The Zelda Theater

The Zelda Theater photographed ca. 1919 by Hugh McKenzie. [Image: Dale Johnson]

311–313 West Superior Street | Architects: Wangenstein & Guillison | Built: 1914 | Extant

William M. Abrahamson opened a saloon at 31 East Superior Street in 1906, across the street from the newly opened Savoy Theater, a tiny vaudeville house within the Hayes Block. It was also less than a block away from the Bijou, which by 1913 had been renamed the Empress. That’s the year Abrahamson decided to try his hand at theater management, forming the Wm. M. Abrahamson Theater Co. and purchasing both the Empress and the Savoy. His wife Bessie served as vice-president.

In 1914 Abrahamson hired John Wangenstein and Ephraim Giliuson to design a moving picture house along the upper 300 block of West Superior Street to be called the Zelda Theater. Newspapers described their vision for the building’s façade a “true modern Doric architectural terra-cotta treatment.” Its cream-and-green color scheme was carried on throughout the building’s interior, trimmed in quarter-sawn oak and soft brown mahogany. While newspapers noted that its Kinodrome room (projection booth) was “absolutely fireproof,” they failed to describe much of the theater’s auditorium, but other reports provide clues. One testified that the Zelda would be one of Duluth’s largest moving picture houses and include a balcony. Its auditorium must have been large, as the News Tribune reported that 2,500 “delighted” Duluthians attended opening night on July 27, 1914, calling it “charming” and “swell.” Whether they all had a seat remains unanswered. A 1985 report revealed that it had coffered tin ceilings and “ornate cornice work.”

Abrahamson was particularly proud of his new theater’s organ, advertising it on the building as “Pipe Organ DeLuxe.” The Duluth News Tribune explained that the organ, a Kimball “Human Voiced” Philharmonic, was not only the finest pipe organ in the world, but also “the most perfect instrument of its kind with reference to its imitative powers.” Herbert MacFarren was hired to play selections on the organ between movie screenings. The Abrahamsons not only guaranteed their films would be “wholesome and benefitting,” but also offered religious congregations the use of the Zelda’s auditorium and organ for free on Sunday afternoons should they need the space while remodeling their churches.

William Abrahamson died in 1924, after which Bessie hired George Carlson to manage the theater. By then it included the Zelda Lunch Counter, offering food, cigars, and pocket billiards. In 1928 Bessie sold the Zelda to Gust Kallimanis, Paul Pantazes, and Peter Paris, who closed the theater and reopened the building as the Zelda Inn (later the Zelda Inn Grill) which operated until 1964. The building, whose address had been changed to 309 West Superior Street, then became home to the Boyce Drug store. In 1985 Glen and Karen Anderson Freberg purchased the building, converting it into the new home of Karen’s family business, the Peterson-Anderson Flower Shop. Engwalls florists purchased Peterson-Anderson in 2015, and the business was moved. The building is currently home to Midwest Professional Planners, a financial planning firm—and looks nothing like it did in 1914.