The long and storied life of the NorShor, Part IA look back at the first 70 years of the NorShor and Orpheum theaters.
If the NorShor Theater were the religious type, it would have to be Hindu, because it’s been reincarnated as much or more than any other building in downtown Duluth.
The building at 211 E. Superior St. was once part of the Orpheum Theatre — intended primarily to be a vaudeville house — built nearly 100 years ago.
Since then it’s been a deluxe movie theater, a music venue for both regional and national acts, a dance club, a bar, a second-run movie theater, a movie theater specializing in foreign and independent films, the birthplace of the Homegrown music festival, a haunted house and a strip club.
Again and again the newspaper headlines have touted the news that the NorShor has a “new life,” particularly over the past two decades. All those recent lives were relatively short-lived, especially when compared to the first 70 years, when the building could — and did — hold its own with any other theater in town.
The Orpheum Theatre
Built by G.G. Hartley in 1910 at a cost of $150,000 to challenge the Empress Theater as a vaudeville house, the Orpheum was part of a theater boom in the Twin Ports in the early part of the last century.
An advertisement in a June 1910 issue of the Duluth News Tribune declared the soon-to-be-opened Orpheum the “home of the biograph pictures and promised dramatic westerns and war scenes.”
Still, the new theater was built primarily as a high-class vaudeville house, which would feature anything from music and dancers to magicians, trained animals, visiting lecturers and more.
A News Tribune reporter painted a written picture of the new theater in a story the day before the Orpheum opened on Aug. 22, 1910:
“As the observer approaches the building on Second Avenue, either from Superior or First Street, the front of the house looms up in true colonial design with pilasters and atablature and window effects which give the appearance of a theater. The material used is white terra cotta and red and dark pressed brick laid up with alternating colors, what builders know as the Flemish bond.”
An artistic ornamental iron canopy was placed over the entrance, extending out over the sidewalk “in such a manner that patrons of the house may step from a carriage even in the heaviest rain, without getting wet.”
There were four entrances to the Orpheum noted in the story (all from Second Avenue East), but 27 fire exits: eight from the main floor, eight from the balcony, six from the lower gallery and five from the upper gallery.
Many well-known performers would grace the stage of the high-class vaudeville theater, including Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Mary Pickford, Jack Benny and W.C. Fields (who performed as a juggler there in 1913), to later actors such as Ethel Barrymore and Harry Ellerby, who performed “White Oaks” with the New York cast in 1939, a year that a number of national theater tours stopped at the Orpheum.
Reinvented for film
Vaudeville was dead by the 1940s, and a new venture (plus a new entrance) was born: the NorShor.
In 1940, famous Midwestern theater architect J.J. Liebenberg extensively remodeled and redesigned the theater in an art deco fashion and made it into a premier movie theater. Patrons would enter from Superior Street instead of Second Avenue East. (The Orpheum building survives, although its entrance is now a boarded-up bus stop).
It was a dramatic makeover, according to Duluthian Rick Boo, who leased and operated the NorShor for several years during the late 1990s.
“The NorShor is actually a building inside a building,” Boo told local writer/ publisher Tony Dierckins for a Senior Reporter story in March 1999. “The stage for the Orpheum was actually on the east side of the building — the NorShor’s stage is on the west. They literally turned things around 180 degrees.”
According to Liebenberg, who also designed theaters in the Twin Cities (including the Granada, the Wayzata, the Edina, the Hollywood, the Uptown and the Varsity), Sioux Falls and Fargo, among others, the NorShor would lead the nation in theater architecture (not to mention milk bars). Liebenberg wrote of the project in the Duluth Herald in July of 1941, when the new theater made its debut:
“In striking contrast to the existing "modern" vogue, the NorShor Theatre is charting a venturesome course in architectural form and design. It is both refreshing and inspiring. It represents a departure from the hide-bound, sterile crudities of the past decade, which the monotonous functional designers so painfully thrust upon us.
