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From Bayfront to breweries: Duluth entertainment venues come in (almost) all sizes

Duluthians can find space to create just about anywhere, but infrastructure matters when it comes to performing arts and film screenings. Check out our infographic comparing Duluth entertainment venues by capacity.

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A microphone stands ready for comedian Jerry Seinfeld to use during his 2016 show at the DECC's Symphony Hall.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Since moving to Duluth in 2000, singer-songwriter Teague Alexy has played everywhere from Bayfront Festival Park to the Glensheen pier to Wussow's Concert Cafe to the Vista Star. They all have their merits, he said, but in making a great stage, ultimately it comes down to community.

"If I really love the people that are putting on the show and, then, own the bar and are working behind the bar, that gives me way more tolerance with any kind of sound or room issues," he said. "I love playing solo at Sir Ben's on Monday night, and I love playing with my six-piece band at Bayfront. I appreciate that Duluth has those options, and many points in between."

Teague Alexy
Teague Alexy performs on the Vista Star during a Sept. 1 concert cruise in Duluth Harbor.
Dan Williamson / 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune

As epitomized by the annual Homegrown Music Festival, Duluth can put live entertainment just about anywhere. On a train, on a trolley, in a lobby, in a park. Still, entertainment infrastructure matters.

"There's so much in Duluth, from Pizza Luce to Teatro Zuccone, these intimate spaces and stages, to some historic venues like the Sacred Heart Music Center and the West Theatre and NorShor Theatre, to outdoor spaces," said Emma Deaner, entertainment curator at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

Deaner also plays drums in the band Superior Siren. "Our first show together was at Lake Avenue Cafe for a Homegrown Music Festival," she said. The band has since gone on to play venues including Bayfront Festival Park. "You never know where that small stage experience can bring you in the future."

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The infographic accompanying this story puts some of Duluth's spaces into context, comparing the venues by capacity. A couple caveats: This is far from a complete list, since space and time limitations prevented the inclusion of each and every one of the many establishments that regularly host live performance or film screenings. Some of the numbers may also be flexible depending on how a given venue's space is configured for a specific event.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

"Some of the bigger stuff we've put outside, just because there's no room inside," said Ben Hugus, owner of Ursa Minor Brewing. While the brewery's taproom could legally hold up to 135 people, said Hugus, it can comfortably accommodate just about 50 for live music.

"If you have somebody outside and if it's a wonderful summer day, and all the garage doors are open," Hugus said, the Lincoln Park brewery's sizable patio might accommodate over 200.

At the other end of the size spectrum, the DECC manages Duluth's two largest entertainment venues: the outdoor Bayfront Festival Park and the indoor Amsoil Arena. On top of that, the DECC still has spaces including Symphony Hall and its original arena, which hosted decades of concerts by everyone from the Beach Boys to Duke Ellington to Elvis Presley before Amsoil opened in 2010.

The DECC is taking a new approach to programming all of its venues, said Deaner, building relationships with promoters and other cities' venues who can partner with the complex to create paths to Duluth for artists who might not otherwise come here.

"We have two arenas, one theater, and we're also hoping to build more unique venue spaces," Deaner said. "Right now we're working to bring back Pioneer Hall as ... a venue where we can host more general admission ticketed events. That could be anywhere from rock shows to dance nights."

Members Only
Two newly created positions will allow the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center to bring more shows of different sizes to the harborside complex.

Since opening the West Theatre in 2019, owner Bob Boone has worked to balance movies, music and other events in the multiuse venue.

"I opened it because I saw a beautiful theater that had been wrecked, and I thought West Duluth deserved its own movie theater," said Boone. "Showing 'Spider-Man' for three big weeks bores me witless, but that's what West Duluth needs more (than an art house cinema), is a mainstream movie theater."

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Those big titles come with strings attached. "I get a lot of people saying, 'I'd like you to bring "Dr. Zhivago" back to the West.' And then somebody else will say, 'Let's have a Harry Potter series,'" said Boone. "When I agree to show a Disney film or a Marvel film or a Paramount film .... they say things like, 'In your normal operating hours, this will be the only movie you show at all.'"

