NorShor Theatre History

With Monday’s announcement that the city of Duluth is planning (again) to buy the NorShor Theatre, let’s take a look back at the long history of the downtown landmark. Here are a variety of photos and stories from the News Tribune Attic:

Duluth’s NorShor Theatre, shortly after opening in 1941. (News-Tribune file photo)

July 10, 1941


The following is a column written by NorShor remodeling architect Jack Liebenberg, then the Upper Midwest’s most celebrated picture palace designer, for the July 10, 1941, Duluth Herald and News Tribune. It was timed to appear on the day of the grand opening of the theater. (The column was reprinted in the DNT in December 2003):

In striking contrast to the existing "modern" vogue, the NorShor Theatre is charting a venturesome course in architectural form and design. It is both refreshing and inspiring. It represents a departure from the hide-bound, sterile crudities of the past decade, which the monotonous functional designers so painfully thrust upon us.
In plan form, the theater employs many interesting silhouettes or patterns. The lobby, for example, is hexagonal; the foyer is an elongated oval which blends rather effortlessly into a rectangle with softened and rounded corners in the entresole. The huge high-ceilinged Arrowhead lounge, which forms a bridge to the terraced milk bar, is lozenge-shaped in plan.

The easy flow of the plan is particularly emphasized in the auditorium, which at no point has walls which are either parallel or straight in line. For acoustical reasons, the floor, the walls and the ceiling conform to particular shapes and forms that are intriguing to the imagination. And yet, with it all, there is a sense of vast spaciousness, of repose and of comfort.

Low, easy, swinging stairs and ramps carry one from level to level without a feeling of effort or climb. Although the theater has a spacious mezzanine, at no point in the auditorium, whether it be on the orchestra floor or on the mezzanine, is one conscious of another floor level existent in the theater. This is accounted for by the unusual parabolic shape of the floor, the inverse curve of the ceiling, the wide continental seat spacing and the aisle arrangements.


Many innovations and unusual conveniences for the comfort of the patrons have been included in the structure. In addition to the large lounges which are reached by the two great stairways on a secondary level, a promenade in the form of the Norshor Milk Bar has been developed on a terraced elevation above the Arrowhead lounge. The Milk Bar is the first of such compact yet commodious innovations to be developed in a theater. It will probably be the fore-runner of many such installations throughout the country.

Appropriate and interesting are the Little Galleries located on the main floor just off the floating stairway. In these galleries will be included many traveling exhibits and works of art.

Here we have and rightly so, the theater, one of the fine arts, developing and encouraging another fine art by providing for the functional and the beautiful. Here objects of art value can be appreciated by everyone, instead of being confined to the appreciation of the favored few. One of the first exhibits will include the work of well known Minneapolis and other nationally known artists. The work of a number of instructors of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts will be given prominent location in the exhibit.

The auditorium of the NorShor Theatre shortly after it opened in 1941. (News-Tribune file photo)

Art motifs

In the decorative scheme of the theater works of art have been combined as the central motif of architectural and structural treatment. Conspicuous among these is the sculptural bas-relief on the main stair to the Arrowhead lounge. Here we find the work of a prominent Minneapolis portrait painter and instructor at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, Gustav Krollman. With a firm and yet easy moving theme, he depicts in interesting allegorical form, the City of Duluth in its relation to the entire Range country. This rendition is powerful and awe-inspiring in its conception.

In the auditorium, two large sculptured medallions are the central motif of the decorative scheme. Here again a new material, consisting of aerated gypsum combined with exploded mica was used.

In a somewhat lighter vein, Mr. Krollman, bordering on caricature, forces you to smile whether you will or not when you view his rural mural over the milk bar.

Another recognition of a newly developed fine art, namely photography, has been incorporated in the space which surrounds the floating stairway. Here we find the architects utilizing as wall decoration an immense photo mural depicting Split Rock Lighthouse. The original photograph was obtained from the state conservation department. This excellent photo was reproduced by John Kellet, St. Paul, who is an artist in his field.


The lighting has been planned with great care and study in that each room utilizes the various light units for a particular purpose.

