Gas price war in Superior, 1989

November 12, 1989

Super Town Foods South is where the Superior gas war started in fall 1989. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

Superior store cuts gas prices

With refinery here, why are area gas prices so high?

By Wayne Nelson, News-Tribune staff writer

The gas war Gary Sorenson launched three weeks ago again has focused attention on the state of competition – or lack of it – in Duluth-Superior’s gasoline industry.

Sorenson, manager of Super Town Foods South at 6301 Tower Ave., cut pump prices Oct. 21. Since his action, retail prices for unleaded gas in Superior have fallen by 15 cents a gallon. But the war has had only limited effects in Duluth, where major retailers serving both cities have dropped prices by just a dime.

Much of the gas sold in both cities comes from a single source: the Murphy Oil refinery in Superior. For years, outsiders have puzzled at a market that sustains retail prices at 5 cents to 10 cents a gallon above those in the Twin Cities, and in Green Bay and Eau Claire, Wis.

“Why are our prices so much higher when we’re right next to a refinery?” said UWS economist Gerry Hembd. “It’s probably the one question I’ve consistently been asked more than any else. I’ve poked around the edges, but it’s a difficult market to crack.”

Sorenson, a grocer, has only sold gas since he assumed management and part-ownership of Super Town Foods South 17 months ago. But he’s noted what many Twin Ports residents have known for years.

“For some reason around here, everybody’s (retail prices) are the same,” he said.

Sorenson hasn’t seen illegal price fixing, but he’s noticed what he termed widespread “lazy marketing.”

“I think what happens is everybody figures we’re all going to be the same price, so we may as well (set them) up here, instead of down here,” he said.

His competitors cite a host of factors contributing to high retail prices here, and insist they need higher margins to survive than their southern counterparts.

They said in part because Duluth-Superior is a small market, many retailers here sell far less than 3,000 gallons daily. By contrast, many Twin Cities stations pump 7,000 gallons or more each day, enabling them to spread fixed costs, such as insurance and rent, over a wider volume.

As a result, a high-volume operator can survive on a narrower margin on each gallon sold than can a smaller station.

Signs posted outside Super Town Foods South in Superior on Nov. 10, 1989, reflect the price war store manager Gary Sorenson began three weeks earlier. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

Robert Thatcher, one of Sorenson’s competitors in South Superior, said retailers there were getting 15-cent margins or better before the gas war, but those have slipped to near 6 cents a gallon.

“A 15- to 20-cent margin is necessary (to survive),” he said.

Retailers also said their prices are high because wholesale prices they pay are often 5 cents to 10 cents a gallon higher than in the Twin Cities, Eau Claire and Green Bay. Each of those markets is served by multiple pipelines and refineries.

By contrast, the Murphy refinery is a major gas supplier in Duluth-Superior, and competes with a single pipeline, operated by Williams Co. Lakehead Pipe Line Co. in Superior ships only crude oil and natural gas liquids.

As the dominant supplier, Murphy Oil plays a major role in setting wholesale prices in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin.

Mike Doyle, a market analyst for Computer Petroleum Corp. in St. Paul, said the difference between wholesale prices in the Twin Cities and Duluth-Superior narrowed to 0.4 cents in mid-September, but has since widened to 3 cents.

He said wholesale prices here tend to be higher because the level of competition isn’t as stiff as in markets with several pipelines and refineries.

“The big aggressive trading comanies don’t get up to your neck of the woods,” he said.

Maurice Peel, spokesman for Murphy Oil in El Dorado, Ark., said the company sets its wholesale prices to meet its competition, adding that its refinery in Superior directly supplies no more than 30 percent of the gas ultimately sold by retailers here.

But through exchange relationships, Murphy also supplies some of the gas that other companies sell in the Twin Ports, giving the Superior refinery pricing control beyond the share it markets directly.

Peel wouldn’t disclose the refinery’s exchange volume.

UWS economist Hembd noted that a dominant refinery selling in a local market has no pipeline transportation expenses, and should have a cost advantage over its competition.

“It could price for less, but what would compel it to do it? Nothing,” Hembd said. “So long as their wholesale price is just under someone else’s, regardless of their cost of production, they’re meeting the competition.”

Through its independent-operated Spur network, Murphy also likely influences local retail pricing, Hembd said.

