Bananaz opens, 2001

June 1, 2001


The Bananaz sign over South Lake Avenue beckons visitors to Duluth’s newest amusement center. (News Tribune file photo)



By Peter Passi, News Tribune

With its opening just eight days away, the scene at Bananaz Family Entertainment Complex, a new amusement center being built in Duluth’s Canal Park, could aptly be described as, well . . . bananas.

Truckloads of game equipment have been arriving daily at the business, and workers swarm over the 52,000-square-foot facility, putting the final touches on the newest of Canal Park’s tourist attractions.

"It’s going to be nuts for the next week," said General Manager Vivian Sylvester. "We’ll definitely pull some all-nighters."

The facility will open its doors to the public one week from today. Memorial Day weekend was the original target date for Bananaz’s opening, but the sheer scale of the project forced the developer to push back that timeline.

The amusement center will boast a climbing gym, auto racing and aircraft simulators, a Morphis movie ride, a parachute jump, laser tag arenas, a trampoline, high-tech virtual reality games, a carousel, miniature golf, slides, a restaurant and more.

The 175-seat restaurant, called Willy’s Garage, will be operated by Grandma’s Restaurants, and Grandma’s vice president of marketing Brian Daugherty said it should open in conjunction with Bananaz next Friday. Adorned with old garage signs, a fuel pump and even a classic pickup truck, the restaurant’s decor will bring back memories of vintage filling stations. The restaurant’s fare? Pure Americana — including hot dogs, burgers and pizza.

Steve Gonser, president of Bananaz, and Vivian Sylvester, general manager of the new Canal Park amusement park, examine the progress of a nine-hole miniature golf course, which features a replica of Enger Tower on its final hole. (Chuck Curtis / News Tribune)


Not all facets of Bananaz will be operational as of the opening date, however. Sylvester said climbers won’t be able to test their skills at Bananaz until some time in July. On the plus side, the size of the climbing gym, to be operated by Vertical Endeavors, has been expanded to 12,000 square feet — some 50 percent more than the originally proposed 7,800 square feet. The tallest climbing walls inside Bananaz top 40 feet.

Climbing will need to wait, but rest assured, there will be plenty to do when Bananaz opens. Ken Wilcox, operations director for Funcepts Inc., the North Dakota company that is supplying Bananaz with many of its games, said it will take three semi-trailer trucks to deliver them. He estimates that about $400,000 worth of equipment will be installed.

The total investment in Bananaz will be far larger — about $4 million by the developer’s estimate.

Steve Gonser, president of Bananaz, heads up an investor group that includes his brothers, Kit and Kim; Mike Sidener of Minot, N.D.; and silent partners in Colorado and Duluth.

Investors aren’t simply watching the project from afar; some of them are hard at work helping prepare Bananaz for its opening.

Steve Gonser and his sons — Mike, 13, and Tom, 15 — were hard at work Thursday morning moving rock into place on a nine-hole miniature golf course.

The course, designed by Duluth’s Jason Port, has more than a little Twin Ports flavor. It incorporates shipping themes, birch trees, and artist Dan Williams’ model of a local landmark, Enger Tower.

Interest in the new amusement center apparently has been running strong. The best evidence of the growing anticipation comes from Sylvester, who said she’s been receiving 30 to 40 calls per week from people wanting to book parties and meetings at Bananaz.

Bananaz is located at 329 Lake Ave. S.

Willy’s Garage didn’t last long – it was ousted by Famous Dave’s less than a year later. Willy’s Garage closed in April 2002, and an article from that time said Famous Dave’s was slated to open on May 13, 2002.

Bananaz has had some ups and downs – it was renamed Canal Park Fun Center, and then in early 2004 was renamed Carnival Thrillz, the name it retains today. I guess the whole "z" thing is supposed to make the place seem more youthful and cool, though from the prespective of a copy editor I’m not a big fan of that spelling. Or would that be zpelling?

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Downtown Duluth, 1960?


Here is a different view of downtown Duluth, looking east from above Mesaba Avenue. It was in a folder labeled "1960," but otherwise there is no caption information. Can anyone tell if the 1960 date is correct? Two clues – the Spalding Hotel is still standing on the right, with the Holland Hotel is located across Superior Street.

