Norshor's history may point to its future

J.P. Rennquist knows he's the latest in a succession of managers attempting to make a go of things at the landmark Norshor Theatre in Old Downtown. But he'd rather focus on the glory years of the theater's more distant past and how those memories...

J.P. Rennquist knows he's the latest in a succession of managers attempting to make a go of things at the landmark Norshor Theatre in Old Downtown.

But he'd rather focus on the glory years of the theater's more distant past and how those memories, still vivid in the community, will guide him in molding the building's future.

It's evident as he gives a quick tour of the building, focusing on both past and future. Starting at the front door, Rennquist notes how important the trademark marquee is. Already he has seen how having it updated can change the draw of a show.

"People look to this building, and that marquee on the front is a symbol of it," he said.

Just inside the doors, he points out panels used for promotions that he will now adapt for a new generation of theatergoers.


"The people who designed this building really knew about promoting and putting on events," he said.

The Norshor is still in the business of putting on films, but since the emphasis on it is now less than it was in the Norshor's heyday, Rennquist says some of the panels which once held posters for first-run movies will hold artwork in a rotating gallery.

A nearby coffee shop closed up recently, and Rennquist says the theater may take advantage of the opportunity there. He got his business foot in the Norshor as a supplier of concessions. Now that concession stand may broaden its offerings to include coffee and tea and lunches both to fill the void in the neighborhood and to expand the hours in which the building could potentially earn money.

Inside a little alcove are further reminders of the building's past, old film reels and signs pulled together by an employee. Rennquist says the building is littered with such artifacts, including reels of old educational movies.

He ponders the possibility of holding a screening for some of them, just for kicks.

Inside the main theater, Rennquist points out the now closed-in balcony, a controversial choice made in another era as owners attempted to keep older buildings competitive with multiplex competitors. The result is that the Norshor has two functioning theaters, the main one downstairs and a smaller, more finished one upstairs. Both are versatile, capable of hosting anything from live theater to film screenings to music concerts to poetry readings to dance presentations.

And the building has a third venue, too, an upstairs mezzanine with a bar, where music and poetry keep the place busy most every night of the week.

The bar has been the main money engine for the building, and so far remains so.


When Rennquist first brought his own concession business into the Norshor, "I already loved it," he said. He carries fond memories of the theater's happier days and was honored to be part of it.

And his optimism for the building's future relies on his belief that others have the same feelings. His strategy lies in connecting with those people and those memories, making sure people of every age group have something to connect with in the building they loved in decades past.

He has anecdotes. A couple came into the building one day when it wasn't even open. They had had their first date at the Norshor. He gave them a tour. It's those kinds of connections he hopes to make with Duluthians.

"The angle that I have is I don't know how much it's about money," Rennquist said. He says there is certainly a need for prudent management and wise hiring.

And he says after six weeks at the helm, he considers himself on track to meet the financial goals that have been set, but if it's only about "counting beans," he doesn't believe the facility will work.

"So, of course, money is important, but really I think it's about arts. Significantly, it's about community," he said.

"Then there's this larger, somewhat more ethereal concept of beauty," he said, citing the architecture and history.

"The reality is, we're kind of living in the world of high volume, low margin businesses," he said.


He says the theater can never compete in that arena, that it's not about quick and cheap.

"It's designed more for beauty and quality and, I would say, diversity."

He said there are elements the Norshor provides that cannot be found anywhere else in Duluth, or maybe even the Upper Midwest, and already he has projects planned that take advantage of it.

The theater's nightlife already attracts a lot of 20-somethings, he said. He hopes some new music events will attract 30- and 40-somethings, and he's also angling for events that may attract older folks. In a conversation with other Old Downtown business owners, he said the idea of running classic movies for that age group came up. It was met not only with enthusiasm but with offers to help with cross promotions.

Rennquist is extending the idea of community to his business neighbors. He's using nearby companies for Internet access, Web site design and even cleaning supplies. He's even switched over the taps in the bar to reflect local and regional brews.

Rennquist has met with city officials to rebuild positive relationships. And he's looking at the smoking issue, which he calls "divisive," with the prime concern being that everyone feel welcome.

Rennquist says he's had no shortage of suggestions on things to do. Already, some new projects have been successful. The new manager was almost giddy about the Foghorn Poetry Series, a project Nathan Ness has put together. The first event in that series featured Barton Sutter and was a big success, Rennquist said.

There are major music acts in the works. He has several films in mind. And there are other major productions on tap.


If Rennquist has his way, new revenue streams are going to open up.

"I'm not a one-trick pony," he said.

One significant event of interest for those who want to check out the Norshor under new management will be Friday, Feb. 25. The theater will be screening a PBS program, "North Star," about black history in Minnesota, starting at 7 p.m. The show includes a section about Duluth, including information about the lynchings in 1920, an event Rennquist notes took place only about a block from the building. The reggae group Max Dakota and Modern Life will cap off the evening with a performance starting at 10 p.m.

For more on Norshor events, call 733-0072 or visit .

What To Read Next
Get Local