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Portorama comeback? Long-defunct Duluth festival makes an appearance in the Legislature

A crowd lines Superior Street for the Portorama parade in 1969. file / News Tribune1 / 2
Kathy Holmstrom (now Westholm) was crowned as Miss Duluth for Portorama in 1969. file / News Tribune2 / 2

To hear people describe it, Portorama was a big deal in a small-town kind of way.

"It was huge," said Jim Heffernan. "It was a huge summer festival."

"It was kind of like a small-town festival," said Kathy Westholm.

They were talking about a weeklong event, sponsored by the Duluth Jaycees — i.e., Junior Chamber of Commerce — that had its heyday in the 1960s, with parades, celebrities, a beauty pageant, soapbox derby and bubblegum-blowing contests.

Mysteriously, the term "portorama," if not the festival itself is up for a committee hearing on Valentine's Day in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

At issue are 218 words comprising Minnesota Statute 19-1642 sections 333.50, 333.51 and 333.52, that make it a misdemeanor to use the word "portorama" "for personal or business purposes" without permission of the Duluth Jaycees.

A bill authored by state Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, would remove the portorama clauses from state law.

Why it's coming up now, some 50 years after the demise of the festival, isn't entirely clear, even to Schultz.

An individual contacted her, Schultz said, expressing interest in the word and asking if the prohibition could be removed. She didn't see any reason for it to be in the statutes, but to make sure she contacted David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. He assured her the chamber didn't have any plans for anything called portorama.

Nor does Visit Duluth, the local tourism bureau.

"I've been chuckling about this because it's news to me," said Anna Tanski, CEO and president of Visit Duluth. "I have no idea where this is coming from."

Heffernan, retired after a long career as a journalist for the News Tribune, said Portorama was the sort of festival that no longer exists. "Portorama, in my recollection, was the last of the real big summer festivals in Duluth, and it was all the hard work of the Jaycees, many of whom, of course, are no longer with us."

He recalled being a cub reporter describing a Portorama parade that took place in the rain.

"I thought I was the first one in history to say, 'The rain failed to dampen their spirits,'" Heffernan recalled, laughing.

While Heffernan covered Portorama as a reporter, Westholm was a participant, at least once. That was in 1969 when she was Kathy Holmstrom, a 20-year-old Denfeld High School graduate who was crowned in the event as Miss Duluth. She remembers Portorama as a dying event by then, Westholm said, although photos from that year show marching bands, floats and crowds lining Superior Street.

The pageant she won formerly had been called Miss Seaway. By the year she won, it had changed to Miss Duluth, which was a stepping stone to the Miss Minnesota and Miss America pageants. It was run by the Mrs. Jaycees in Duluth, said Westholm, whose husband, Bill Westholm, served as Denfeld principal from 1995 to 2005.

Duluth was a much different place then, she said.

"It was before Canal Park so there wasn't really much in the way of tourist interest," Westholm said.

But interest in Portorama seemed to be fading.

"I don't remember much about it after (1969)," Westholm said. "I think it was probably one of those things that just died its natural death."