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Forgotten West Duluth theater to get new life

Few people knew the former Interior Tomato building was once an ornate theater.

Ornate plaster details inside historic theater under restoration
Bob Boone, of Duluth, explains the process of repairing and restoring the plaster architectural decorations at the historic Alhambra Theater on Friday in West Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Bob Boone didn’t know he was buying another theater.

While he was renovating the West Theatre, the building next door — 321 N. Central Ave., which had been the Interior Tomato hydroponics shop — went up for sale. Boone bought the building for $200,000 in July 2018, according to county records.

The West Theatre owner and Reader newspaper publisher envisioned it becoming a second, smaller theater connected to the West Theatre by a future doorway through the buildings’ shared wall. He didn’t think it’d be another theater renovation.

But three days before closing on the building, he got a proper tour of the building. That’s when the former owner told him it used to be the Alhambra Theater and showed him a 1913 photo of its interior, which Boone said looked like the Greysolon Plaza.

A black and white interior photo of the Alhambra Theater
The interior of the Alhambra Theater's interior in 1913.
Contributed / St. Louis County Historical Society

“I look at this and I say to him, ‘You're going to wreck my life. This just got a half a million dollars harder,’” Boone said. “I just wanted to expand the theater. I thought it’d be kind of easy after (the West Theatre), and now I feel like I got to restore this building because nobody else saves old buildings anymore. And this is so cool — why wouldn't you? “

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He climbed a ladder and poked his head above the suspended ceiling, which had been covering the theater’s original ornate plaster work — mostly intact. “I thought it was a miracle,” Boone said.

Now, he’s renovating the space with the hope of returning it to its original brilliance.

Ornate plaster details inside historic theater under restoration
Original architectural details seen at the historic Alhambra Theater on Friday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

A forgotten theater

The Alhambra opened in 1913, changed names to the State Theater in 1925 and closed by 1928, according to Boone and the Zenith City Press. It never became a theater again.

Advertisements running in the News Tribune show the Alhambra hosting vaudeville and “high-class photoplays” in its early years.

An newspaper advertisement describes the shows at the Alhambra Theater.
An advertisement for the Alhambra Theater that published in the Duluth News Tribune throughout 1914.
Newsbank / News Tribune

Boone wasn’t alone in not knowing the building was once a theater.

Tony Dierckins, Duluth historian and publisher of Zenith City Press, said he hadn’t heard of it until he came across an archival photo, and finding information about it proved difficult — the News Tribune archives don’t mention it beyond 1922.

And some of those archival photos had incorrectly labeled its address as 715 Grand Ave., which is where the Doric Theater was, according to Perfect Duluth Day , which called the Alhambra “by far the least known” of West Duluth’s three old theaters.

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“It was so tiny, and then you had your bigger theaters doing things so I think it just kind of played out,” Dierckins told the News Tribune. “One of those little businesses that just didn’t make it.”

A black and white photo of the exterior of the Alhambra Theater in 1913.
The exterior of the Alhambra Theater in 1913.
Contributed / St. Louis County Historical Society.

Dale Lewis, a business consultant and former owner of Park State Bank, who invested in the Alhambra project “in an indirect sort of way” said she was shocked to learn it used to be a theater.

“And then the next thing I heard, it was a former theater,” Lewis said. “I thought, ‘Holy cats.’ I don’t think there’s anyone in town anymore or alive anymore that remembers that. (Boone) hasn’t told me of anybody that has walked in and said, ‘I remember when I was kid going here.’”

Future plans

Boone has big plans for the small space.

He wants the lobby to serve as a cocktail lounge and the theater to hold 60 seats. The Alhambra would be the theater primarily showing movies, allowing Boone’s West Theatre next door to focus more on events, concerts and other live entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights, which are generally when Hollywood studios want their movies on screens.

Ornate plaster architectural details inside historic theater under restoration
Owner Bob Boone talks about the plaster architectural details that were hidden for many years by a drop ceiling at the historic Alhambra Theater.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Work is underway, with volunteers coming in a few days every week to chip in.

But just months after Boone opened the West Theatre, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and put the mortgage and project financing for the Alhambra in jeopardy. Things have stabilized thanks to community members offering donations and loans. But more money is needed.

Duluth developer Lance Reasor, who renovated the former KBJR-TV building in downtown Duluth after a fire left it condemned in 1997, made a contribution and is encouraging others to donate.

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He said he was drawn to the project because of Boone’s tenacity running the Reader, then renovating the West.

“He started with the West Theatre and he had some struggles there putting that all together, but again, he never gave up,” Reasor said. “He kept pushing and shoving and chipping away at it. And did a beautiful job on the restoration.”

Ornate plaster details inside historic theater under restoration
Reproduction plaster crown moulding seen at the historic Alhambra Theater.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Like Reasor, Lewis was drawn to the Alhambra project after seeing the renovated West Theatre.

“I thought, ‘Holy cats. I can’t believe you pulled this off,’” Lewis said. And it was completed with less money than anyone expected.

“So I figured if he could do it once, he could do it twice,” Lewis said. “And he seems to be heading well down that road.”

Ornate plaster details inside historic theater under restoration
Bob Boone speaks about restoring the historic Alhambra Theater on Friday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

As for the timeline to completion?

“I have no idea. … I could be open by Christmas,” Boone said. “Except I don’t have enough money.”

A new arts district?

Reasor believes the West Theatre and Alhambra could help spur even more investment into West Duluth, potentially mirroring the redevelopment of Canal Park, downtown Duluth’s Historic Arts and Theater District and the Lincoln Park Craft District.

“We need stuff in West Duluth. … I think it can be another Lincoln Park,“ Reasor said. “They just need some things up front there to get things rolling and I think that (Boone) could be the epicenter for that.”

Lewis said the area’s evolution is well underway, beginning with Wussow’s Concert Cafe opening in 1999 and, more recently, the Zenith Bookstore in 2017 and West Theatre in 2019.

The businesses “all feed off each other,” Lewis said. “The whole stretch of Central Avenue has changed dramatically with just a few projects."

Ornate plaster details inside historic theater under restoration
Original architectural details seen at the historic Alhambra Theater. The ornate ceiling was hidden by a drop ceiling for many years.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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