Currently, Boone has designated Thursday as a day for live entertainment. "I can have concerts on Thursdays, because the West is 'dark' for film," said Boone. "If I then said, 'I'm going to show "Dr. Zhivago" instead,' they would lose their minds."

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Bob Boone stood outside the West Theatre in advance of its 2019 opening.
Ellen Schmidt / File / Duluth News Tribune

Over in Duluth's Historic Arts and Theater District, Zeitgeist operates two screens that are regularly booked with films from smaller studios that allow a more flexible model. The Zeitgeist Zinema has recently become the venue for the Classic Film Series that formerly ran at the NorShor Theatre.

"I would say we are back to probably 80% of where we were" prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Zeitgeist operations manager Dennis Johnson. "In some instances, even busier."

Zeitgeist's Teatro Zuccone is now the venue for Duluth Playhouse shows formerly staged in the Depot's Underground space, and Zeitgeist was used for all three segments of the recent North Star Story Summit. "That was a really exciting and really tiring, but really rewarding time," said Johnson.

Last week's Catalyst Content Festival convened independent television creators and industry professionals from across the country, but shone a special spotlight on the Northland.

Johnson estimated that over half of the events in Zeitgeist's space represent rentals or joint presentations with community groups. "We really try to find ways to make the space available at really reasonable rates for artists and community members," he said.

"For the size of Duluth, I think there's a pretty great number of venues," said Johnson. "I think that venues try to be open to the community. I can really just speak for Zeitgeist, but there really is a commitment to creativity and allowing people to bring their work to the forefront."

Of course, when it comes to spaces, everyone has a wish list. "What Duluth needs is a 1,000 to 1,200 seat auditorium," said Boone. That would provide a sweet spot for acts looking to play in an auditorium setting, but who are too big for the NorShor Theatre and too small for the DECC's Symphony Hall.

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Alexy said he'd like to see a music club like Minneapolis's 7th St Entry or St. Paul's Turf Club. And as important as the vibe is, quality gear can help make a good show even better.

"When I was in Nashville, it seemed like every bar had a $20,000 light system and a $20,000 sound system," Alexy said. "In a perfect world, I would like tens of thousands of dollars invested in the different sound systems around Duluth. But I'd like to think we're building towards that. We've come a long way in 20 years."

Pepin Young, taproom manager at Bent Paddle Brewing, said he's pleased with what a new wave of breweries and distilleries have brought to the Duluth entertainment scene over the past decade. "It's created more venue space," he said.

"The more places that are able to showcase music, the more competitive it is for the musicians," Young continued. "It has created a little bit higher pay expectation for groups, which I think is awesome."

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Bent Paddle Brewery, photographed in 2019.
Clint Austin / File / News Tribune

"Part of our ethos as a brewery is to support our local vendors, local musicians," said Hugus, of Ursa Minor. "So we pay everybody that plays. It's definitely something we feel strongly about, but we didn't design (the taproom) as a music venue."

Young said Bent Paddle has just reconfigured its taproom space to create a better flow during live entertainment events, with the stage moved from the bar area into the main entry space. Attendees now have more flexibility to position themselves right up front; farther back, but within listening distance; or even farther back if they're not interested in what's on stage.

"We don't charge for shows," said Young, except for on Halloween and during Bent Paddle's spring Festiversary. "It adds an element to the taproom that brings people in. They spend some time, they drink a beer, two beers, and that's good for everybody."

"We are really fortunate that we have a community that has a lot of talents, and has a lot of experience with a variety of different entertainment settings," said Deaner. "I think it ultimately just comes down to us coming together, supporting one another, and helping to elevate all the voices of our city."

MORE BY JAY GABLER
The lauded Korean American writer, author of "The Evening Hero," will participate in an Olga Walker Awards conversation moderated by Linda LeGarde Grover.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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