It was built as a vaudeville stage, turned into a movie theater, then a music venue and, for a brief stint, a strip club.
Next, if Duluth has its way, the historic NorShor Theatre will become a performing arts center.
The storied art deco theater and its neighboring buildings on East Superior Street are “key to the revitalization of the entire downtown district,” said Mayor Don Ness. In other cities’ success stories, “a very common thread was the revitalization of the historic theater in the downtown.”
State funding is a key piece of the proposal’s financing and this month, the city got good news. About $7 million of the project’s $22.4 million price tag made Gov. Mark Dayton’s $1 billion list of proposed construction projects.
Duluth has made a big bet on the theater in its “Old Downtown.” In 2010, the city bought the NorShor — then a strip club called the NorShor Experience — and neighboring buildings for $2.6 million.
“A strip club was operating out of one of the most visible and culturally significant properties in our downtown,” Ness said. It was “a hub of prostitution, gang activity and drug dealing. Not to mention the fact that … the building was falling apart.
“If not invested in, it might soon have been lost to the wrecking ball.”
After a couple false starts, the city in 2012 reached an agreement to renovate the theater with Twin Cities-based developer George Sherman, whose Duluth projects include the $40 million Sheraton Duluth Hotel a block away. He and Ness lit NorShor’s marquee in October, launching a $2 million fundraising campaign for part of the project’s cost.
Cities around the state have pushed for arts centers in the bonding bill, said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, chairwoman of the Capital Investment Committee. That includes St. Paul and its Palace Theatre, which city leaders envision as a midsize concert hall. Rather than competing, “when we see this interest around the state, we know this is a shared direction,” Hausman said.
But such projects could be a tough sell with Republican legislators, whose votes are needed: While DFLers control the House and Senate, bonding bills require supermajorities. Some lawmakers have argued for investing in the basics such as bridges and roads, but Hausman believes that cultural amenities are needed to attract today’s workforce.
“We are going to have a different bonding bill in 2014 than we did in 1972,” she said. “All the things we used to think of as frills are now essentials.”
The city foresees the NorShor Arts Center hosting plays, music, opera and dance in a 750-seat theater, as well as art exhibitions and classes in its other spaces. An upstairs bar will also serve milkshakes, a nod to its 1940s milk bar. While the theater opened in 1910, much of its art deco etchings and decor came with its 1940s renovation.
Ness frequented the NorShor during its iteration as a music venue, a hub for Duluth’s burgeoning music scene. In the early part of the 20th century, the Marx Brothers, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin took its stage. A hundred years later, it hosted Trampled by Turtles, Haley Bonar and Charlie Parr.
The night Parr moved to Duluth in 2000, “the very first thing I did” was see a show in the theater, he said. The country blues musician soon gigged there himself.
Parr plays in new venues, “and that’s fine,” he said. “It’s true that people make the place what it is.
“But it is also true that ghosts and spirits make the place,” he continued. “So when you sit down and play a place like the NorShor, not only do you have a group of people sitting around you, but you have another community of history sitting around you, too.”