Orpheum Theatre

The Orpheum Theater and Temple Opera Block in September 1929, photographer unknown. [Image: Jim Heffernan]

8–12  2nd Avenue East | Architect: J. E. O. Pridemore | Built: 1910 | Extant (sort of…)

Duluth capitalist Guilford Hartley invested in many things, from timber lands to iron mines, celery farms to cattle ranches, and wholesale houses to newspapers. So it surprised few in 1909 when he announced he would construct a world-class vaudeville house on the site of the Temple Opera House. Hartley had recently purchased the Temple Rink (built from the Opera House’s ruins), the Temple Opera Block, and properties east of the block from 207 to 213 East Superior Street. His goal was to lease the theater to the Orpheum Theater Circuit, then the most successful vaudeville circuit in the U.S. In July 1909 Hartley inked a deal with the Orpheum Company in Chicago and sat down with its architect, John E. O. Pridemore, to consider plans for Duluth’s own Orpheum Theater, which would stand over the footprint of the Temple Opera House.

Hartley first had to clear an obstacle: Duluth already had an Orpheum Theater, a small motion-picture house opened in 1908 by Thomas Furniss within a building at 114 West Superior Street. Furniss agreed to rename his theater the Odeum.

Primarily faced in common brick, the Orpheum’s only exterior ornamentation appears along its Second Avenue West façade, which Pridemore adorned with Neoclassical elements. Reddish-orange brick covers much of the façade, which is divided into bays by four fluted Ionic pilasters made of terra-cotta. The pilasters appear to support a terra-cotta pediment that includes dentils, palmettes, and egg-and-dart moldings. An ornamental iron canopy originally covered the front entrance.

The Orpheum auditorium’s balcony in September 1929, photographer unknown. [Image: Jim Heffernan]

Patrons entered into the Orpheum’s opulent lobby, finished in a “white marble tile floor, countersunk rubber mats, an Italian marble base and imitation stone walls, and richly ornamented cornice and ceiling,” as reported by the Duluth News Tribune. Marble staircases with ornamental iron railings then led them to their auditorium seats. The auditorium itself held two balconies and ten private boxes. The seats were constructed of mahogany and upholstered with silk velour. As one of the first theaters to utilize cantilever construction, its auditorium stood free of visible support columns, ensuring a clear view of the stage from every seat in the house. Like the Temple Opera House, the Orpheum even included a small art gallery, with its own entrance at northwest corner of the building.

The day after the theater’s opening night, the Duluth Herald reported that “the audience filled every seat from boxes to gallery. 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 sophisticated audience was “more metropolitan than any I have seen outside of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.”

Mayor Marcus Cullum told audience members they were “looking swell,” before remarking that “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 streetcars 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 auditorium’s stage in September 1929, photographer unknown. [Image: Jim Heffernan]

So just what did Duluth’s “metropolitan” crowd enjoy that night? Not another opera star, that was certain. The Orpheum’s first patrons were treated to world-class Vaudeville: a musical comedy called The Leading Lady, trapeze artists the Flying Martins, “Greek songstress comedienne” Nellie Nichols, a pack of “canine comedians” called Zertho’s Dogs, “Italian street musicians” Lyons & Yosco, “Lillipution acrobats and burlesque comedians” the Russow Midgets, and funny songman Fred Drupe.

After the Empress Theater burned in 1915, the Orpheum competed only with the Lyceum Theatre for quality acts. As a member of the Orpheum circuit, Hartley’s theater was guaranteed the nation’s finest talent. Mary Pickford, W. C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Al Jolsen (in blackface), and Jackie “Uncle Fester” Coogan all graced the Orpheum’s stage, as did Duluth’s own Emily Schupp, an interpretive dancer known throughout the world as “Lada.”
But in the 1920s the popularity of sound motion pictures began killing vaudeville. When Hartley died in 1922, the Orpheum and Temple Opera Block became the possession of the Hartley Company and later the Hartley Family Trust. In 1926 the Hartley Company, no doubt encouraged by the increased popularity of the automobile, decided to build a parking and service garage on the adjacent lots it owned east of the Temple Opera Block. The parking garage—which also offered welding, washing, and greasing—adjoined the theater and included offices for the Orpheum.

While the garage was under construction, the Orpheum’s auditorium was adapted to serve as a movie house. The theater’s main entry was moved to 207 East Superior Street, the garage’s first bay. Workers moved the Orpheum’s original Second Avenue East awning over the new entry and attached a large vertical sign reading “Orpheum” to the to eastern end of the Temple Opera Block. By then it was no longer part of the Orpheum circuit but managed locally by the same company that ran the Garrick Theater.

Unfortunately those changes couldn’t keep the theater lucrative, as many smaller movie houses had opened in downtown Duluth since 1910, and they were much less expensive to operate than grand performance halls like the Orpheum and Lyceum. From 1934 to 1940, 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 1941 the theater and garage were transformed into the NorShor Theatre, but much of the Orpheum’s Neoclassic façade survives.