The carpeting, draping, furniture and stage settings were all especially created and designed by the architects for the NorShor project.

From the structural and mechanical data available about the structure, it will be interesting to note that the architects have included several independent ventilating and air conditioning systems. Each system serves a particular part of the theater and as gauged in the particular comfort required in that part.

As relates to vision, sound, atics, projects, all of the latest devices and methods have been employed in the NorShor theater development to furnish the best in entertainment and pleasure for the patron. The atical treatment has been given intense pioneer study in the auditorium. Methods, materials, model and other data were here employed for the first time in any theater. As to the results obtained, little need be amplified here. Suffice it to say that the illusion is almost perfect in every portion of the auditorium.


With reference to the structure, over 300 tons of structural steel were used to form the skeleton of the building. The tower, which graces the front of the building, is over 125 feet high above the sidewalk. It is completely sheathed in porcelain and is one of the first steel structures using this material in the country. It was designed to stand a normal wind pressure of more than 100 miles per hour. The foundations supporting the tower were carried down to bedrock.

The entire building project of the Norshor theater has been a pleasant and unique work from its conception. The project carries a certain business and sophistication with it, and yet, it is not garish. The modernized Baroque, employed with extreme restraint, has evolved into a composition of architectural forms which are based on the best of the "old," yet, built in the finest of the "new."


NorShor Theatre, April 3, 1997 (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)

March 23, 2001


By Baird Helgeson, Duluth News-Tribune

Duluth’s youngest city councilors want the Temple Opera House and NorShor Theatre to remain hot spots for young people if the city buys the landmarks.

Councilors Donny Ness and Russ Stewart want a nonprofit group composed largely of current tenants to manage the facilities if the city buys the buildings.

"The NorShor provides excellent cultural and arts opportunities for young people in a city this size," Stewart, 36, said Thursday at a news conference in the theater. "There is no way we will sit back and let that be destroyed."

They also want the Duluth Economic Development Authority, which would own the buildings, to honor the leases of current tenants and ensure the buildings remain a cultural and arts hub.

The NorShor features alternative movies, concerts and open-mic poetry readings.

"As the mayor pointed out, he wants this to be a hip theater district," said Ness, 27.

Mayor Gary Doty announced last week he wants the city to buy the NorShor and Temple Opera House to preserve the landmarks.

Doty said he wants to purchase the buildings and the Bridgeman-Russell building with money left over from a downtown tax-increment financing district.

The money would pay off bonds if the city doesn’t use it for redevelopment by March 31, under a new state law.
DEDA and the City Council must approve the $1.48 million sale before the deal is final.

DEDA members will review the sale today and the council is expected to act on it Monday.


NorShor Theatre in downtown Duluth, March 14, 2001. (Jessica Shold / News-Tribune)

March 24, 2001



The Duluth Economic Development Authority said no to the NorShor Theatre and yes to the Bridgeman-Russell building Friday night.

DEDA had delayed acting on two proposals to purchase the historic downtown buildings at its meeting Tuesday, asking city staff for more information on the long-term plans for the properties and what it would cost in the short run to bring the buildings up to code.

After a three-day recess, DEDA members remained unconvinced about the wisdom of the most expensive transaction – spending $1.155 million to acquire the Temple Opera building, the NorShor Theatre and the NorShor Annex from Eric and Debbie Ringsred. A loan worth $31,196.74 also would have been forgiven as part of the deal.

However, DEDA did approve the less expensive purchase of the Bridgeman-Russell building for $330,000. The deal still needs to win the approval of the Duluth City Council before it can proceed. Councilors will take up the matter Monday.

Mike Conlan, director of Duluth’s planning and development department, provided DEDA members with information about income and operating costs at the Temple Opera building and memos from the fire marshal regarding a sprinkler system recently installed in the NorShor complex. But he said he had not yet managed to obtain a building inspector’s report on the property.

It was a situation that made DEDA member Dale Lewis uncomfortable. "To not have that report here is really having a big blank check that we’re being asked to sign," she said.

