Nor Shor Theatre

211 E. Superior Street,
Duluth, MN 55810

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1929 photo from the collection of Jim Hefferman.

Originally built in 1910 and opening on August 22, 1910 as the Orpheum Theatre. Designed by architect John E.O. Pridmore, it had its main entrance at 10 N. 2nd Avenue East. At sometime before 1929, the entrance was moved around the corner to E. Superior Street.

In 1941, it was renovated to the plans of architects Liebenberg & Kaplan in an Art Deco style, reopening as the Nor Shor Theatre in October 1941 with Bob Hope in “Caught in the Draft”. Seating was provided for 1,300 in orchestra and balcony levels. After a failed conversion into a live concert venue a few years ago, this former vaudeville-house-turned-movie-theatre was used as a nightclub for several years. It was closed in November 2010.

In February 2012 it was announced that the theatre would be renovated to the plans of architectural firm TKDA of St. Paul. It reopened on February 1, 2018 as a live performance venue.

Contributed by Ross Melnick

Recent comments (view all 13 comments)

ThomJP
ThomJP on April 3, 2011 at 9:26 am

The Orpheum Theatre was built in 1910 on the site of the Temple Opera House which was part of the Temple Opera House Building that contained in its 6 stories the Masonic Temple among other offices, etc. At sometime prior to 1929 the entrance on Second Avenue East and the Magquee were changed around the corner to Superior Street.
In 1940 the Orpheum was gutted, the auditorium reversed and totally redesigned in the Art Deco style and renamed the Norshor. The new entrance and lobby is adjacent to where the second Orpheum entrance was. The three top stories of the Temple Opera Building were removed to clear of view of the Norshor Lighted Tower of the new theatre.
In the Detroit Publishing company photo site there is a photo showing the Opera House partially demolished prior to the construction of the Orpheum.
I grew up in Duluth and attended the Norshor many times but knew nothing of the Orpheum even though the corner business in the Temple Building housed the Orpheum Drug Store. The Norshor has been purchased by the city of Duluth and the Duluth Playhouse will operate it at some time in the future. I recently returned (after 40 years to Duluth and had a tour of the now closed Norshor. It is in pretty bad shape. I understand that they have discovered behind the existing ceiling the original gilt Orpheum ceiling and portions of the second balcony.

packer
packer on February 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Exciting new plans just announced to get the Norshor operating and restored. See link: http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/223330/group/News/

spectrum
spectrum on January 1, 2015 at 11:51 am

According to the below article, the Nor-Shor reopened in 2013 after a $29,000,000 restoration.

http://www.startribune.com/local/267716471.html

spectrum
spectrum on January 1, 2015 at 11:54 am

Looks like the link I mentioned above was inaccurate. According to the Nor-Shor’s website, renovations are still underway.

dallasmovietheaters
dallasmovietheaters on February 5, 2017 at 4:24 am

Closed for decorating in 1946 when Eugene Gilboe of Dallas created three seascape murals measuring 15'x30' that were attached to the walls and did the auditorium with a submarine motif.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on November 13, 2017 at 9:28 pm

The official web site says their target for completion of the renovations and reopening is December, 2017.

The project was designed by the St. Paul architectural firm TKDA. There is a slide show with three drawings on the firm’s web site.

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on March 19, 2018 at 11:34 am

1972 photo added via Frank Thorne.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on March 19, 2018 at 1:23 pm

The restored NorShor Theatre reopened as a live performance venue on February 1, 2018.

Here is the official web site.

LouRugani
LouRugani on July 7, 2018 at 7:02 pm

If the walls of the NorShor theater could talk, they wouldn’t know where to begin.

In the past 100 years, the old building on Superior Street in downtown Duluth has served many purposes: a live theater, a movie theater, a strip club. But for almost a decade it sat dormant, the marquee announcing one show: “Restore the NorShor.”

Now, after a grand re-opening earlier this year, it’s a palatial multi-use venue with the help of a massive public restoration effort, a revival that’s part of a trend of historic-theater renovations across America.

Today, the Art Deco-style theater stands tall in the middle of downtown Duluth near the shore of its namesake, the world’s largest freshwater lake — Lake Superior. It’s got a shining marquee, striking murals, and it’s yearning for you to visit, big-time.

A packed summer schedule of concerts, plays, musicals, film screenings, opera and poetry readings means anyone can find something pleasing to the eyes and ears.

Each month, the theater shows a different classic film, including a post-show discussion. The intense 1955 drama, “Rebel Without a Cause,” is on deck for August, for example.

Even former Duluth Mayor Don Ness Jr. gets into the act. He has revived the variety show his father, Don Ness Sr., started in the 1980s. Each installment of “Don Ness Shows Off Duluth” is different, featuring new content, including interviews, musical performances and skits.

A complete listing of events can be found at norshortheatre.com.

The NorShor isn’t the only place in Duluth with an emphasis on culture and the arts, however. It’s only the most recent addition to a burgeoning historic arts and theater district. Within a couple of square miles, downtown Duluth has popular restaurants, a historic train depot, and a quirky public library that’s shaped like the freighters that cruise through the harbor.

There’s also Canal Park, the former warehouse district that’s one of Duluth’s most popular tourist destinations along the lake. Awash with restaurants, hotels and medley of shops, it’s beloved by locals and visitors alike.

The NorShor follows a passion for historic renovation of theaters around the nation.

