John F. Kennedy spoke there. The Boston Pops played there. It’s where Bob Dylan made his brief musical debut, too.
Lovely and legendary, Hibbing High School’s ornate auditorium has been the center of public life and performance on the Iron Range for generations. Now, school officials hope it will bring the community together again, this time to help renovate a century-old space that’s starting to show its age.
“Hibbing High School is just a treasure, [and] the auditorium project is near and dear to just about everyone,” said Joe Arthurs, the school’s supervisor of buildings and grounds, who has watched over the historic school for 32 years. “Everyone who’s ever seen it just has an affection for it.”
The castle-like school was built in the early 1920s by deep-pocketed mining companies after the discovery of a rich vein of ore under North Hibbing prompted the town to relocate 2 miles down the road. Built for the then-outlandish sum of $4 million, the school features marble staircases, ornate plasterwork, oil paintings and an auditorium modeled after the lavish Capitol Theater in New York City.
“You have an awe-struck feeling when you walk in,” Arthurs said. “That very, very high proscenium over the stage, and hand-painted murals, and lead crystal glass chandeliers hanging about. ... I’ve been doing it for 32 years and it’s still, for me, just a treasure to walk in every year.”
Preserving and restoring the treasured auditorium will take $3.1 million and about 18 months of work. The project has already secured $2.5 million in funding from the school district; the Minnesota Historical Society and Legislature will steer $250,000 in capital grant money to the work that is set to begin this summer.
But that still leaves the school $600,000 short. The hope is that the community will step up to donate the funds needed to “carry it forth for another generation,” Arthurs said.
The auditorium has undergone some $18 million in renovations over the years, most of it for unglamorous but necessary repairs and upgrades to areas like the roof, the restrooms or the fire alarms and sprinkler system.
But now, with elaborate plaster ceilings peeling and the seats fraying, school officials hope to raise enough to — in the words of their fundraising pitch — “Do it once. Do it right.”
“They want it to be for generations to come, that it’s there for people to see and enjoy,” said Hibbing High School Principal Mike Finco. “We get people from the area who say, ‘I have relatives here, friends up here, and I’m not letting them leave the area until they see the school.”
The auditorium has hosted symphonies and orchestras and wedding ceremonies. The Minnesota Supreme Court held a session there before a student audience. Candidates from JFK to Bernie Sanders have made their pitches to Iron Range voters from the stage.
And of course, the auditorium is where young Robert Zimmerman, Hibbing High School Class of 1959, stepped on stage for the first time during the 1957 talent show.
“He was ahead of his time,” Finco said with a laugh.
Accounts vary, but it seems the future Bob Dylan performed a Little Richard cover so loud, the principal either cut the microphone or closed the curtain on him.
“I don’t think they were ready for what he was offering,” Finco said.
The $3.1 million budget will allow workers to paint the auditorium, restore its murals, refurbish the seats and install seating to accommodate those with disabilities.
Fundraising kicks off on May 1, and the school has set up a website for donors: hibbing.k12.mn.us/auditorium-restoration-project.