Conlan said it appeared the buildings would not require substantial improvements to comply with city codes, but other DEDA members were equally uneasy about acting with the information they had in hand.

DEDA president and City Council member Ken Hogg said, "When I look at the idea of putting together a plan involving public money to restore that whole area and to preserve and enhance the potentialities of that area, it’s very exciting.
"My problem is that the way this has been presented so far. It’s a heart-throb idea, but there’s nothing there to see it works economically – that it makes sense."

Lewis said she needed a clearer plan and posed a tough rhetorical question: "So you’re asking us to spend over $1 million on this property, and then we can decide what to do with it, or whether to do anything with it?"

Conlan defended the plan to intervene to help restore and redevelop what he considers some strategically important historic buildings. "We’ve determined that our community needs to make a strong statement about the value of historic preservation downtown."

Patty Edwards, a DEDA member and City Council member, expressed concerns that city ownership of the NorShor could change its character. "The people running it now know what they’re doing," she said. "I hate to say it, but we’re not really hip here."

DEDA members voted 7-0 not to purchase the NorShor complex, including the Temple Opera building.


Rick Boo sits in the theater of the soon-to-reopen Norshor on Jan. 19, 1998. (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)

March 14, 1998



She was there on July 11, 1941, at age 11 when its debut film, "Caught in the Draft," a comedy starring Bob Hope, first flickered onto the screen.

She was there in 1948 at age 18, out on a first date with her future husband. They saw the comedy "Sitting Pretty," starring Clifton Webb and Maureen O’Hara.

Now, 50 years later, Barbara Main is 68 and once again spending a lot of time in the company of her old friend — the Norshor Theatre.

It’s been years since the historic theater has shown movies on a regular basis. And its latest incarnation as an alternative filmhouse sent waves of nostalgia and excitement through Barbara when she saw the theater spark back to life on Jan. 23. That night, "Eve’s Bayou" appeared on the marquee and people streamed in the doors of the grande dame of Old Downtown.

"To walk out of my building and see that marquee lit up is just wonderful," said Barbara, who lives next door to the Norshor in Greysolon Plaza. "It brings life to this dead, dark end of the street."

Barbara, who watched "The Apostle" twice during its four-week run, plus a Wednesday matinee screening of "The Haunting," is one of a growing number of loyal customers at the refurbished Norshor, 211 E. Superior St.

On Tuesday night, she was shooting the breeze with her son John and his wife at the bar outside the balcony theater — a feature that allows moviegoers to relax and chat before or after a film. They can even bring their drinks into the theater with them, as long as it’s poured into a plastic cup first.

"I don’t like going to a movie in a Quonset hut. I get claustrophobic in those things," Barbara said. "This is my idea of what a theater should be. There’s the bar here, a lounge."

She noted that Rick Boo, who runs the theater as president of Crossroads Flux, the group that spearheaded the latest revival, also rents out the house to community and business groups and offers children’s birthday parties during Sunday’s family matinees.

"But the biggest thing is this is the keystone to reviving downtown," Barbara said. "We’re talking about quality of life here."

A couple enters the Norshor Theater on March 7, 1998, for a matinee showing of "The Apostle." (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)

‘A real boon’

She said she is afraid to walk from the Holiday Center to Second Avenue East after dark. Many seniors, who live in great numbers in the vicinity of Old Downtown, feel the same way, Barbara said.

"You don’t get mugged on a busy street with lots of lights and lots of people," she said.

That’s where the Norshor Theatre comes in. With its glowing marquee, and the family-oriented clientele it attracts, the theater is already bringing more people to the area, Barbara said.

"I think it’s going to be a real boon, not only for tourists, but for people who live downtown," she said.

John couldn’t agree more.

"It’ll be a spark that will ignite this whole end of downtown, if people would support it," he said.

John gazed around the soft-lighted bar and mezzanine lounge, which features live music on weekends. He pointed to the far wall, which frames one of the theater’s two circular staircases with a giant relief sculpture of Northland miners. The other staircase is wrapped by a 16- by-26-foot photograph of Split Rock Lighthouse, proclaimed in a July 1941 News-Tribune article as the "world’s largest photograph enlargement." Norshor advertisements in the summer of 1941 trumpeted the moviehouse as "the Northwest’s Finest Luxury Theater."