Paul Bilger, Murphy’s vice president of manufacturing, said the Canadian and North Dakota crude oil that it refines in Superior is cheaper than the Gulf Coast grades that supply its Louisiana refinery. But the North Dakota and Canadian crude is lower quality, and produces a smaller amount of high-margin gasoline and other refined products per barrel.

While describing the Superior refinery’s margins as good, Bilger said the small market it serves limits its efficiency and profits.


Here are a couple more details on the gas war from other articles…

  • Sorenson cut his prices to $1.01 a gallon for unleaded and $1.05 for leaded, a drop of 8 cents to 13 cents below his competition before they followed suit.
  • Some competitors claimed the “war” was not over gas, but instead milk. They said Sorenson was using gas as a loss-leader to lure in grocery shoppers. Those competitors, in turn, slashed their milk prices down to $2.25 a gallon for 2 percent, and Sorenson was forced to do the same.

As so often happens in the News Tribune files, there are no additional clippings about the Superior gas war of 1989. Can anyone recall any more details – how long it lasted, etc.?

What was once Super Town Foods South is now home to Superior Meats.

Tearing down Glass Block, 1981

October 2, 1981

Demolition crews raze the former Glass Block department store building in downtown Duluth on Oct. 2, 1981. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

The Glass Block department store, an institution at the corner of Superior Street and Second Avenue West in downtown Duluth for decades, has been a frequent News Tribune Attic post topic. You can read more about it here, here, here and here.

The downtown Glass Block store closed in 1981 and was torn down later that year to make way for what is now the US Bank building.

A second Glass Block store opened in the Miller Hill Mall in 1973. The Glass Block name lingered on at that location until fall 1998, when it was sold and converted into the present-day Younkers store.

Here is one more look at the demolition of the downtown store, from the same day as the photo above:

Share your Glass Block memories by posting a comment.

Hillside Market, 1996

January 7, 1996

Doreen Wuebkers, the owner of the Hillside Market, stands behind her counter of candy inside the store in December 1995.  The cheapest candy in the early years of the market sold for five pieces for a penny.  Now the cheapest candy sells for 2 cents a piece. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)



By Michele LaBounty, News-Tribune staff writer

Leonard Appicelli slides his fingers down the ridges of the old wall and slips into another time.

He’s lost in images as clear as yesterday.

“See the marks? The handsaw used to hang here. They didn’t have electric saws back then to cut meat.”

Appicelli is a kid again wearing a white apron and working in Tom Jannetta’s corner grocery at Fourth Street and 10th Avenue West. Sometimes, he stands on a box to help people at the candy counter.

Jannetta’s gone now. Appicelli’s black, wavy hair is tinged with silver. And the store Jannetta opened in the 1920s is called Hillside Market.

Doreen Wuebkers keeps alive the tradition Jannetta started. The grocery survives as one of a few neighborhood stores in a city once crowded with them.

This quiet part of Duluth’s Central Hillside is known as Little Italy to many people. Italian traditions are strong here and the names of longtime neighbors reveal a rich heritage. Appicelli. Chenet. Talando.

Add Wuebkers to the neighborhood family.

She doesn’t live in Little Italy, but she spends nearly every day tending the store and keeping customers happy. She bought the business from her sister on July 1, 1994.

A simple frame holds a dollar bill from first customer Tony Maki’s diet pop. He still stops by for coffee and conversation.

Friendliness like that makes Wuebkers know she’s on the right path.

“I didn’t go in it for the money,” says Wuebkers, 38. “It’s the pleasure, the funness of meeting people.”

People like Appicelli. People brimming with stories of market life long ago.

Appicelli worked at the store for seven years, hanging up his apron when he turned 14. He lives within eyeshot of Hillside in the house he grew up in.

Impressions of those times are indelible. The wooden shelves were creamy, not lime green. Tiny stone floor tiles were smooth as glass, not cracked in places.

Appicelli pulls out an imaginary receipt book from the spot where they used to be kept.

“In the Depression, everyone charged and when you paid your bill you’d get fruit,” he says.

He gestures to where Wuebkers’s beat-up desk sits against a wall.

“The potatoes were back there and right here was the stove where he burned coal and paper.”

Wuebkers reaches behind the candy counter and pulls out a petite paper bag.

“Remember these?,” she asks.

Appicelli holds the bag like an eggshell and eases his fingers toward the opening.

“My hand used to fit into it so nice,” he says.

Wuebkers listens to each tale, nodding and smiling. These memories reinforce her desire to preserve the market’s charms. Slick stainless steel isn’t her way.

