Duluth Mayor Don Ness can still remember the marquee lights of the NorShor Theater shining bright on East Superior Street in the 1990s.
“It was the birthplace of the Homegrown Music Festival,” Ness said, “and a lot of prominent bands in Duluth all started at the NorShor. It was a really important part of my life when I was in my twenties. It was a place that I kind of felt at home and got me involved with the local music scene and supporting that.”
Many well-known Duluth bands and artists started their careers in the hallowed halls of this 1940s theater. Alan Sparhawk of Low, Trampled by Turtles, and Charlie Parr have all hit the NorShor stage.
“That was kind of a turning point in my mind for Duluth to say, ‘Hey, we can create our own little thing up here that’s going to be different from what’s offered down in the Cities,” Ness said. “And we have a lot of exciting talent that is being generated.”
Over the past few decades, the NorShor Theater has changed hands many times, operating as a movie theater, a music venue, and for a brief time, a strip club.
“For a long time now the NorShor has been neglected and falling apart,” Ness said. “This has given a negative impression about our community’s views on the importance of preservation and supporting the arts.”
In 2010, the city of Duluth decided to take an aggressive step, purchasing the building from its former owner for $2.6 million.
“The space was not being managed well prior to the city purchasing it,” Ness said. “There was a lot of gang activity, drug sales, and prostitution being run out of this historic theater. [That was] really distracting from the other positive nightlife and arts and culture scene that was happening down there.”
Ness’s vision is to provide a space that doesn’t exist in the Duluth community today: a mid-sized venue (seating 750 to 800) that will hopefully attract more regionally touring bands and acts to the city. The City of Duluth has recently partnered with the Duluth Playhouse and George Sherman (of Sherman and Associates) to bring new life to this historic theater.
“The NorShor is our last remaining historic theater in downtown,” Ness said, “and it’s a place that people have a lot of memories and emotional connection to.”
Right now the group is working to secure its final sources of funding, seeking to raise private donations, and is going after historic tax credit funding as well as $6 million in state bonds that will be considered during this upcoming legislative session.
“We’re positioned pretty well with our fundraising efforts,” said Christine Gradl Seitz, the executive and artistic director at the Duluth Playhouse. “We’re hopeful that all of our support comes through. When we wrap up the community fundraising component and all things align, we should be underway by this summer.”
The theater has infrastructure problems, including water damage and fire code issues, that must be addressed in the renovation process. “It’ll be a state-of-the-art theater,” said Gradl Seitz. “Just having the newest in sound systems and rigging will be a joy, certainly for an organization like the Playhouse.”
The city estimates the project will cost around $23 million, and includes renovations like an updated mezzanine and stadium seating.
“I think the community is really excited about it,” said Gradl Seitz. “We’ve had such tremendous community feedback. I am hard pressed to say I’ve met anyone that wouldn’t be excited about Restore NorShor.”
If all goes as planned, renovations will be complete by late 2015 and the NorShor will spread its warm marquee lights over East Superior Street once again.
“From a mayor’s perspective, I’m excited to see the marquee lit up and have hundreds of people walking the sidewalks and going to eat at the local restaurants and being enthusiastic about getting into this theater and seeing a great show,” Ness said. “There’s just going to be a tremendous amount of pride that our community was able to save our last remaining historic theater.”
Kaitlin Lokowich is a born-and-raised Minnesotan, currently finishing a double major in journalism and communications at the University of Minnesota—Duluth. Apart from writing she is an aspiring world traveler, Seinfeld lover, and pizza enthusiast.