"The thing I really like about this place is it totally lacks the sterile atmosphere you get at any other theater in Duluth," John said. "It’s a unique film experience, it really is."

He added that he would love to look up at the marquee and see Clark Gable’s name in lights. That would complete the Norshor’s throwback feel to another movie era, to Hollywood’s halcyon days, according to the film buff.

John says he feels cheated watching classics like "Casablanca" and "Gone With the Wind" on a TV screen. "You have to sit in your living room and try to imagine what it’s like to watch these films on the big screen."

A matinee crowd watches "The Apostle," starring Robert Duvall, at the Norshor Theater on March 7, 1998. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)

Big crowds

Boo couldn’t be happier that people are sounding off about films they want to see at the Norshor. He also doesn’t mind fielding occasional complaints about the theater’s sound quality being a little fuzzy; he’s having technicians "tweak" the sound system.

Customer input means the theater — in which Crossroads Flux secured a $31,575 low-interest Duluth Economic Development Authority loan and generated another $113,000 in private investor cash for the first phase of renovations — is finding its niche.

Boo said the theater is averaging between 40 and 45 customers per show, exceeding the 35-per-show mark that he projected as necessary to break even.

The 234-seat upstairs theater was filled to capacity for a recent Sunday matinee showing of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."

"We weren’t expecting that, but we got everybody in and ran the film," Boo said.

Although he’s been working a breakneck schedule of 15-hour days since the theater reopened, Boo said the effort is paying off with moviegoers responding to the Norshor’s fare of non-mainstream, "more thought-provoking" films. And they’re gradually catching on to the lounge, he said.

Asked to describe the Norshor’s appeal, Boo said, "I think it’s the combination of the old theater, just that experience itself, and the fact that independent films never show (in the Northland), or at least on rare occasions."
Aside from growing pains of burnt popcorn and, in his debut as projectionist, a burnt film, Boo said the theater and staff are progressing nicely.
Now his biggest headaches come from trying to find rare copies of older films. Boo said there’s a distribution freeze on original copies of "Grease" and "Doctor Dolittle," for example, as Hollywood prepares to release new versions.
"We don’t have enough time in the day to bring all these films through," Boo said. "Then you get into foreign films, and there’s a million great foreign films out there."
He plans to show cult classics, such as "A Clockwork Orange," as late-night weekend attractions. A recent showing of "Friday the 13th" attracted a big late-night house.

The NorShor Theatre in downtown Duluth, September 19, 1999. (Renee Knoeber / News-Tribune)

Next phase

The next phase of Boo’s plan is to open a 450- to 500-seat theater downstairs. Such a theater, which is expected to cost about $200,000 and open next fall, would likely open the floodgates to another wave of Norshor nostalgia.

It was in 1941 that The Orpheum, originally opened in 1910 as a vaudeville house, was transformed into the Norshor moviehouse. Films ran fairly consistently until the 1980s, when hard economic times shrunk Old Downtown business activity and multiple-screen theaters were built in retail corridors.

Barbara can’t wait until the downstairs screen opens. She plans to bring her wheelchair-bound friends over on a regular basis. Wheelchair-bound filmgoers can currently get to the balcony theater through a back entrance; there is, however, a short flight of stairs into the theater.

"I love movies," Barbara said. "I like mainstream movies, too. I was just really impressed with the ("The Apostle"). These days, your independent movies are right up there."

That’s the main draw for Wayne Anderson of Duluth, who saw "The Apostle" on Tuesday night.

"I think it’s nice to have a theater downtown, for one thing," he said. "And it sounds like they’re going to have some alternative films you wouldn’t see at the cineplex 1-12. So I kind of like it."

Anderson liked the concept so much that he was in the theater for the Norhsor’s grand-reopening screening of "Eve’s Bayou."

That film told the story of forces of voodoo sweeping through a Southern town and family.

