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Jim Heffernan column: With a storied past, NorShor's curtain rises on a promising future

The interior of Duluth's NorShor Theatre, as seen in September 1941, a couple of months after its grand opening. (Photo courtesy of Jim Heffernan)

What made the NorShor Theatre so special?

  • Maybe it was that brightly lighted tower — you could call it a steeple — rising 10 stories above Superior Street toward the starry heavens above and visible to mariners 60 miles out on Lake Superior. (Only MGM had more stars than there were in heaven, it was said.)
  • Perhaps it was that long hall of mirrors lining the largest theater lobby in town, maybe anywhere, you thought as you made your way from the box office to the auditorium entrances, passing by two imposing circular staircases leading to the balcony and a tastefully decorated lounge.
  • It could have been the darkened auditorium itself with its art deco ornamentation, including huge circular-framed murals on each sidewall displaying artistically posed female nudes in forest glades.
  • It very likely was the huge gold curtain draped within the ornate proscenium arch and shielding the screen until the music swelled, signaling the start of a feature, when the curtain smoothly parted and the movie could begin.
  • It didn't hurt that it had a functioning art gallery off the lobby featuring works by local artists and photographers.
  • Ticket takers and flashlight-bearing ushers in spiffy uniforms helped, too.
  • All pretty special.

    The marquee and tower of the NorShor Theatre are seen in September 1941.  (News Tribune file photo)Going to the NorShor was a moviegoing experience unlike any in Duluth, and far beyond, including theaters I've seen in such places as Minneapolis, Chicago and New York. In Duluth no other theater in the years I started going to movies had a curtain that opened and closed at the start and end of every feature. Many of the older theaters in Duluth in the NorShor's halcyon days were converted vaudeville houses originally designed as legitimate theaters — Lyceum, Lyric, Garrick.

    The NorShor was converted from one of those, too, but to achieve its modern art deco movie palace glory the old Orpheum Theater it replaced was gutted, virtually leaving only the outside walls. In the process the auditorium and balcony were reversed — 180 degrees. When you bought popcorn in the NorShor lobby you were standing about where the Orpheum stage had once been.

    The NorShor was born just a couple of years after I was, so for me attending it in the good years and the not-so-good years is a lifelong experience. There was nothing like it in Duluth. It was so special that when an appealing movie was booked into another theater it was somewhat of a disappointment.

    I suppose my most memorable experience at the NorShor was the one time it hosted a Hollywood-style world premiere that included some of the stars of the movie "Woman of the North Country," set in Duluth and the Iron Range but filmed entirely at Republic Studios in Hollywood.

    It was July 23, 1952. I was a 12-year-old movie-struck kid, so the arrival of a major — well, it seemed major — motion picture premiere right here in Duluth was the sun, the moon and the stars. Stars is right. The movie's actors, well-known at the time but largely forgotten now, were trotted out on a flatbed truck trailer serving as a stage beneath the marquee of the NorShor. Superior Street was closed to traffic for the occasion and filled with the throngs of area people drawn to this widely ballyhooed event. I was standing with a friend directly across Superior Street, with the hordes of the curious before me.

    Not all of us could get in to see the movie that night. In those days the NorShor could accommodate something over 1,000 patrons on the main floor and balcony. But "Woman of the North Country" stuck around for a while, offering anyone who wanted to the chance to see it, including me. For the record, the movie was a typical shoot-'em-up Western transferred from the Wild West to Duluth and the early Iron Range where men moiled for iron ore instead of gold and competed for the hearts of women of the north country, both lusty and demure, just like movie women of the wild west country.

    Next?

    Oh so many experiences at the NorShor to mention. One stands out because a movie there was considered such a cinematic/religious milestone that they excused Duluth public school students from classes to attend a matinee. The movie was "The Robe," derived from a best-selling novel of that same title depicting fictitious events leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus. It was the first movie filmed in Cinemascope, a wide-screen phenomenon of the day.

    The theater was so crowded it was one of the few times I sat in the balcony. Why stay in school when you could go to a movie? Never mind school officials crossing the commercial line, not to mention church-state sensibilities. It was the '50s.

    But enough of the past. A promising future is assured for this distinguished movie palace, now for the first time serving as a legitimate theater, reversing the trend that befell those old legitimate theaters that became strictly movie houses.

    The NorShor as it has existed until now almost exactly coincides with my life on this earth (and in Duluth) — seven decades and then some. May it continue on into the future for as long. I won't be around to see it, but there's a seat in there with my name on it that will.

    Jim Heffernan

    Jim Heffernan is a retired News Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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