The NorShor Theatre (aka Orpheum Garage)

The architects’ plotting sketch for the relief mural representing northeastern Minnesota industries that was installed behind the NorShor’s rear staircase to the Arrowhead Lounge. (Image: Midwest Architectural Archives)

While its interior had become an Art Deco masterpiece, the façade of the Orpheum Service Garage—now called the Orpheum Annex (sometimes NorShor Annex)—was far from modern. Liebenberg and Kaplan’s answer was to place a huge tower above the new entryway. It stood sixty-five high atop the building and many claimed its 3,000 lights could be seen sixty miles away. The News Tribune described its construction:

Over 300 tons of structural steel were used to form the skeleton.… The tower…is over 125 feet high above the sidewalk. It is completely sheathed in porcelain and is one of the first steel structures using this material in the country. It was designed to stand a normal wind pressure of more than 100 miles per hour. The foundations supporting the tower were carried down to bedrock.

The NorShor’s Arrowhead Lounge, photographed in September, 1941. (Image: Jim Heffernan)

The tower was all lit up when the NorShor first opened on July 11, 1941, under the direction of manager Earl Long. The News Tribune wrote that, “The Northwest’s most spectacular theater… features an entirely new style of theater architecture, a style so radical from accepted standards that the Norshor has already earned the distinction of being more sensational than New York’s Radio City.” The first movie on opening night was Caught in the Draft with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, a war comedy. The U.S. would enter the second world war before the year was over.

The NorShor instantly became Duluth’s premier movie house. By September a refreshment stand selling popcorn, candy, and soda greeted patrons at the top of the Hall of Mirrors, and WEBC Radio was broadcasting live from the Milk Bar. The dairy-product dispensary, however, enjoyed only brief popularity and was replaced in 1946. Noted American muralist Eugene Gilboe painted a large Lake Superior scene to take the place of Krollman’s cartoon-like work. At the same time, he used his paints and brushes to “colorize” the Split Rock photomural.

The NorShor’s Milk Bar photographed in 1941. Note that the wait staff’s uniforms match the figures in the mural. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

It wasn’t the first time Gilboe decorated a theatre in Duluth. Thirty years earlier he lived in the Zenith City, partnering with interior decorator H. B. D. Holmboe. Together the two designed the decor of the Zelda and Grand theaters, both in 1914. In 1915 they executed a series of murals depicting the tea trade for the Minnesota Tea Company at 1917 West Superior Street. (During a renovation in the 1990s, a replica of the original black-and-white Split Rock photomural was created and installed over Gilboe’s colorization.)

During the 1946 makeover the auditorium’s Comedy and Drama plaster reliefs were removed from the medallions, replaced by paintings of identical classical female nudes by local artist Robert Anderson, who had also helped convert Duluth’s Lyceum Theatre from a vaudeville house to a movie house. Anderson’s grandson Bob Nelson wrote in the Duluth News Tribune in 2018 that his grandfather modeled the figure after his wife, Mae.

The architect’s sketches for the subjects of the plaster friezes within medallions along the NorShor’s auditorium walls. (Image: Midwest Architectural Archives)

Jim Heffernan, who covered arts and entertainment for both the Duluth Herald and Duluth News Tribune, recalls that the NorShor “retained its reputation as a first-run movie house [until] the early 1970s, when it had started to go down hill. When George R. Brown, its long-time manager, retired, everything started to change.” By then, the building’s tower was gone. According to the Duluth News Tribune, the tower had been inoperable for two years prior to its demise and “the building’s owners had it removed due to high maintenance costs.” Workers took it down March 8, 1968.

Perhaps the NorShor’s best-known event during the 1970s was the premier screening of the 1973 suspense thriller You’ll Like My Mother starring Patty Duke and Richard Thomas. The previous year, Elisabeth Congdon had allowed Universal Studios to use Glensheen, the historic Congdon family estate, as the film’s setting. Elisabeth, a devout Methodist, attended the premiere with other family members. She was taken aback by the film’s violence—taking place in the home she had lived in nearly her entire life—and kept repeating “oh my word” throughout the screening. Four years later Congdon and Velma Pietila were violently killed in the house.

The NorShor’s balcony in 1941. Note the projector booth above the balcony and the original “Comedy” medallion along the wall. (Image: Jim Heffernan)

Just a year later the Minnesota Amusement Co. gave up its lease on the NorShor. It was then operated by Pitt Theaters and then the Cinema Entertainment Corporation. In 1976 the Hotel Duluth Corporation purchased the Temple Opera Block, Orpheum Building, and Orpheum Annex and then sold them to Daniel H. Neviaser the following year. During this period the NorShor began offering second-run mainstream movies and even second-run pornography, including the 1974 “erotic science fiction fantasy” 2069 A Sex Odyssey.

In 1982 Dr. Eric Ringsred purchased the buildings. The physician, once considered Duluth’s leading preservationist, had helped to save historical buildings threatened by the expansion of I-35 through Duluth. Ringsred leased the NorShor to a number of operators in the 1980s, including Jerry Holisky, Charlie Sobczak, Northern Lights Co-op, George Munch and his son George Jr., Bunny Waterhouse, and Hassan Khatib.

