Bijou/Empress Theater

The Empress Theater, originally the Bijou, photographed ca. 1911 by Hugh McKenzie. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

12 E. Superior St. | Architect: Unknown | Built 1903 | Extant

First managed by Duluth thespians Frederic Ritchie and Hal A. Curtis, Duluth’s Bijou Theater promised to provide “a place where high-class, moral entertainments may always be found.” During its first six years that included “Edmund Thompson, a clever black-faced comedian” and Gertrude Hoffman performing “Salome’s Dance,” which was little more than a striptease. Apparently high-class, moral entertainment didn’t sell tickets. A simple yellow-brick Classical Revival building featuring some clever brickwork, an ornate cornice dressed with modillions and dentils, and two circular windows trimmed in terra-cotta with a wreath motif, the two-story theater hoped to draw patrons away from the Lyceum Theater. Research has encountered no description of its interior, which reportedly accommodated 270 patrons.

The building’s brief life as a theater included at least one unscripted dramatic moment. In 1904, the Duluth News Tribune reported that “an insane girl” nearly caused a panic after leaping on stage in a white gown and exclaiming, “Now I’ve got you!” The only thing that kept the crowd calm, the manager reported, was that they thought she was part of the evening’s play, which had yet to begin. She was taken to police where detectives tried to “prevent the girl from dashing her brains out against the wall.” At one point she “suddenly leaped into the air” and exclaimed “There’s the Chicago fire!” before “breaking two panes of glass with her clenched fist.” A friend explained that the woman had been “acting queerly” for the past few weeks after meeting with “the Christian Science sect.”

In 1910 the Sullivan-Considine vaudeville circuit purchased the Bijou and renamed it “the Empress.” The next year a young Charlie Chaplin performed in Duluth at the Empress during a performance of A Night in an English Music Hall, a comedy produced by Fred Karno’s London Pantomime Company. Chaplin played “the Inebriated Swell” in a skit titled “Mumming Birds.” While the Duluth News Tribune praised the show, the paper never once mentioned Chaplin, likely because he had yet to become a household name. The theater traded hands again in 1913 when it was purchased by Duluth saloonkeeper William M. Abrahamson, who changed the facility’s name to the Empress Hippodrome, although he booked no acts featuring horses.

Fire gutted the theater two years later, after which its Superior Street level was remodeled as a retail facility. Over the years it has been home to Camel’s Hall, Louis Frerker Photo Supplies, the Pla-Mor Ball Room, and the Famous Clothing Company. In 1988 it became a music store called the Electric Fetus, which closed in 2021. (Another movie house named the Bijou operated at 2023 West Superior from 1912 to 1915.)