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Local view: Theater can be the next great iconic venue

The theater inside the NorShor was illuminated with a red neon light in June 2010. (File / News Tribune)

The $6.95 million awarded for the renovation of Duluth’s historic NorShor Theatre in this year’s state bonding bill will be money that could not be better spent.

My first experience at the NorShor was seeing the animated Walt Disney film, “The Jungle Book,” back when Duluth had only three single-screen theaters. I remember the NorShor always was packed to Superior Street. In addition to that film, I saw musical acts performed at the NorShor, including the Minneapolis rockers The Suburbs and Sussman Lawrence. National acts I saw at the NorShor included Marshall Crenshaw and Maynard Ferguson Big Band, which put on a performance that brought the house down. The NorShor has great acoustics.

Other restored historic entertainment venues I have seen across the country include the Kato Ballroom in Mankato, Minn., which opened in 1946, and the Park Theatre in Estes Park, Colo., which opened in 1913 and is the oldest movie theater in the country and still shows first-run movies. Last year the Park put in a new digital projector and Dolby sound system. It’s a great place to see a movie.

The granddaddy of all entertainment historic venues has to be the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, which opened in 1934 and is worth a visit just west off of Interstate 35W north of Des Moines. It can be goose-bumpy walking on the stage there where Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Richie Valens gave their final performances in 1959. A little-known fact from “the day the music died” was that the Winter Dance Party tour performance before the one at the Surf was at the Duluth National Guard Armory. A friend of my Mom’s snuck backstage in Duluth and was able to get Buddy Holly himself to autograph a half-pint bottle of Jack Daniel’s he pulled out from his sport coat.

The NorShor can be the next great iconic historic venue and a must-see for anyone visiting Duluth.

There has been restoration investment for some of the above venues, and they are all in pristine shape. The NorShor has the potential to generate revenue, including via business meetings, wedding receptions, privates parties, school outings, banquets, catering, foreign films, fundraising and film festivals.

Some time ago, there was a hot humid Friday night in Duluth when some friends and I went to the NorShor to see the legendary Minneapolis blues band Willie and the Bees. It was fun because we were the only four there, we had the dance floor to ourselves, and what was even more fun was that the band played until 3 a.m., long past the 1 a.m. bar closing time. Fun yes, but the Duluth community will have to give the theater far more support if it wants a return on its investment.

Steve Belsvik of Aurora, Colo., grew up in Duluth and lived in Duluth and Minneapolis for 47 years. He works in real estate sales.