Whether Boo needs otherworldly intervention to keep the Norshor going as an alternative theater remains to be seen. But if the crowds filling the theater are any indication of demand, he won’t need to be asking any fortune tellers about this project’s fate.

To Barbara Main — a Duluth native who’s been there, done that and is now back happily doing it all again — it’s all about the feeling of seeing a timeless classic, such as 1963’s "The Haunting," on the big screen.

"It is scarier, it is more gripping and more exciting when you’re sitting in a dark theater," she said.

Especially in the company of an old, dear friend.


Here are a few more NorShor photos:

Harlin Quist, seen above in the 1980s in a News Tribune file photo, was a native of Virginia who became famous for sophisticated children’s books, then returned to the Northland to try to to revive the NorShor Theatre with avant-garde dance and theater.

He presented dance companies including the Hubbard Street troupe from Chicago, staged contemporary plays and presented conversations with authors like Edward Albee. In 1994 he became ill with myasthenia gravis, which forced him to withdraw, and the building reverted to its previous owners.

Quist died on May 13, 2000, at age 69.

"If Harlin had a fault, it was that he gave people too much credit," Dominic Papatola, former theater critic for the Duluth News Tribune, told the paper for Quist’s obituary. "He assumed that if he brought top-caliber dance to town, Duluth would come to see it. They didn’t. He assumed that if he put his heart and soul into making the Norshor a success, the community would step up and do its part. It never did."


Duluth performers (from left) Oddio Nib, Tim Kaiser and Randy Jorgensen rehease at the Norshor Theater on July 26, 1994, for the upcoming "Fishing in the Stream of Consciousness" in Duluth. The performance artworks include narrative, music, video, slides and poetry. (Clara Wu / News-Tribune)


Marvin Pomeroy, manager at the Stage Door Lounge in the Norshor Theater, December 23, 1996. (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)


Trevor Peterson sorts through and organizes all the marquee letters at the NorShor Theatre on March 30, 2004. (Justin Hayworth / News Tribune)


Jamie Ness plays before a NorShor Theatre audience to open a concert by the Ashtray Hearts, the Rivulets and Divorcee on November 16, 2001. (V. Paul Virtucio / News-Tribune)


Geek Prom organizers Scott Lunt (on ladder) and Paul Lundgren work on the Norshor Theatre marquee on April 7, 2002, in preparation for the event. (Ingrid Young / News-Tribune)


Share your memories of the NorShor Theatre by posting a comment.

– Andrew Krueger

6 Responses

  1. Tomasz

    It’s interesting that we have so few photos between the 1940’s when the theater opened and the 80’s/90’s when the quest to “revive” it began. I’ve been curious for years when the tower and box office were removed.

    Favorite memory – The first annual (and only, I think) RPS Tournament (rock, paper, scissors). Of about 20-30 competitors, I came in second to Donny Ness. đŸ˜€

  2. Kathie

    Wow, awesome flashback. I too was wondering when that tower was taken down. Thanks for the great pics and memories.
    I have faith that now that the Old Downtown is seeing a comeback, the NorShor will again be the beauty it once was. We should all be thankful that it was kept from the wrecking ball till the powers that be finally saw what a treasure they had.

  3. PJ, Duluth

    Great photos and memories of a beautiful landmark. What happened to the tower shown in the first photo? (Okay: I admit I didn’t read every word. I was more interested in the photos, which are great.) Hope this place will soon be restored to its former beauty. I remember the grand staircase and small gallery on the first floor. I feel lucky to have gone to the NorShor when it was a beautiful, fully-functioning theater.

  4. Julie

    Wish more photos could be found to really show off the beauty of the original Norshor Movie theater. I think it would be great to have some place like Chanhassen Dinner theater and symphony orchestra’s as well, the building was once that beautiful! Thank you Andrew for the awesome walk down memory lane. I hope to go back into that place now and find it close to the original stature!

  5. Janice

    Thanks, Andrew. I spent many hours in the old NorShore theater watching favorite movies/stars. It was a beautiful place.

Comments are closed.