The long and storied life of the NorShor, Part IIPart two of the history of the NorShor Theater, starting with its purchase by emergency room physician Eric Ringsred.
In 1982, Eric Ringsred purchased the NorShor, primarily, he said, to keep the building out of the hands of those who might destroy it.
The emergency room doctor and native Duluthian paid $107,000 for the NorShor, the NorShor Annex building and the Temple Opera building.
“Nobody else wanted them,” Ringsred said in an interview earlier this week. “The city had given up on this end of downtown. This whole area ... there were a lot of places boarded up. I got ‘em cheap because most people thought they were gonna be demolished.”
He’s not blowing smoke. Many historic buildings in Duluth’s downtown were demolished in the second half of the 20th century: some because they had fallen too far into disrepair, others in the name of progress.
“When I came here in 1983, Duluth was on a rampage: tearing down old buildings and putting up ugly, 1980s buildings,” said Margi Preus, one of the founders of the Colder by the Lake comedy troupe. “Eric started buying them, just to keep them out of the hands of those who would tear them down.”
Ringsred was already a strong voice in Duluth for historic preservation. He spearheaded the drive to return the diaphone fog horn to the Duluth Ship Canal from 1976 to 2006, fought against the initial proposal for an elevated Interstate 35 running between downtown and Canal Park and, of course, bought the NorShor and the Temple Opera building, which housed Duluth’s first public library when it was built in 1890.
At the time that Ringsred purchased the NorShor and surrounding buildings, the NorShor was still operational as a movie theater. The Temple Opera building, on the other hand, was not in good shape. It was unheated, with only a few of its rooms rented in warmer weather by local bands who needed rehearsal space.
“I believe I’m the first person to put money into these buildings since their heyday,” he said. “I put about $400,000 into the Temple building: new electricals, new heating plant, stripped the wood.”
Even then, Ringsred had his own vision for the block of buildings.
Not the right time
When Cinema Entertainment Co. — which had the lease to run the movie theater even after its sale — decided to stop showing movies at the NorShor, Ringsred set about making his dream come true.
A 1983 Duluth News Tribune story talks about that renewal:
“… The Orpheum Café and the Backstage Deli are bound to wake up a sleepy stretch of Superior Street,” Bob Ashenmacher wrote, explaining that the café at 201 E. Superior St. would be home to the comedy troupe Colder by the Lake and that the deli occupied the second floor lobby at the NorShor. “The new topic (for Colder by the Lake) is ‘Duluth: Smelting Pot of the World.’”
Ringsred rattles off the businesses that were located in his East Superior Street buildings in the mid-1980s.
“At 201, we had the Orpheum Performing Arts Café,” he said. “At 203 was Jesperson Photo Studio and Nancy Berrini Art Gallery; 207 was Superior Guitar; 209 was Fifield Photography.
Stan Hendrixson had a curio shop at 211. Granted, it wasn’t really arts related, but his family had had a shop there since the 1920s, so we figured he was part of the history.
Then, at 211, was the NorShor Theater (and the deli, a sandwich bar that served wine and beer and sold musical albums and merchandise of Minnesota musicians). At 213, Studio Graphics, did graphic design, screen printing, stuff like that.”
He shook his head.
“I think I have the misfortune of being ahead of my time,” he said wryly.
Maybe. The front of a flyer from 1984 lists all the films showing at the NorShor — mostly classics mixed in with arts and second-run movies — while a menu inside details the myriad kinds of coffee beans and tea a person could purchase at the Orpheum Cafe.
“The coffee shop was really novel,” Preus said. “We had beans flown in from Seattle. And that was before there was a coffee shop on every corner of a city.”
Included in the flyer’s November 1984 theater listings was one called “Don Ness Shows Off Duluth.”
It wasn’t Duluth Mayor Don Ness.