“In plan form, the theater employs many interesting silhouettes or patterns. The lobby, for example, is hexagonal; the foyer is an elongated oval which blends rather effortlessly into a rectangle with softened and rounded corners in the entresole.
“The huge high-ceilinged Arrowhead Lounge, which forms a bridge to the terraced milk bar, is lozenge-shaped in plan. ... The easy flow of the plan is particularly emphasized in the auditorium, which at no point has walls which are either parallel or straight in line. ...
“And yet, with it all, there is a sense of vast spaciousness, of repose and of comfort.”
And then there was the milk bar.
“The most unusual spot in the entire NorShor Theater is the world’s only theater milk bar, located just off the Arrowhead Lounge,” the Duluth News Tribune reported July 10, 1941. “The backbar of the milk bar is a novel mural of dairy and farm life created in the Walt Disney manner by Gustaf Krollman of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It contains figures of dancing calves, skipping milk maids and other intriguing figures. ... Only dairy products will be served at the milk bar, which might be termed a type of dry night club. Milk drinks in novelty form, ice creams and malted milks will be featured.”
The new NorShor also featured an exterior tower which rose 125 feet above the sidewalk. It was completely sheathed in porcelain (matching the building’s exterior) and was designed to withstand a normal wind pressure of more than 100 miles an hour. The foundations supporting the tower were carried down to bedrock, wrote Liebenberg. The tower had 3,000 lights and was visible from 60 miles.
It was a “magical” movie theater, wrote long-time Duluth News Tribune columnist Jim Heffernan in a November 2006 column, reminiscing about going to movies there as a child:
“Its main entrance was eye-popping, with a hall of mirrors leading from the box office to the auditorium lobby area, which was dominated by a pair of curving staircases leading to the mezzanine and balcony,” Heffernan wrote. “Back on the main floor, the auditorium walls featured huge, dimly lighted murals — female nudes pausing in a forest glade.
“... Before each movie began the screen was shielded by a huge curtain inside the imposing proscenium arch.
“When the feature was ready to begin, and soundtrack music rose, the movie’s image would be projected at first on the curtain, which, in a few seconds, would be drawn back to reveal the screen. ...”
When the movie was over, Heffernan and his parents would often stop at the art gallery located just off the main downstairs lobby.
“No other theater in Duluth even attempted such pageantry or had such class,” Heffernan continued. “It made going to movies at the NorShor really special, like dining in a fine restaurant versus stopping by a café for a blue-plate special.”
Granted, it did cost a little more, Heffernan said. Rather than the 9 cents charged by the Lyceum for children’s admission, the NorShor charged 12 cents.
A good run
The NorShor held its own for another 30-some years, its marquee carrying the names of film greats.
The opening movie at the NorShor was “Caught in the Draft” with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour.
It was quickly followed by films starring Clark Gable and Rosalind Russell, Charlie Chaplin, Abbott and Costello, Bette Davis and James Cagney, among others.
Records, other than advertisements for the various movies showing at the NorShor, are relatively sparse for the intervening years, likely a case of “no news is good news.”
The theater’s interior was remodeled less extensively only five years after it opened as the NorShor. The new color scheme was much bolder, featuring Aregon rust, Apollo blue and lemon chartreuse. Among the many changes, the photo mural of Split Rock lighthouse was replaced with a hand-painted mural by artist Eugene Gilboe, who also painted a huge mural of Lake Superior in the mezzanine lounge. The milk bar was also replaced.
Next to go was the impressive white tower; it was removed in March 1967. The theater’s management told the Duluth Herald that “maintenance on the structure had become too great.”
Seven years later, in May 1974, Plitt Theatres Inc. of Chicago purchased 123 motion picture theaters, including the NorShor and the Palace in Superior.
In 1982, the Cinema Entertainment Corp. of St. Cloud closed the theater.
Part II next week
In 1982, Duluthian Eric Ringsred purchased the NorShor, primarily he said, to keep the building out of the hands of those who might destroy it.