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Downtown Burger King closes, 1998

May 28, 1998

Burger King owner Nick Patronas says he’s closing his downtown restaurant in part because of problems with crime and unruly youths. (Bob King / News-Tribune)



Business leaders told Duluth city councilors last year that there would be casualties if something wasn’t done to control the crowds of youth, homeless people and drunks hanging out on the 200 block of West Superior Street.

Now one business owner is proving them right. Burger King franchisee Nick Patronas says he is closing his downtown restaurant Friday in part because of problems with crime and unruly youths.

"We have more problems in one day downtown with customers and people hanging out than we do in a month at all the other six restaurants we have," Patronas said Wednesday.

Patronas and several other business owners on the block say their customers have been intimidated by crowds of youth and others killing time waiting for buses or meeting friends. And while the situation is improving, many complain the problem is still affecting business.

Patronas’ decision to close is another blow to what traditionally has been the heart of the downtown retail business district. Burger King sits directly across from the Holiday Center, where one tenant after another has moved out for various reasons. Filling those holes has been difficult in part because prospective tenants are concerned about a small number of disruptive youth and other unwelcome visitors.

"How many casualties do we have to have before we stop and say, ‘Gee, we need to fix something,’ " said Barb Perella, who is in charge of renting space at the Holiday Center. "I’ve had several casualties, and it worries me about downtown."

Perella and other downtown business leaders failed in their bid to privatize much of the center’s public walkways last year. The plan was designed to give merchants and Holiday Center management the authority to monitor and police their business environment much the same way merchants do in private malls.

But city councilors balked after youth and parents complained that the measure went too far. Instead, councilors voted to establish a code of conduct for the mall as part of a compromise worked out between business leaders, the Greater Downtown Council and local youth. The code, which is posted in the shopping center, is supposed to be a reminder to patrons to behave appropriately.

However, some business owners say the code has had little if any effect.

"Nick appears to be a casualty of our inability to get something done," said David Ross, president of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. "This is a local owner, a strong community leader saying ‘enough.’ What does this mean for someone from the outside who’s looking to establish a business there?"

Patronas says the City Council needs to give police the tools to keep order downtown.

"I just think the downtown in the last year has gone right to pot," he said.

Police records show there were only two calls to Burger King for "kid trouble" between January and mid-March. But Patronas indicated the problems go much further. The restaurant’s managers have been threatened by youth. And Patronas says he has seen drug deals and purse snatchings taking place in the 200 block.

That combined with marginal sales and the proximity of the chain’s other Duluth restaurants prompted the decision to close downtown. Patronas owns six Burger Kings in the Twin Ports and will open another on 27th Avenue West June 15.

Patronas owns the building at 220 W. Superior St. and is searching for a new tenant. He isn’t ruling out the possibility of returning to downtown if the situation improves.

Many business owners on the block say things are getting better, thanks in part to community police officer Paul Stein. Stein patrols the block and has been credited with helping keep youth under control.

The Holiday Center has stepped up its own security efforts with positive results, Perella said.

"We’re just going to move forward on our own and solve our own problems in our own fashion," she said. Pioneer National Bank recently opened a new branch at the center, plugging one of the vacancies on the skywalk level.

Keith Thieschafer, who owns the Holiday Center McDonald’s, said he, too, has noticed an improvement. Kids still cause problems occasionally, but incidents are not as severe as in years past. However, Thieschafer was noncommittal when asked if he would renew the restaurant’s lease at the Holiday Center when it expires in September.

"When the lease expires, we’re going to have to evaluate our situation," he said.

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Making way for NW Bell, 1971

May 12, 1971

Razing buildings along Fourth Avenue West, between Superior Street and First Street, to make way for the Northwestern Bell building, May 12, 1971. (News-Tribune photo)

Here are a few glimpses from 1971 of the much-changed downtown Duluth block bordered by Superior Street, First Street and Third and Fourth avenues west. The picture above shows smaller buildings being demolished to make way for the mammoth Northwestern Bell building (which was the subject of a previous post).