Sandy, a mechanical riding horse, waits by the candy counter at the Hillside Market for a rider and the required 10 cents for a full minute. In the backgound, Amelia Mosqueda borrows the phone for a quick call to her mother as her son, Jacob Mosqueda-Beaudion, 1, sleeps in his stroller in December 1995. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)

Past slips away

Some of her customers need a slower life, Wuebkers says.

“The past is slipping away. Everything is so fast-paced,” she says. “This is your down-to-earth kind of store.”

This is where Wuebkers seems at home. Her energy, her easy friendliness makes the fit right for this native Duluthian.

Wuebkers has searched for a niche all her life. She grew up in Chester Park and went to school to be a medical assistant. For a while, she worked for a doctor and then as a receptionist at an appraisal company.

Something was missing.

Something for herself.

Pam Hayes, her sister and then owner of Hillside Market, asked Wuebkers to help clerk. Why not, she thought.

Wuebkers soon found her place amid the challenges and conversations over 25-cent cups of coffee. When Hayes decided to sell, Wuebkers mustered the courage to buy. Price tag: Undisclosed, but under $10,000.

Although Doreen Wuebkers buys a lot of her groceries from the large supermarket chains in the area to sell at her Hillside Market, she does receive some deliveries as well. Rick Kriske of the Twin Ports 7-Up/RC makes a delivery of soda products in December 1995. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)

Family support

Her family backs every step and boosts her mood if she’s down.

“Mom, you gotta give it at least three years,” says son David, 14.

Dena, her 17-year-old daughter, helps out. So does her sister. But it’s Don, her husband, who stands at her side with heart and hand.

“He’s my support. He runs errands and does odd jobs. He cooks and takes care of the house and takes the boys to hockey practice.”

Business is slow while she talks. A rush of customers isn’t the daily drill.

One afternoon her heart beat faster. Customers lined up halfway down the candy case.

Today it’s just a handful of deliveries and a woman of few words who needs a loaf of bread.

Another woman pushing a stroller leans inside the door. She wants to use the counter phone and pay later.

Wuebkers is a soft touch. Turning people down is difficult and so today, as she’s done before, she says, “Sure, go ahead.”

Her nature is pleasing customers, especially regulars who pick cans of soup, boxes of instant potatoes, toilet tissue and other basics from the shelves.

This diminutive grocery may never have the choices found at supermarkets. Necessity foods — and a few fancy things like mandarin oranges — are Hillside’s specialities.

Wuebkers must buy goods in small quantities to stay in business. For customers, that means higher prices than most competitors.

Prices usually keep Louise Chenet out of Hillside, except in emergencies. But while the market doesn’t provide Chenet her bread and butter, it does so for others.

“It’s good for the neighborhood, especially the old people who have no way of getting to the supermarket,” Chenet says.

A scale that was originally used to measure weights of meats is now used only to weigh fresh fruit at the Hillside Market.  The scale sits next to a portion of the green shelves in the shop. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)

Gift of cookies

For her, the grocery provides food for the soul — a sense of community.

She shows her appreciation for such an intangible gift by giving Wuebkers homemade Italian cookies.

This is heady stuff for Wuebkers, who feels more rooted to the neighborhood each day. Neighbors watch out for one another. She feels safe.

After a year, she’s ready for changes. She’ll brighten the worn shelves. The pink gas pipe across the ceiling will disappear under the swish of a paintbrush.

Dusty character will get cleaned up. That includes the antique toy trucks, cobblers’ tools and Wheaties box from when the Twins won the World Series.

The charm will stay. No one can wash or paint that away. No one wants to.

Kids who rush in the door after school to buy bags of 2-cent candy and other sweet stuff find goodies in the same spot as they’ve been since Jannetta’s time. They’re all tucked neatly side by side like rows of sardines behind the wide glass of the candy case.

Near the candy case is another temptation — Sandy.

The 1950s steel bucking bronco belongs to Dale Lings, who owns the building and ran the market for about seven years. He rode Sandy in his dad’s basement in Wisconsin. Now he shares the fantasy rodeo.

Wuebkers rests her arms on the horse’s back and thinks about the kids. A dime buys them one minute of jiggling.

This time of year Sandy hangs out at the end of the candy case close to Wuebkers’ desk. It’s warm back there by the heater so the kids toss off their coats before sliding into the leather saddle.

