The music reverberating again inside the historic NorShor Theatre on Duluth’s Superior Street was extra sweet for many in the audience last week.
It took 7 ½ years and $30 million to restore the theater, which opened in 1910 and had taken turns as a movie house, music venue and, lastly, a strip club considered a stain at the heart of the Lake Superior city’s old downtown.
Finally, it is back to its former glory.
The theater reopened Thursday night with a production of the musical “Mamma Mia!”
“It was an overwhelmingly meaningful and beautiful night,” said former Duluth mayor Don Ness, who led the theater’s revival with the city’s purchase of the theater and neighboring buildings in 2010. “I think people were in awe of what the space has become. … It was a proud night for Duluth.”
The new NorShor, which has retained its art-deco design from a renovation in the 1940s, has 630 new seats as well as modern bathrooms, a new orchestra pit and other amenities. It features a lounge on the main floor with a bar and concessions area as well as a mezzanine lounge with a bar. All areas will be available to rent for live performances, corporate events and private parties including receptions and weddings.
The Duluth Economic Development Authority bought the NorShor and neighboring buildings for more than $2 million. In 2012, it reached a renovation agreement with Twin Cities-based developer George Sherman.
The renovation included $7.1 million from the state and more than $14 million in tax credits. The century-old nonprofit Duluth Playhouse, which is now the building’s anchor tenant as well as its managing company, is raising an additional $4.5 million. The Playhouse is expected to take over ownership of the space in a few years.
Thursday’s opening of “Mamma Mia!” featured a 15-member cast, including many local performers. The Playhouse grabbed the early rights to the musical when it became available to regional theaters, said marketing director Ashlee Hartwig.
“We jumped on it because we just knew right away that this was going to be our opener,” Hartwig said. “We just knew we wanted it to be a smashing, big, Broadway-style musical.” The show’s 15-performance run is sold out.
The Playhouse’s next theatrical production will be “Lend Me a Tenor” in April, Hartwig said, but in between it will host other events, including a concert featuring local bands.
Ness said the NorShor was a big part of his life in his 20s.
“I got connected to this very cool arts community,” he said, noting that several local musicians played there and went on to become popular far outside of Duluth, including Charlie Parr and the bands Low and Trampled by Turtles. “That kind of anchored me in Duluth and made me want to be more active in my hometown and try to make a bigger difference.”
It was hard to watch the theater decline into something undesirable in the city’s revitalizing downtown, he said.
Now, he said, “it’s gorgeous. … They did such a nice job of the restoration, but at the same time maintaining that classic art-deco, historic feel.”
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said many Duluthians have a connection to the theater’s past. She believes the renovation will be a catalyst for other development.
“We are already getting calls and contacts from business owners and property developers who want to do development around the theater,” Larson said.
“It’s a very special community that chooses to reinvest in the history of a beautiful theater like this,” she added. “I think it’s going to be transformational in the sense of people kind of reinvesting in the art experience.”