Here is a view of the same area from a little over a month later – June 24, 1972 – with covered sidewalks in place as construction begins:

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Oreck’s in Superior, 1962

Nov. 6, 1962

Oreck’s new store in Superior, 1319 Tower Ave. (News-Tribune photo)

The caption on the back of this photo indicates that this store used to be Stacks (or Stack’s?). The reflections in the windows show a few details from across the street – including a sign for Saffords Desks and Chairs:

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Heatwave Berler craze, 1976

August 8, 1976

KDAL-TV weatherman Richard "Heatwave" Berler wearing one of his T-shirts, August 1976. (Joey McLeister / News-Tribune)

Heatwave sweeps region

By Mary E. E. Peterson, News-Tribune

A heat wave is a rare meteorological happening. Heatwave is a rare media happening.

In fact, the probability of such a weatherperson hitting Duluth may approach one of Heatwave’s own spare-time calculations – the probability that everyone in New York City will die of random causes within 12 hours of each other is one chance in the number one followed by 38,900,000 zeroes!

But it happened. Right here in Duluth. Since late May the fuzzy-haired, wild-bearded, crooked-smiling Richard Berler has been putting together a serious weather show for KDAL-TV that has precipitated a miniature cult – an unheard-of stream of fan mail, a Heatwave Fan Club in Orr and a Heatwave T-shirt craze.

At a recent Top Shop autograph session promoting the T-shirts, Berler was besieged by motorcyclists from the Iron Range, a busload of kids from Fort Frances and a devotee from Bemidji who brought a gift of a pillow featuring a hand-stitched weather map.

Berler made a guest appearance at Accent Paint’s grand opening and next week will talk about tornadoes to the Moose Lake Kiwanis Club. Strangers on the street hail him familiarly, and, all things considered, he’s somewhat of a celebrity.

Berler is clearly overwhelmed and bewildered by all the commotion he’s created.

"I’m not a show business person," he explains, clutching a clipboard of weather maps. "My motivation is not to promote Heatwave. I’d like to think the response is related to the fact that I’m trying to present a serious weather show, an informative show."

He certainly does take a seriously. After putting aside geology studies at UMD, he was hired for two hours a day, based on a concept of a weatherperson as someone who reads the national wire services’ weather reports. But instead "they wound up with someone with a meteorological background," Berler says triumphantly.

He spends six hours a day on his job, gathering data at the airport, making his own interpretation and drawing intricate weather maps with multicolored felt-tip pens: all for a five-minute presentation sandwiched between the 10 p.m. news and sports. …

Richard "Heatwave" Berler works on one of his weather maps. (Joey McLeister / News-Tribune)


Whether viewers are charmed by the content of Berler’s program or his style is difficult to pinpoint. An attraction to the combination is expressed in a fan letter from the Orval K. Moren family of 4502 W. 7th St., Duluth:

"This man is a gem. Not thinking of flaws, but quality! We have come from another station to KDAL because of him. He is himself. No pretense." …

The derivation of Berler’s nickname Heatwave long precedes his job at KDAL. A postcard from Parsippany, N.J., received last week asked, "Richard ‘Heatwave’ Berler? Reminds me of a chap I knew from Westport, Conn., about five years ago – a guy by the same name who got extremely excited about heat waves. Tell me you’re not the same Rich Berler."

Well, dear viewer, he is. Berler recalls the turning point in his life: "When I was six, I turned into a heat-wave maniac. I always wanted to see a temperature of 100 degrees." …

Now 22 and without a degree in anything, he describes himself as "a mathematical maniac with respect to numbers. I ended up with a one-track mind. In my ninth-grade yearbook, no one wrote a single comment that wasn’t weather-related.

"That was the level on which people know me. I tended to be somewhat quiet and alone."

The stereotype persists. He walks to work from his room on the East End of Duluth where he lives alone – a 44-minute hike "plus or minus three minutes," his constant companions a transistor radio and a Hewlett-Packard pocket calculator.

With the radio he keeps up on music and tries to receive distant AM stations. …

And, with the calculator, he toys with such things as a formula for predicting thunderstorms and determining "the probability that the air in this half of the room will go to the other half of the room and leave us to suffocate." (The answer to the latter is one chance in the number one, followed by one septillion zeroes.) …

"Heatwave" stayed at KDAL, later KDLH, until February 1980, when he moved to take a TV weather position at KGNS-TV in Laredo, Texas – a town that is very familiar with heat waves. He’s still there – you can find his station profile and current photo here.