If a child doesn’t have a dime, Wuebkers always has a spare.

Disappointing kids isn’t her way. She remembers childhood. Games she played as a little girl brought her to this moment.

Long ago in her grandmother’s cellar in Lakeside, she played store with jars and cans of food.

“Maybe that’s always been there in the back of my mind.”


There are no further mentions of Hillside Market in the News Tribune files. The building (or at least what I think is the building) at Fourth Street and 10th Avenue West, in the Observation Hill neighborhood, now appears to be a residence.

Can anyone fill in the gaps about what happened to this corner store? If so, post a comment.

Duluth TV weather guys, 1996

December 13, 1996

Twin Ports television weathermen Phil Johnson (top left) of KDLH, George Kessler (bottom) of KBJR and Collin Ventrella of WDIO/WIRT make snow angels at the playground at Duluth’s Lester Park in December 1996 before heading off to work. Weather forecasting, however, isn’t playtime. The three say their forecasts often differ because their methods differ. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)


By Daniel Bernard, Duluth News-Tribune

You think your job is stressful? At least your job performance isn’t based on how well you predict the future.

All right, some of you may be insurance actuaries or stock market analysts or the like. But television weather forecasters deal with a subject that affects everyone.

Each day they offer their predictions in front of everybody.

Everyone knows what they look like, so if they’re wrong, people know who to complain to.

Some days, George Kessler would rather stay at home.

“If you said the day was going to be sunny, and instead you see there’s clouds everywhere, you don’t want to go out,” said Kessler, lead weather forecaster for KBJR-TV Channel 6 in Duluth. “You don’t want to see anybody because you’re embarrassed. People will come up to you in the supermarket and let you know about it.”

That’s especially true this time of year, when the weather can affect people’s lives in a big way. The daily prognostications of the TV weather forecasters can seem as worthy of attention as a news bulletin in wartime.

Hot topic

Hank Olson of Floodwood keeps a close eye on the TV forecasters. Olson believes that the Northland, like few other places in the country, considers the weather a high-ranking preoccupation.

“You mean an affliction,” jokes Olson, a retired plastics industry executive.

The Meadowlands native has lived in five other states. No one there could figure out why he talked about the weather so much. Neither could his wife.

“I didn’t realize why it was only me” until he moved back six years ago. Now Olson gets weather talk to his heart’s content, along with his coffee, at Jimmy’s Galley in Meadowlands.

“All the old-timers, that’s all they want to talk about is the weather — winter, summer, spring, fall. Now my wife says, ‘It isn’t your fault. It’s the area you grew up in.'”

There’s one thing Olson and his coffee klatsch can’t answer.

“If all three of the (Twin Ports) TV stations get their information from the National Weather Service,” Olson asked, “how come all three of them give a different forecast?”

Good question

TV weather is the marriage of science and educated guesses, according to the lead forecasters in this television market. An individual forecaster can insert a good deal of interpretation.

“If you give three different chefs the same ingredients and recipes, you may get three different cakes,” is how Phil Johnson, weather forecaster for KDLH-TV Channel 3, explains it. “Because each chef is going to do things a little differently.”

The raw data for the weather predictions at KBJR, KDLH and WDIO-TV Channel 10, as well as virtually all news outlets in the country, come from the federal government.

The National Weather Service observes trends with satellites and NEXRAD Doppler radars that few television operations could afford. The National Meteorological Center analyzes the observations with computer models that make generic weather predictions.

Private firms buy the data from the feds, then sort it and package it for the needs of local TV stations.

How data’s used

Meteorologists at KBJR and KDLH use the packaged information as a baseline for their predictions. They often second-guess the computer models based on their knowledge of how weather patterns can act unusual around Lake Superior.

Then there’s the hedge factor.

“My forecasting goal is to gear the forecast toward what people are going to perceive. And if there’s the slightest risk of precipitation, I’m going to include it,” Kessler said. “People are going to remember the precipitation that fell on their picnic that wasn’t predicted far longer than they are going to remember the predicted precipitation that didn’t happen.”

WDIO uses a Madison firm to make maps and other graphics for use in the broadcast, but its forecast otherwise comes straight from the National Weather Service’s Duluth office.

Johnson, a 26-year-old from Glenview, Ill., and Kessler pride themselves on their meteorology degrees. WDIO’s Collin Ventrella minored in meteorology but got his degree in mass communications. Communicating the weather is as important as calculating it, said Ventrella, 36, a Keewatin native.

