by Jim Heffernan
(Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Sunday, November 19, 2006 and reprinted in my book, Cooler Near the Lake, sold in area bookstores and on line through Barnes and Noble, Amazon and Adventure Publication.)
To Save the NorShor, see the editor's note below.
I was born just two years before the building that housed the old Orpheum Theater was gutted and turned into what became the NorShor as we know it. It opened in 1941, and its unique art deco design has been hailed as one of the finest example of that style. Vestiges of it can still be seen today in the NorShor’s present–lamentable–condition almost 25 years after it ceased to exist as a regular theater.
But what was it like to go to a movie there in the days before television, when movies were the principal form of entertainment for most folks? It’s been said that 1946 was the peak box-office year for movies in America. That’s about when I started going to movies at the NorShor, accompanied by parents in the early years.
Even to a child, the NorShor was a magic place–at least it was to this child who would rather go to a movie than a ball game any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Duluth had a lot of movie theaters scattered across the downtown and in some outlying neighborhoods, but nothing compared to the NorShor.
Its main entrance was eye-popping, with a hall of mirrors leading from the box office to the auditorium lobby area, which was dominated by a pair of curving staircases leading to the mezzanine and balcony.
Back on the main floor, the auditorium walls featured huge dimly lighted murals–female nudes pausing in a forest glade. Art. Well, art deco.
Before each movie began the screen was shielded by a huge curtain inside the imposing proscenium arch. When the feature was ready to begin, and soundtrack music rose, the movie’s image would be projected at first on the curtain, which, in a few seconds, would be drawn back revealing the screen. When the movie was over, as “The End” flashed on the screen, the curtain would glide shut.
I’ve heard that the owners had to keep a member of the union representing stagehands employed at the theater just to open and close the curtain.
No other theater in Duluth even attempted such pageantry or had such class. It made going to movies at the NorShor really special, like dining in a fine restaurant versus stopping by a café for a blue-plate special.
In my experience, after the movie, we’d often peruse the paintings in the narrow but sizable art gallery off the main downstairs lobby where local artists and photographers would display their works.
Still, you were there just to see a movie, even if it was in a unique setting. Once the lights went down and the curtain opened, the NorShor was just any other movie house, but somehow the lavish surroundings enhanced your enjoyment.
All of this cost the theater’s operators money, of course, which was probably why the NorShor charged more than some others movie houses for kids–12 cents. A child could get into the Lyceum for 9 cents.
It was recently announced that the City of Duluth hopes to buy the old NorShor Theater and the vintage Temple Opera Building in downtown Duluth. Duluth Mayor Don Ness said that he envisions the area downtown from Lake Avenue through to 805 E. Superior St (where Sir Benedict's Tavern is located) will develop into an arts and entertainment district that will showcase our downtown. I've always said that if I were a millionaire, I'd do just that. So this plan might help realize that hope to save the NorShor.
You too can help to save our vintage theater. If you're on Facebook, join the "Save the NorShor" group and let your Duluth city councilors know you want them to vote in favor of purchasing this theater. Better do it right away though as the council votes this Monday on this proposal and that vote will cast the future of the NorShor. Save the NorShor!