“My dad (Don Ness, Sr.) had a variety show in Duluth through the ’80s called ‘Don Ness Shows Off Duluth,’” the mayor explained when asked about the listing. “ It was a combination of music, comedy and interviews. He did 10 to 12 shows in all at various locations. I was at the show he did at the NorShor in 1984. I was 10 years old. … If I recall correctly, Eric Ringsred was a guest of that very show.”
Ringsred dream wouldn’t last. The economy in Duluth tanked in the later '80s and stores on Superior Street started closing down.
The NorShor itself went through several managers in the 1980s, starting with Two Harbors native Jerry Holisky, who began operating the theater shortly after Ringsred purchased the block of buildings. Holisky left in 1983, handing management over to Charlie Sobczak. Public support, which had been decent, started to wane.
From 1985 through 1988, several operators came and went at the NorShor. Ringsred’s brother took over from Sobczak, and ran the theater with the non-profit group Northern Lights for a year or two.
In 1986 in the Duluth News Tribune, Bob Ashenmacher wrote about the NorShor’s “diverse” programming since Ringsred had purchased the building in 1982.
“Movie fare has jumped between ‘art’ and classic films, nearly-new releases for $1 admission, film festivals and offbeat ‘cult’ films. … A variety of live acts have appeared on its stage, from musicians to comedians to full-contact karate fighters.”
At that time, new leaseholders George Munch and his son were planning to show first run or nearly first run movies at the theater.
George Munch Jr. was in a jail cell when he answered an advertisement Ringsred had placed in Box Office Magazine.
“I found that out later,” said Ringsred, detailing the Munch’s short but colorful tenure at the NorShor. “Turns out he had leased another theater in Colorado. He would get films there, pay for them and then send them here and show them without paying. The FBI caught up with him. I think they lasted through the fall here and then the boom was lowered on the Munch family.”
Next to manage the NorShor was Bunny Waterhouse, a promoter who brought in fewer films and more country and western acts.
At that same time, the non-profit Citizens for the NorShor was also trying to raise money to restore the old theater. Citizens for the NorShor wanted to see the building in public ownership and operated as a center for the arts, entertainment and humanities. That didn't happen either.
Syrian investor and sometimes-UMD-student Hassan Khatib was the last in the string of short-lived ’80s ventures at the NorShor.
“The old movie theater on East Superior Street has been bringing in Twin Cities rock bands for the past couple months,” Duluth News Tribune reporter J.P. Furst wrote in December 1988, noting that a performance by Minneapolis band Stickman pulled in the “customary crowd of punkish high school kids” as well as the occasional middle-aged rocker.
“It’s not the way older people remember the elegant NorShor, but it does make it a ‘functional’ night spot," one young woman with a reddish-blonde mohawk observed in the story.
Khatib was optimistic at the time, excited about a new $3,500 gas heating system that should have enabled the theater to stay open during the winter for the first time in several years.
The young manager told the DNT that as many as 400 people turn up on a Friday night to dance, smoke and listen, despite the fact that the interior of the old theater could be almost as cold as the weather outside.
Heat or no heat, Khatib couldn’t make a profit at the old theater either, and he gave up not long after the above story ran in the DNT.
For a time, the NorShor went dark, coming to life only for one-off events, struggling even then. A city building inspector closed the theater shortly before a “power-thrash concert” was set to commence in May of 1989. The concert eventually went on, once Ringsred moved a part from the stage, but by that time three bands and many fans had already gone home.
A bold outsider
Enter Harlan Quist, a native of Virginia, Minn. who became famous for sophisticated children’s books. Quist spent most of his adult life in New York and Paris, and returned home to the Northland to try to revive the NorShor Theatre with avant-garde dance and theater.
“Harlan Quist was a big chapter,” Ringsred said, noting that the impresario counted among his friends Julie Andrews and Ed Asner. “He had grand ideas for the NorShor. He wanted to put Duluth on the map with the entertainment world.”
