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Future looking brighter at Duluth Armory’s centennial

Nelson French, vice president of the board of directors for the Armory Arts and Music Center, reads a proclamation from Mayor Don Ness during the 100th anniversary celebration for the Duluth Armory on Saturday afternoon. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 4
Blacksmith Paul Webster uses a wrench to add a twist pattern to a hot piece of steel while creating a fire poker in the forge area of the Armory Arts and Music Center in Duluth Saturday during the 100th anniversary celebration. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 4
Hundreds of local children gather for the first Children's Concert by the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra at the Duluth Armory in 1935. (Gallagher photo / News Tribune files)3 / 4
Members of the 125th Field Artillery pose in front of the Duluth Armory prior to World War I. (St. Louis County Historical Society photo / News Tribune files)4 / 4

Duluth residents Larry Sharp and Ron Hagberg caught up with one another Saturday at the annex to the city’s old Armory, the place they both know well from their days in the Army National Guard.

After spending basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Hagberg visited the Armory on London Road once a month for the six years he served in the National Guard in the 1960s. It wasn’t all that eventful for the National Guard in Duluth at the time, Hagberg said.

Sharp spent 40 years at the Armory, first with the National Guard and then working as a civilian. In those days, the full-time staffers ran the concession stands during concerts at the Armory.

“One time, I served a hot dog to Johnny Cash,” Sharp said.

The Armory opened a century ago as a military depot in Duluth, but it doubled as the civic center where big-name acts came to play. The 100th anniversary of the building was celebrated with an open house Saturday.

“It’s a joy to celebrate this,” said Nelson French, vice president of the Armory Arts and Music Center, a local group working to save the building.

Paul Webster was hammering a piece of steel heated in a fire in the annex as people ate birthday cake for the anniversary. He’s one of more than a dozen artists using the annex building as an art studio. Before they began using the space in July 2014, the group of steel forgers was working in his space in Esko. The group was looking for a place where “all our members could come and hammer when they could,” he said.

Glasswork was on display along the wall and seven artists have their work for sale in the annex’s store. Webster said it’s been great to have other artists around, and the space has provided a cooperative venture between artists.

“It’s nice to have this collective of artists here to support each other,” he said.

The group is hoping to have space in the Armory if plans go through for Minneapolis developer Boisclair Corp. to purchase the building.

The Armory has fallen into disrepair in recent decades, but those working to save the building are hoping to announce the “pathway of the next 100 years” now that serious discussions are taking place between Boisclair and the Armory Arts and Music Center, French said. As first reported in the News Tribune in September, the Armory is under a purchase agreement with Boisclair, which is in the process of due diligence.

Boisclair has proposed a mix of retail, arts and office space in the Armory and an apartment building to be constructed on the site of the annex building.

The stage — where Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline and Duke Ellington, among others, have performed — will be restored, French said.

Susan Beasy Latto was at the Armory the night Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper played there as part of the 1959 Winter Dance Party three days before they died in a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield. She grew up in Hibbing and was friends with Bob Zimmerman, now known as Bob Dylan. Many people from Hibbing came down to see the performance that night and the Armory was packed, she said.

While accepting the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1998, Bob Dylan mentioned that he was at the Buddy Holly performance at the Armory and felt that Holly was with him while Dylan was making the album for which he won the Grammy.

Lew Latto was the 19-year-old University of Minnesota Duluth student and concert promoter who brought Buddy Holly and the others to the Armory. After graduating in Hibbing, Susan Beasy Latto went on to attend UMD, where she met Lew; they later married.

For years after the concert, Lew Latto — who died in 2011 — received phone calls wondering if he had a copy of the poster advertising the 1959 Winter Dance Party and offering top dollar, but he hadn’t saved one.

“Lew used to say … ‘How much I wished I would have it,’” Susan Beasy Latto recalled Saturday.

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