I’ve heard a few Radisson stories over the years, but it comes as no surprise that the best one is from longtime News Tribune columnist Jim Heffernan — the man knows a lot of stories.

The landmark Duluth hotel marks its 50th anniversary this week. I would say “celebrates,” but more on that — and how you could win a two-night stay — in a moment.

Heffernan’s story goes like this: A bartender at the hotel was a huge Elvis fan. This would be Elvis Presley, of course, the rock ’n’ roll legend who slept at the Radisson twice in the 1970s. At some point, per standard procedure at hotels, they replaced all the mattresses, and “this gal gets Elvis’ mattress,” Heffernan said. “Now that’s a fan.”

I told him a rumor like that is always fun.

“Oh, it’s no rumor,” he said. “It happened. I know her name, but I don’t want to give it to you.”

That’s the best kind of story, with details so juicy, they can’t be revealed.

The lobby of the Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview is decorated in a retro style. (Photo courtesy of the Radisson)
The lobby of the Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview is decorated in a retro style. (Photo courtesy of the Radisson)

The Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview, as it’s formally called, had planned a big celebration for its anniversary on Thursday, May 14. The coronavirus pandemic changed all that.

Nancy Kilpo is the Radisson’s director of sales and marketing. She embraces the hotel’s place in Duluth’s history and has an eye for ’70s kitsch. She floated the idea of christening the actual room as the “Elvis Slept Here Suite.” She imagines some pictures of the American icon on the walls, maybe some blue suede shoes on display.

“We need to embrace who we are,” she said.

I think it should be called the “Heartbreak Hotel Suite,” but maybe that’s too much negative and too little obvious.

Construction in April 1998 built the tunnel that would connect the Radisson Hotel and Duluth Public Library. (File / News Tribune)
Construction in April 1998 built the tunnel that would connect the Radisson Hotel and Duluth Public Library. (File / News Tribune)

Besides the Aerial Lift Bridge, and maybe Enger Tower, is there a more Duluth-y, iconic landmark than the round building on the western edge of downtown? Viewed from the highway, it lets residents know they’re home and tourists know the drive is over.

I ate lunch there on my birthday in January because my 9-year-old had heard rumors at school about a “spinning restaurant.” While still impressed, he admitted that he “thought it was going to spin faster.”

That was before a pandemic gripped our nation, of course. Before travel stopped and schools closed. The hotel is open, but the JJ Astor restaurant atop the building and the Bowery Bros. Drinks & Pub Fare on Superior Street are closed. The hotel’s pool, hot tub and sauna are closed, though room service provides food to hotel guests. In all, the place just isn’t as fun as it used to be, and Kilpo can’t wait to return to normal.

“We've got people that celebrated their weddings here at the hotel, and they come here every year for their anniversaries for dinner. I run into 20-some-year-olds who say, ‘Oh my gosh, my grandma took me here when I was 5.’ People have a very warm feeling of what was Top of the Harbor, now JJs, but it's a one-of-a-kind restaurant,” Kilpo said.

Duluth's Radisson hotel was included in a gingerbread display of the city in 2000. (Photo courtesy Radisson South in Minneapolis)
Duluth's Radisson hotel was included in a gingerbread display of the city in 2000. (Photo courtesy Radisson South in Minneapolis)

Heffernan was there for the groundbreaking.

Developer and owner Curt Carlson, who rose to fortune with his “Gold Bond Stamps” at grocery stores and is the namesake of the University of Minnesota’s management school, also, apparently, had a flair for the dramatic. At the Duluth groundbreaking, he eschewed the routine “people with shovels” photo op.

“They planted some dynamite a little distance from where the crowds gather,” Heffernan recalled. “It was a small amount, but at the moment of groundbreaking, they let the dynamite go, and there was this explosion.”

The dynamite story is good, but snagging Elvis’ mattress still tops it.

The bright side to having few guests, Kilpo said, not that she really called it that, is the hotel is taking the opportunity to complete work on the parking ramp, install a new floor in the restaurant — and, starting Monday, replace more than 200 windows. Things will be freshened up when business is back to normal.

“We would love to be able to have the birthday party that this hotel definitely deserves,” Kilpo said. “It might be May 14 of 2021, but we'll still be here. There’s not many hotels in Duluth that can say, ‘We’re 50.’”

Kilpo wants your stories and photos of Radisson memories by May 26. She’ll pick a winner for a two-night stay at the hotel, including $100 credit at the JJ Astor, and the News Tribune will publish some in a future issue. Email nancy.kilpo@radisson.com or send mail to: Nancy Kilpo, Radisson Hotel, 505 W. Superior St., Duluth MN 55802.

Beverly Godfrey is features editor of the News Tribune. Write to her at bgodfrey@duluthnews.com.