“I’ve seen some meteorologists get in front of a camera and try to explain something in a very short, easy-to-understand format, and they can’t do it,” Ventrella said.

“You might call me the mouthpiece of the weather service,” he quipped. “There’s 11 meteorologists up there (at the Duluth National Weather Service office). Those are the ultimate experts. They are looking at the latest computer models, the fanciest gizmos. Once they put out a product, I feel very confident to put it out as it is.”

Viewers may give weather forecasters more guff than other on-air personalities, but they also find them more endearing.

“You watch ’em every night, and they kind of grow on you,” said Sue Swanson, 36, of Highbridge.

And as predicting jobs go, it’s not the most stressful.

“It’s certainly not as important as medicine,” said Kessler, a “30ish” native of Winchester, Va. “Sometimes you’re just going out on a limb and people know that . . . They’re very forgiving.”


With the departure (again) of George Kessler earlier this year, the only one of these three weathercasters still on Twin Ports TV is Phil Johnson, now at WDIO.

We’ve featured several other former Twin Ports weathermen in past Attic posts, including Richard “Heatwave” Berler, Jack McKenna and, just last week, Ray Paulsen.

Can you think of any other memorable Twin Ports weathercasters? Share your memories by posting a comment.

Vintage video of Duluth music favorite Rio Pardo

Last week I added a post about Rio Pardo (real name James Earl Brown), who made a splash on the Duluth music scene from the late 1960s into the 1980s.

After that post, two things happened – I found a vintage video clip on YouTube of “Jimmy” Brown performing years before he would have played in Duluth, and I was in touch with his grandson, who confirmed that the musician in the video is indeed the Jimmy Brown who later took the stage name Rio Pardo.

So, here is the video clip. Jimmy Brown / Rio Pardo makes his appearance at about the 35-second mark. Enjoy…

Ray Paulsen

Ray Paulsen, seen here in 1984, poses with the outfit he wore as the character “Sparx” on “Sparx Time,” a children’s television show that aired in Duluth in the 1960s. (Bob King / News Tribune)

Ray Paulsen, a Northland broadcasting pioneer best known for his portrayal of the clown “Mr. Toot” on a children’s TV show, died Friday in Duluth at age 80.

Paulsen also played the character “Sparx,” a radio operator, first as a sidekick to Jack McKenna’s “Captain Q,” and then on his own show, “Sparx Time.” And, Paulsen played Bozo the Clown before moving on to Mr. Toot.

“You do things as a character that you’d never try as yourself,” Paulsen, who performed in front of a live audience, told the News Tribune in 1984. “I used to do back flips in the air and land on a concrete floor. In my street clothes I would have just killed myself. I don’t know if it was the adrenaline flowing, or what.”

Ray Paulsen forecasts the weather on WDSM-TV in Duluth, circa 1964. (News Tribune file photo)

Aside from all those kids’ TV characters, he was a weathercaster on WDSM-TV in the 1960s, and on KBJR-TV in the 1970s. Clippings from the News Tribune files say that Paulsen’s twice-nightly weathercast on WDSM in 1964 was among the first live, local programs to be broadcast in color in the Northland.

Here are a couple of video clips people have posted to YouTube that show Paulsen at work. First, as Mr. Toot. The first clip also has footage of McKenna as Captain Q:

And here is a clip of Paulsen on a weathercast from 1975:

Paulsen became general manager of Superior’s Mariner Mall when it opened in 1980, and served in that role until 1989. In more recent years, he joined McKenna and Lew Martin to produce the “Radio Superior” show on KUWS-FM.

Share your memories of Ray Paulsen and Mr. Toot by posting a comment.

Video of President Clinton’s 1994 Duluth visit

A few weeks back a video was posted to YouTube showing a WDIO-TV live shot from President Clinton’s visit to Duluth on November 4, 1994. Apparently this is from right after his jog on Skyline Parkway, when he decided to stop the motorcade briefly to meet with people gathered at the corner of Skyline and Observation. He waves right to the camera at the 5:15 mark.

Thanks to YouTube user “spiritoradio” for posting this:

Stolen bulldozer goes on rampage at Duluth school, 1981

December 14, 1981

Students from Birchwood Elementary School in Duluth look at a bulldozer that was stolen and used to damage buildings on the school grounds before being abandoned in a mud-filled ditch in December 1981. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

Suspects sought in vandalism by bulldozer

By Gail Feichtinger, Duluth Herald

Duluth police are looking for two people who drove a stolen 9-ton bulldozer through a concrete warming shack, cracked two walls and moved a kitchen oven and range several feet at Birchwood Elementary School about midnight Saturday.