Quist and his non-profit Theater in the State purchased the NorShor from Ringsred for $98,000 in 1990. The NorShor reopened in 1992, after Quist built a new 234-seat balcony theater for stage and screen by closing off the balcony. The renovation cost approximately $300,000. A total of $200,000 came from the McKnight Foundation, which promised an additional $100,000 if Quist came up with matching contributions of $200,000 by the end of 1993.
Quist couldn’t do it and he never got the additional money.
Still, from 1992 to 1994, Quist brought world-class dance and theater to Duluth — to the DECC as well as the NorShor — along with a Pulitzer-prize winning author who attracted only 50 people and a staging of “True West” that lost $8,000.
Quist died on May 13, 2000, at age 69, six years after moving to Minneapolis and leaving his Duluth dreams — and the NorShor — behind.
“If Harlin had a fault, it was that he gave people too much credit,” Dominic Papatola, former theater critic for the Duluth News Tribune, told the paper for Quist’s obituary. “He assumed that if he brought top-caliber dance to town, Duluth would come to see it. They didn’t. He assumed that if he put his heart and soul into making the NorShor a success, the community would step up and do its part. It never did.”
Photographer Bruce Ojard worked with Quist, mostly on a volunteer basis, as “the tech guy,” running light boards, doing sound cues, whatever was needed.
Ojard gave Ringsred and Quist mixed reviews.
“Eric’s heart was and, I think, still is in the right place,” Ojard said in a phone interview earlier this week. “But he was careless. For example, when Harlan took over the theater, no one bothered to take the water out of the pipes in the building and they froze and burst. As the owner, he should have done that.”
As for Quist, Ojard thought he had wonderful ideas but alienated too many people with his arrogance.
When Quist left town in 1994, Builder’s Commonwealth, the contractor on the job, was owed $102,000 and Ringsred had been paid little or nothing of the promised $98,000.
The NorShor closed again.
The next summer, Ringsred and Arno Kahn, of Builders, assumed control and operation of the building as well as Quist‘s non-profit, Theater in the State. The theater housed periodic performances by small local companies like Renegade Comedy Theatre.
It would be years before the theater was open again on a regular basis.
Don Schraufnagel, owner of Great Northern Music, brought in local music and occasional events and ran the bar in the NorShor for about a year, in starting in the fall of 1996.
“Don actually proposed buying the NorShor, but for some reason I wanted to try Rick Boo,” Ringsred said. “That was probably late 1997.”
Boo, who ran the theater as president of Crossroads Flux, reopened the theater in January 1998. He and his partners, Chris Mackey and Jay Koski, took much of the building back to the bare walls, repainted, installed new carpet and made several other upgrades. They decorated the building with pieces of its past, and brought back the art gallery that debuted with the theater in 1941.
Boo did a little bit of everything: showed movies in the upstairs theater, had live music on the mezzanine, and even offered children's birthday parties during Sunday's family matinees.
“Last fall we had Cajun music on Friday, a transvestites drag review on Saturday and a punk rock band on Sunday, all in one weekend,” Boo told writer Tony Dierckins for a story that appeared in the March 1999 Senior Reporter. “… If you can’t find something to do at the NorShor, you’re not trying.”
In 2001, the city of Duluth discussed buying the NorShor with money left over from a downtown tax-increment financing district. Mayor Gary Doty wanted the city (or rather the Duluth Economic Development Authority) to buy the NorShor, Temple Opera, the Bridgeman-Russell and the NorShor Annex buildings for $1.48 million to preserve the landmarks.
DEDA bought the Bridgeman-Russell building for $330,000 and said “no” to the rest of the deal.
In 2003, the doors of Duluth’s only remaining historic theater closed again.
“For Rick Boo, manager and co-owner of the NorShor Theater, there was no ignoring the stark numbers on his balance sheet anymore,” read the story in the Duluth News Tribune Oct.16, 2003.
Boo estimated he was $80,000 in debt. He closed the theater that November.
Many suitors, no long-term commitment
Next to manage the NorShor were Tim Hartt and Pete Steller, in April 2004. The duo only lasted a few months before Theater in the State asked them to step down.