He’ll be popping up in another Attic entry in the near future… stay tuned.

And, I’m curious… Does anyone out there still have any Heatwave memorabilia?

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Soo Line Depot, 1970?


This undated photo shows the boarded-up, dilapidated Soo Line Depot at the corner of Superior Street and Sixth Avenue West in Duluth. Judging by the cars, I’d guess this was taken in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The rails have been removed from where trains would have pulled up along the canopied platforms, and large sections of the windows are covered with boards.

Signs on the building point the way to the Flame Restaurant and the Excursion Dock on the waterfront:

I could not find information on when the depot was razed, and if there was any kind of effort to save it. Can anyone out there fill in the gaps?

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Henry’s Hamburgers, 1961

Oct. 31, 1961

Henry’s Hamburgers, 2534 London Road (News-Tribune photo)

As indicated by the sign atop the facade, the specialty of this restaurant – also known as Henry’s Drive-In, and located about where the London Road Perkin’s restaurant is today – was 15-cent hamburgers. Having that figure in the sign must have made the owners think twice before raising prices.

Some of the staff were looking out when the photo was taken:

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Hemlock Garage collapses, 1979

March 7, 1979

Crumpled walls reveal the cavernous interior of the Hemlock Garage building, a Duluth landmark, after the roof collapsed under the weight of snow Tuesday afternoon. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

Snow crushes downtown building

By John Murrell and Susan Willoughby, Duluth News-Tribune

With a rumble and a cloud of yellow dust, a large section of the 83-year-old Hemlock Garage building at Third Avenue East and First Street collapsed at about 1 p.m. Tuesday, crushing several cars under an avalanche of bricks, but causing no injuries.

Assistant Fire Chief Robert O’Rourke said the collapse was caused by "a lot of snow on an old building."

A third of the building on the First Street side was reduced to rubble. Cracks and bulges were visible in the portion left standing.

Gerald Veillet, acting city building inspector, said building owner Jack Krenzen has arranged with his insurance company to contract for the demolition of the rest of the structure early today.

The building, most recently used for storage by Krenzen’s Cadillac-Pontiac-Honda agency, opened in 1896 as the Union ice-skating rink. In later years it was a roller-skating rink, a public auditorium, a garage and a warehouse. …

Bricks from the collapsed facade of the Hemlock Garage building crushed several cars on First Street, but no one was injured. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)


A recent occupant of the building was City Councilor John Fedo’s car cleaning business, which moved to Garfield Avenue in January. Fedo announced his candidacy for mayor about three hours [before the collapse].

Considering his fate had he been in the building, Fedo said, "It might have been the shortest Duluth mayoral campaign in history."

The garage is the third Duluth-area commercial building to be damaged by heavy snow on its roof. A structure at the Morterud Egg Co. collapsed Feb. 21, and last Sunday part of Minnesota Power & Light Company’s Cloquet office roof collapsed.

A undated view of the Hemlock Garage building in its final years before collapsing under the weight of heavy snow in 1979. (News-Tribune photo)

These excerpts are from the Duluth Herald’s coverage of the collapse:

It was built in 1896 as a wooden frame structure and faced with brick in 1910, city building records show. It was opened as a skating rink and had two sheets of ice, 180 by 82 feet, on two levels. It was Duluth’s first indoor ice-skating rink. There was no artificial ice in those days and in the off-season the place was used for roller skating.

Over the years it housed a variety of businesses and also had been used as an auditorium. The Hemlock Garage business had moved out last year. …

The collapse of Duluth’s first skating rink under the weight of snow recalled a similar incident involving a skating rink of a later era – the Amphitheater, at 12th Avenue East and Superior Street. Its roof collapsed on Feb. 12, 1939, only minutes after 3,000 spectators at a hockey game had escaped after being warned by crackling noises in the ceiling. Four persons were injured.


The Hemlock Garage building site now is occupied by the parking ramp behind the new Sheraton Hotel.

A "turn-of-the-century" view of the Hemlock Garage building – then being used as an auditorium in its upper levels, with a wagon shop below. (from the News-Tribune files)

The top line on the poster on the corner says "AUDITORIUM," but the rest of the text is too small to read off the original print:

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