The vandals caused between $10,000 and $20,000 damage to the building and grounds at 1504 Swan Lake Road before burying the machine to the top of its treads in a nearby ditch, police said.

Birchwood Principal Henry Pederson said classes were held as usual today despite the damage, which included a 15-foot crack and a small hole in the kitchen wall, other damage to the kitchen and a 10-foot-long crack in the gymnasium wall.

The front wall of the warming shack was demolished, the baseball field backstop was crushed and about 20 railroad ties separating the playground from the parking lot were broken.

“The grassy area behind the building is now reduced to dirt piles. … It looks like a battlefield,” said Pederson.

Students from Birchwood Elementary School in Duluth look at the damage done to a warming shack at the school by a stolen bulldozer in December 1981. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

Police said the $40,000, 9-ton bulldozer, a 6-ton bulldozer worth about $35,000 and a 10-ton backhoe worth about $35,000 were stolen about midnight Friday from a lot at North Country Equipment Inc., 3801 Arrowhead Road.

The backhoe was found this morning mired in a swamp behind the store. The 6-ton bulldozer was discovered abandoned near the backhoe after the vehicle apparently ran out of gas, according to police reports.

Al Johnson of North Country Equipment said, “It would appear to me the equipment was taken Friday night into the swamp behind the store. And Saturday night they took a bulldozer over to the school. I can tell by the amount of snow on the tracks they had been missing two nights.”

No damage estimates were available on the 9-ton bulldozer.

Laurel Mokros (left), a building operations supervisor for Duluth schools, and Gail Freeman, an engineer at Birchwood Elementary School, survey the remains of the school’s warming shack after a stolen bulldozer was driven through it in December 1981. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

The vandals drove the 9-ton bulldozer about a mile from behind the store to the school, sticking to the woods, according to reports. Police said the suspects apparently went through the woods west along Arrowhead Road, crossed Arrowhead just before Swan Lake Road and continued through the woods on the other side until they reached the school.

Johnson said he believes the vandals are teen-agers who “must have had a key” to start up the heavy machinery.

Pederson said the school is offering a $100 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the vandals.

Dale Anderson, maintenance supervisor for the Duluth School District, surveyed the damage this morning. He said, “The foundations were fine. They pushed in a wall a little, but there’s nothing really that’s dangerous.

“They wiped out the warming house. That will have to be replaced or removed before the kids get into it.”


A few days later, Duluth police announced they would be charging two 17-year-olds and two 19-year-olds in connection with the incident.

Share your stories and memories by posting a comment.

The Saratoga, pre-Canal Park days

March 1963

The Saratoga Hotel, Cafe and Bar (right) and other business along the south side of Superior Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues West, March 1963. (News-Tribune file photo)

I’m not familiar with the history of the various incarnations of the Saratoga, but I assume this establishment on Superior Street in the old “Bowery” district is a forerunner of today’s Club Saratoga in Canal Park. All the buildings in the photo above were razed during the Gateway redevelopment project in the mid-1960s; is that when the Saratoga moved to its present location? Post a comment if you know.

The other businesses on the block, heading east (left) from the Saratoga, are Dove Clothing and Shoes, Zien’s Grill, Green’s Crystal Terrace nightclub, the 5th Avenue Hotel and the Spalding Hotel.

Here is another view from the same day, from a different angle:

I like the Saratoga Hotel sign in the window – here’s a close-up view:

I think it says a lot about a hotel when “Yale locks on every door” is a selling point – but that’s just me.

For more photos of Duluth’s long-gone Bowery, click here. For more about the Spalding Hotel, seen in the top photo, click here, here, here and here.

Share your stories and memories by posting a comment… and become a fan of the News Tribune Attic on Facebook if you haven’t done so already. Find the Facebook page here.

Rio Pardo, 1972

October 29, 1972

Duluth musician Rio Pardo, 1972 (News-Tribune file photo)

Rio Pardo brings crowds to Black Bear Lounge

By Jim Heffernan, News-Tribune columnist

There was a time – and it wasn’t too long ago – when you could go to the Black Bear Lounge in Hotel Duluth and if you were along and wanted company you could always talk to the stuffed black bear.