In July 2004, local entertainment veterans Chip Stewart and Craig Samborski began co-managing the NorShor. They bowed out after six months.
The next manager would be J.P. Rennquist, who worked to re-establish the NorShor as a neighborhood bar with a focus on local bands and movie theater events, along with some theater, including a comic opera by Colder by the Lake called “The Phantom of the NorShor” which played in April 2005.
“J.P. was very idealistic,” Ringsred said. “He’s a nice guy and I love some of the stuff he did there, but he was more of a dreamer than a businessman. Colder by the Lake did “Phantom of the NorShor” while he was there; it was wonderful. Maybe they would do it again if the city takes over.”
In August 2005, the NorShor shut down again, this time because Duluth City Fire Marshall Erik Simonson closed it because of fire code violations.
From theater to strip club
In 2006, Jim Gradishar announced he was planning to open the city’s second fully-nude bar in the old theater. Gradishar owned Fuzzy’s, a non-alcoholic strip club, as well as the Wabasha, an adult bookstore.
The idea of the NorShor as a “gentleman’s club” was not well-received by neighboring businesses, or by city officials and many community members. Ringsred apologized to neighboring business owners for not giving them more notice; however, he didn’t apologize for the change of theme.
“From the outset, Gradishar said his business would have nude dancing, live music, comedy and sports. But he initially expected the theater to begin daily operations by July 2006,” reporter Chris Hamilton wrote in the DNT. However, Gradishar and Ringsred had a lot of work to do first.
More from Hamilton and the DNT.
“The imposition of state fire codes by city fire department officials means the theatre’s mezzanine and downstairs lobby cannot be used as a stage. Gradishar said bringing it to code means he and Ringsred must spend $70,000 to have a long-needed sprinkler system installed in the 1920s-era building.
“He said work has begun and will be complete by the end of the year. When the first stage of renovations and safety updating are complete, Gradishar said he and his partners will have poured more than $200,000 into the dilapidated theater since last spring.”
Fire codes weren’t the only laws that delayed the launch of the club. The state, and then the city, passed laws regulating where strip clubs could be located. In the end, however, the courts decided in Gradishar’s favor.
However, even with that victory, the strip club never became very popular. Plus, Gradishar’s legal battles — over the club’s liquor license as well as personal infractions — weren’t over.
On March 18 of this year, he committed suicide.
Ringsred publicly blamed harassment by city officials, police and the media for Gradishar‘s decline.
“It was a lynching by proxy,” said Ringsred, in a DNT story written about the strip club owner’s death. “He was a perfectly healthy guy for two … years. Then he started slowly going downhill.”
Not quite two weeks ago, Mayor Ness announced that the city had signed a purchase agreement with Ringsred to purchase the NorShor and surrounding buildings for $2.6 million.
Since then, both DEDA and the City Council have approved the deal. Ringsred said Gradishar’s partner, Tina Jackson, has agreed to close or relocate the strip club, a stipulation of the agreement.
Ness, who said the NorShor was his hangout during the Rick Boo years, is excited about the purchase and its potential for continuing the revitalization of old downtown Duluth.
“The NorShor has a special place in many hearts and there is a lot of optimism about this,” Ness said.
He also credits Ringsred with keeping the building intact.
“Eric deserves a tremendous amount of credit,” Ness said. “If you look at the plight of many other buildings of that vintage, they did fall apart and were torn down. The fact that Eric owned that building and preserved it has to be the primary reason it still stands."
Ringsred is quietly pleased about the sale, although still troubled by Gradishar’s death and the harassment — in his eyes — that he thinks contributed to his friend’s state of mind.
“This is good for me,” Ringsred said in an interview earlier this week. “I could never hope to do the theater the way it should be.
“I also think it’s a great thing for the Duluth Playhouse. A 110-year-old organization in the last of the old theaters in Duluth. That would be the perfect happy storybook ending for the NorShor Theater.
"Or should I say rebeginning?”