Monday, January 18, 2010

Old Duluth Armory has storied history beyond Holly, Dylan...

By Jim Heffernan

The apparent raison d’etre for saving the abandoned and decrepit Duluth National Guard Armory on London Road is that Buddy Holly performed there a few days before he died in a plane crash in 1959 and Hibbing High School student Bob Dylan was in the audience.

At least that’s what supporters of saving the old building say when they attempt to advance their campaign. Their call. I’m ambivalent about the architecturally undistinguished building, even though, as I’ve written many times, I was there that night, too – the night 51 years ago three days before the music died.

The Sunday (Jan. 17) Duluth News Tribune included a well-researched story by Brad Snelling, a librarian at the College of St. Scholastica, recounting that the famous composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who was also a virtuoso pianist, played a concert at the Duluth Armory 90 years ago this week.

No, I was not at that concert, but I was well aware of it. My mother, 21 years old at the time and a classically oriented pianist herself, often spoke of seeing Rachmaninoff in Duluth. And she spoke of seeing other world-famous artists at the Armory, most notably the great Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin and the Australian composer and pianist Percy Grainger.

Until 1966, the Armory was the only sizable venue for such performances in Duluth. That all ended with the opening of the Duluth Arena-Auditorium (now called the DECC) in 1966, after which the Army National Guard also moved out of the building and it fell into ruin – the building we see today.

But it did have its moments, some of them possibly more significant artistically than Buddy Holly and his fellow performers – the Big Bopper, a novelty act, and young singer Ritchie Valens, both of whom died with Holly in the crash of a small plane in rural Iowa.

Librarian Snelling’s Sunday newspaper account noted that nine days after performing in Duluth, Rachmaninoff, back in New York City, played his notoriously difficult Piano Concerto No. 3 at Carnegie Hall. That’s the work featured a few years ago in the movie “Shine” – the “Rach 3.”

The Armory stage also served as a platform for numerous other notables in the arts over the years, including guests performing with the Duluth Symphony from the front ranks of artists of their day. And there were theatrical presentations, too, featuring well-known artists such as movie star Tyrone Power, Britain’s Dame Judith Anderson (see Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”) and others. In the late 1940s, a young tenor by the name of Mario Lanza gave a solo concert at the Armory literally months before he became a national phenomenon and movie star (“The Great Caruso”).

Local pageants graced the stage as well, as Duluth celebrated its Fall Festivals and Portoramas and other events associated with civic boosterism. Bob Hope hosted one of those at the Armory (believe it or not, he also hosted one in the former Washington Junior High School auditorium that featured a young songstress named Doris Day), and joked about the Armory building, calling it “a barn.”

I wasn’t there, but I do recall as a youngster that the town was up in arms over Bob Hope’s insult to the Duluth Armory. As they say, the truth hurts.

The ranks are thinning in Duluth of people who actually attended events at the Armory. In the Rachmaninoff story it was pointed out that some 3,700 people were in the audience (the DECC auditorium holds about 2,400). They would have sat on row after row of wooden folding chairs. The armory auditorium was designed as a drill hall for soldiers, with a large, well-equipped stage at one end – huge velvet curtain within an imposing proscenium arch. The stage was fine; the hall was, well, Spartan. Or perhaps barn-like.

Rachmaninoff, Chaliapin, Percy Grainger – all great artists of the past who graced the Armory stage. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Big Bopper, pop stars of the past, are the performers the building is remembered for.

Oh, and also Bob Dylan, who did nothing more there than stand (there were no wooden chairs that night – it was a teen dance) in the hall with other teenagers, making it immortal in the minds of many.

For some  great pictures and more information about the Buddy Holly performance at the Duluth Armory, check out the link  HERE.


Anonymous said...

Armories were built in cities to defeat labor strikes. When large companies (railroads in port cities) needed the government's troops, they were right there. That is the important part of history that the armory represents, although its cool all these entertainers used it later in its life.

Jim Heffernan said...

Hello Anonymous: What an interesting insight -- one I'd never heard before but don't doubt for a moment. Spent some time drilling on that Armory floor myself, in the National Guard almost 50 years ago. By then, labor unions were so well entrenched around here no leader would dream of calling up the guard to battle labor organizers a la Ford and Pullman. I'll never look at the Armory the same again. Thanks for writing.