There also was a time – and it was quite a few years ago – when the same room was one of the two or so most popular night spots in town.

It appears those days of glory have returned. On weekdays now you have to elbow your way through the glass door off the most beautiful hotel lobby north of Hinckley. Once inside, you can get a table one of two ways: with luck or with patience. On Saturday nights you must add longevity.

Responsible for all this excitement is a friendly fellow names Jamesearl Brown, a Meadowlands horse raiser, among many other things. His first name is two combined into one.

Duluthians know him as Rio Pardo.

“Why did you pick a name like Rio Pardo?” I asked.

“Well,” he said as he lit his Sherlock Holmes pipe for the third time in three minutes, “I always liked the Latin beat and I saw the name Pardo in a book.”

“What about Rio?”

“I don’t know – it sounds sort of South American so I took it.”

Rio Pardo in a publicity shot from 1968, before he was scheduled to play at the Tin Pan Alley Club on London Road in Duluth.

I should point out here, for the dozen or so Duluthians who haven’t heard of Rio Pardo yet, that he’s the bandleader currently playing at the Hotel Duluth. He can play 12 instruments and sing in his own style with tinges of Brook Benton and Al Hibbler.

He plays everything from old standards to the latest rock backed by three able musicians. His popularity knows no age limits; on a given night you see young people (some look like teenagers) gyrating on the dance floor with not so young people who were dancing long before Rio Pardo was playing anything.

So much for the music; now for the man.

Jamesearl Brown was and still is his real name. Around Meadowlands he’s known as Jim. He was born in Great Bend, Kan., something over 40 years ago. His basic instrument is piano: “My mother worked so I could take lessons.” But as time went on he started picking up other instruments, most notably the trumpet.

After high school graduation in Great Bend, young Jamesearl Brown went into the U.S. Navy (World War II was on) and he served in the Mediterranean when it was a very unsafe place to be.

Following the war, Brown began his life as a professional musician, starting in Norfolk, Va. Soon after, he went to New York where he played in Harlem at the height of the old Cotton Club days. Brown played in a place called the Baby Grand where he became friendly with Nipsey Russell, who was the M.C. there, and a then-unknown comedian named Redd Foxx.

Enter the 50s. Carnegie Hall. Rio jumps off the stage during a rhythm and blues concert and gets mentioned by columnist Dorothy Kilgallen.

Rio Pardo with Jane Smith (back, left) and Anthony Benson (back, right) during a recording session in September 1979. At that time the three were working on developing a syndicated TV show, with Smith conducting interviews and Pardo providing music. (News-Tribune file photo)

Four years ago Rio came to Duluth with his wife, their son and a foster boy who came to live with them in Minneapolis. He played various local lounges, including the old Tin Pan Alley at the London House, and even bought his own place upstairs of the old Kasbar. He did OK – made a living.

Then last March he came to Hotel Duluth. He glows when he tells the rest of the story. “I can’t explain what happened, but we just hit. I fixed up my music a little, added another musician as backup, and everything started happening.”

Yes, it’s true he led a frolicking “Saints Go Marchin’ In” line through the WDSM studios during the 10 o’clock news one night. And some surprised moviegoers at the Norshor saw Rio leading a line of celebrators up and down the aisle during a movie a few months ago.

These antics belie the personality of the man, and the musician. Here is a soft-spoken family man with rustic yearnings. Here also is a superb musician whose talent has taken him to the top of his trade in the nation’s metropolitan centers.

Here is Jamesearl Brown of Great Bend, Kan., and Meadowlands, Minn.


Rio Pardo performing at Telemark Lodge near Cable, Wis., in 1979. (News-Tribune file photo)

I’m not too sure about the “Jamesearl” part – later stories referred to him as James Earl Brown. Either way, Rio Pardo continued to perform in Duluth and the surrounding area for many years.

After the Hotel Duluth gig ended, his band was the house band at Telemark Lodge near Cable, Wis., for a while. According to clips in the News Tribune archives, in 1983 he was back performing in the Twin Ports at the Zoo bar in Superior. In 1994, he performed at the Blue Note Cafe.

Rio Pardo performing at the Zoo bar in Superior on March 24, 1983. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)


Rio Pardo and his band performing at the Zoo bar in Superior, March 24, 1983. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)

Eventually, Rio Pardo moved the Twin Cities area. where he continued to perform. He died at his home in Maple Grove in December 2006 at age 80.

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