In St. Paul, 150 miles down the Mississippi River from Duluth, the Palace Theater’s rebirth parallels the Norshor’s.

After sitting unused for more than 30 years, the city purchased the theater and spent more than $16 million on renovations while stadium projects flourished in St. Paul and Minneapolis, drawing visitors from outside the metropolitan area.

“A lot of people are focusing on the sports aspect of it, and those things can also be very attractive, but the arts community? Having a great music scene? I don’t think it can be overstated how important that is,” former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said in an interview. “We’ve seen it.” Minneapolis threatens to have more theaters than it knows what to do with. On Hennepin Avenue, three classic theaters underwent major renovations in the late 1980s — the State, the Orpheum and Pantages. Down the freeway in Chicago, the Congress Theater is undergoing a $65 million reconstruction and is slated to open in 2019. All these renovations have a lot in common: passionate city leaders trying to boost the economy, expensive renovations and revival in public interest in the arts. They’ve all gone through challenges as well, especially hardships in securing funding. The NorShor sat crumbling on Superior Street for more than 35 years. Owners and managers changed more than a dozen times, but had given up. It was too big, too old, too expensive to renovate. But people kept trying. Few in Duluth wanted to give up on a theater their parents and grandparents had patronized.

Everyone knew the it had to be saved, but no one knew how.

After decades of transition, the NorShor finally has realized its full potential. The capital letters on the marquee are dusted off and shouting the latest show in town each week. After eight years of work on the theater, almost the entire city of Duluth showed up for the grand re-opening performance of “Mamma Mia” earlier this year. It was a glorious comeback, a scene straight out of the last 10 minutes of a movie where everyone lives happily ever after.

It wasn’t a happy ending for everyone, however. The rebirth of the NorShor didn’t come inexpensively, including legal battles and one death.

In 1910, the Orpheum theater, the NorShor’s original name, was built for $150,000. It hosted Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers, among other famous performers. Duluth was booming, allegedly home to more millionaires per capita than any other U.S. city with about 100,000 residents. The rich natural resources of northern Minnesota, combined with a shipping port that linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, kept the city going.

In 1941, the Orpheum theater was renovated into a glamorous new movie theater named the NorShor to keep up with advancing entertainment technology.

“The Northwest’s most spectacular theater … features an entirely new style of theater architecture, a style so radical from accepted standards that the NorShor has already earned the distinction of being more sensational than New York’s Radio City,” said an article from the Duluth News Tribune.

The NorShor started running into hardships in the 1980s, however, with a revolving door of owners and managers. The theater waxed and waned with the strain of upkeep. There wasn’t a long-term manager or consistent function for the theater until 2006, when with the support of owner Eric Ringsred, lessee Jim Gradishar turned it into the NorShor Experience, an entertainment center featuring nude dancers.

Ringsred, a local physician and property owner, had long been known for trying to protect historic buildings. He had owned the NorShor for decades before Gradishar came along, and was running out of options to keep it alive.

“The other proposals for the NorShor over the past year have been for a church, for a special events venue, and variations on the bar or nightclub theme. None have come forward with funding or a concrete plan, except for Jim Gradishar’s NorShor Cabaret, which he calls the ‘NorShor Experience,’ apparently modeled after a locality in Las Vegas,” Ringsred said in a post to his personal blog in 2006.

The addition of a strip club to the quiet downtown streets of Duluth did not go over well.

“For a lot of us … the NorShor was such an important place; we felt betrayed by that decision,” former mayor Ness said in an interview. “In downtown’s most visible and prominent building, you had the marquee highlighting the strip club. There was a lot of problems for the downtown that were centered at the NorShor. There was drug dealing and gang activity and prostitution, all being run out of Duluth’s last remaining historic theater.”

In online posts, the public eviscerated Ringsred and Gradishar over their use of the building.

Legal battles over liquor licenses and other elements ensued, and only four years later Jim Gradishar ended the conversation when he shot himself to death. He was 47.

The disintegration of the NorShor Experience strip club meant the city had a choice: allow the NorShor’s fate to remain to chance, or step in. There was a harbinger nearby.

Superior, Wis. sits nearby Duluth. Together, the cities make up the Twin Ports and are separated only by a bridge over the St. Louis River.

Superior’s own Palace Theater opened just seven years after the NorShor, but was closed in 1982 and then briefly used as a church. After sitting vacant for years, the Palace was demolished in 2006.

Ness saw the Palace’s demise as a warning to Duluth.

“To me, it was clear that if the community didn’t act, the NorShor would eventually see that same fate,” he said. “There was water damage that was occurring on a regular basis, the building was not being maintained to a standard that would ensure its viability in the long run. A bold and more aggressive step had to be taken.”

The Duluth Economic Development Authority purchased the NorShor theater from Ringsred in 2010 for $2.6 million. Renovations began six years later, and the theater reopened in 2018 in partnership with the authority, developer George Sherman and the Duluth Playhouse, the city’s largest community theater company.

“There are literally hundreds of people who feel like they have a sense of ownership in the success story and a sense of pride in how it turned out,” Ness said. “That’s been clear every time that I’ve been in that space, people are not only enjoying the space and in awe of the renovation that occurred, but there is a real sense of pride that our community did this together.” Today, the NorShor is a stately northern Minnesota cultural hub that showcases plays, musicals, concerts and classic film screenings.

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