The NorShor auditorium in 1941. Note the original “Drama” medallion along the wall. (Image: Jim Heffernan)

Harlan Quist managed the theatre from 1990 to 1994, during which a $300,000 renovation converted the balcony into a 340-seat movie house. Quist was born Harlan Bloomquist in Virginia, Minnesota, and later entered the publishing business. In 1968 he launched Harlan Quist Books, known for publishing “sophisticated children’s books.” According to his obituary, “He presented dance companies including the Hubbard Street troupe from Chicago, staged contemporary plays and presented conversations with authors like Edward Albee. In 1994 he became ill with myasthenia gravis, which forced him to withdraw.”

The NorShor continued its evolution into a performance space. In 1996 Marv Pomeroy opened the “Stage Door Lounge” on the mezzanine level and Donald Schraufnagel, who today manage’s the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Weber Music Hall, promoted events. Rick Boo, son of former Duluth mayor Ben Boo, took over management in 1997. During Boo’s tenure the NorShor became primarily known as a live music venue featuring local and sometimes national acts and helped turn one local musician’s annual birthday celebration into the Homegrown Music Festival.

Bob Anderson painted the classical nude figures that replaced the plaster Comedy and Drama friezes in 1946. (Image: Duluth News Tribune)

In 2001 city councilors Russ Stewart and Donny Ness proposed that the city of Duluth purchase the Norshor and that “nonprofit group composed largely of current tenants to manage the facilities.” Despite support from Mayor Gary Doty, the Duluth economic and Development Authority passed on the idea.

Boo left the NorShor in 2003 to open Carmody Irish Pub with Eddie Gleason. For the next two years several different groups and individuals tried to keep the NorShor vital as a performance space and occasional movie house, including Tim Hart, Pete Stuller, Craig Samborski, Chip Stewart, and J. P. Renquest. In 2006 Jim Gradishar converted the historic movie house into a strip club called the “NorShor Experience,” much to the chagrin of those who loved the old theatre.

Architects Liebenberg & Kaplan’s sketch for a mural depicting the film industry. It was not included in the NorShor’s final design. (Image: Midwest Architectural Archives)

In 2009 Dr. Ringsred, with Don Ness in office as mayor, tried to stop the development of a $4 million extension of Duluth’s Skywalk system. The new link would connect the Fond du Lac Casino, across Second Avenue from the Temple Opera Block, to the Sheraton Hotel on the northeast corner of Third Avenue West and Superior Street. Between those building stand the Hotel Duluth, which is owned by Sherman & Associates, owners of the Sheraton. The Skywalk was designed to pass through the historic Temple Opera Block.

The following March Gradishar committed suicide, and in June the city purchased the Temple Opera Block, the Orpheum, and the Orpheum Annex/NorShor for $2.6 million. By then Rinsgred had proven himself to be an irresponsible steward of historic landmarks. His buildings were in disrepair, and he had covered the roofs of Orpheum, Annex, Temple Opera Block, and others with tires filled with dirt trying to both create rooftop gardens and prevent leaks; instead the method created leaks. He owned the historic Pastoret Terrace, which was home to the notorious Kozy Bar. The building was gutted by fire just months after selling the NorShor to the city. Ringsred had not properly insured the Pastoret, and it has sat as a burned-out ruin ever since. (The city now owns the building.)

The NorShor added this snack bar shortly after it first opened. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

The Duluth Playhouse was brought in as a partner to raise funds and manage the facility once it underwent a renovation. The work, Mayor Ness estimated, would cost $4 or $5 million and would take two or four years to complete.

In December 2011 Ness announced the city was considering selling the NorShor to Sherman and Associates. DEDA director Brian Hansen explained to the Duluth News Tribune that “public bodies, the city and DEDA are unable to make use of tax credits that are readily available to a private developer. Sherman & Associates would become that private partner. Hansen said it would take “about $7.4 million to renovate the buildings and bring them up to snuff.”

The NorShor Theatre’s iconic tower photographed in 1941. (Image: Midwest Architectural Archives)

Both the purchase and the renovation were delayed until June 2016. By then the price tag on the renovation had jumped to $30 million. By then DEDA had invested $4.5 million in the project  $2.3 million for the building itself and another $2.2 million in tax-increment financing funds. The state provided $7.1 million and Sherman & Associates $7.5 million in equity and new market tax credits and another $7.4 million in federal and state historic tax credits by the time the renovation was complete. The Playhouse, meanwhile, had to raise another $4.5 million.

The theater reopened February 1, 2018, with a production of the musical “Momma Mia!” The facility will operate as the NorShor Arts Center until ownership and management is eventually transferred to the Duluth Playhouse. The space will also be available to “other community nonprofits and events will use the space.”

Unfortunately, the renovation does not include a reconstruction of the NorShor’s iconic tower. Its cost was estimated at $1 million—3 percent of the total renovation budget—and the idea was shelved to save money.

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