the storefront/entry level from the upper floors. Two small 4/4 double hung wood windows pierce the outer bay of the second floor, while the central three bays are filled by three pairs of large 8-light wooden French doors with terra cotta surrounds. Three window openings are visible at the second floor, consisting of three pairs of 1/1 double hung wood windows. Each pair is surrounded by a flat terra cotta molding. The third floor is composed of two small 4/4 double hung wood windows with terra cotta sills in the outer bays, and three pairs of 2/2 wood double hung windows in the three center bays. The windows rest on a continuous terra cotta band decorated with a running wave motif, and they are capped by headers composed of terra cotta blocks with a prominent keystone. The three southernmost window openings have been replaced with metal louvers, presumably for a ventilation system.

Ionic capitals terminate the pilasters at the fourth floor, and they are enlivened by a wide band of shallow relief palmettes and egg-and-dart molding on the echinus. The capitals support a simple entablature composed of a flat, stepped architrave and a paneled frieze decorated only by a single inset modillion above each capital. The flat brick pediment contains a single centrally located circular terra cotta shield encompassing a molded bust and large garland. The lower dentil cornice band of the pediment continues beyond the edges of the raking cornice to wrap around the corners of the façade, while the upper raking cornice is finished with three palmette akroteria at the peak and both ends. The low brick parapet wall on either side of the pediment is capped by a flat terra cotta coping.

When it was constructed, the lobby was finished in a “white marble tile floor, countersunk rubber mats, an Italian marble base and imitation stone walls, and richly ornamented cornice and ceiling.”