Saturday, July 23, 2022

To TOOT or not to TOOT was the question...

Source Flickr: Photographer is Apollo Antonin (8-6-21)
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/July 23, 2022

An item in this newspaper’s Bygones column the other day brought back a couple of memories: Once upon a time Duluth harbor had a loud foghorn that could be heard far and wide before it died, and its attempted return 40 years ago got me on national television.


Fond memories indeed.


Modern technology sometime after mid-20th Century obviated the need for a foghorn at all. Today’s maritime communications are such that ships enveloped by fog off our shores can find their way into port without having an ancient mariner in a Southwester rain hat standing at the bow, his hand capping his ear, an albatross overhead, listening for our foghorn.


It’s been a long time but I will try to convey as best I can in print what the foghorn sounded like. It had two levels that went together, booming thusly: OOOOOM-pah…OOOOOM-pah. The OOOOOM rendered a higher tone, the pah a little lower. Got that? It resounded throughout the inner city and beyond whenever the fog rolled in “on little cat feet,” as the poet put it


The number of Duluthians who recall hearing the old foghorn is getting smaller and smaller with each passing year. Of course. Read the obits.


But Eric Ringsred remembers it, and did, back in 1982 when he tried valiantly to bring the foghorn back for, oh, I don’t know, for auld lang syne, I suppose. Ringsred, a physician and civic activist who usually advocates saving historic buildings, must have liked the sound of the foghorn, as did tens of thousands of Duluthians within earshot. Unfortunately a good number of folks within earshot did not care for it at all. It disturbed their sleep, many claimed.


Growing up in what was once known as Duluth’s West End neighborhood, I could hear it when the wind was right. I never questioned it; it was simply part of Duluth. When it disappeared I didn’t really notice.


Ringsred did, and decided to bring it back. He initiated a campaign to refurbish the old “diaphone” foghorn (its technical description) and formed an organization he called “reTurn Our Old Tone” going by the acronym TOOT. Not bad. And a summer Fog Festival was organized to help raise funds for restoring the old foghorn and celebrate its return.


As with some other of Ringsred’s projects, it created some amount of controversy pitting those for bringing it back against those who never wanted to hear the old TOOT again. Like every other controversy, it played itself out, and eventually died. The result was no diaphone foghorn returning to the waterfront. End of story? Not quite.


Of course during the height of the TOOT campaign, it made the TV and print news around here ballyhooing the Fog Festival, and somehow WGN  television in Chicago got word of it. One of the most prominent broadcasters in the country, WGN could send reporters and photographers considerable distances in the Midwest for stories. As a result, they sent a team to Duluth to find out about the Fog Festival.


The first place the WGN reporter and photographer stopped to seek help in getting started was this newspaper. They first encountered a summer intern in the newsroom who didn’t feel qualified to discuss the foghorn issue and he brought the television news team to me.


Would I, they asked, be willing to let them film an interview with me about the Fog Festival?


Well, I’m not too hot at TV reporting, but I agreed. Besides, I figured, it would only be shown in Chicagoland.


So I sat down behind an empty newsroom desk as they placed their equipment opposite me and I told them all about our Fog Festival. It took maybe 15 minutes total from setup to “thanks” and “goodbye.”


I gave it no more thought, but the next weekend, when we were out and about on Saturday evening, people I knew came up to me and said they’d seen me earlier on the CBS Evening News. That’s the national CBS Evening News helmed in those days by legendary Walter Cronkite, although my appearance was on a Saturday when somebody else was anchoring.


CBS Evening News! My casual remarks on the Fog Festival had gone national. In the ensuing days I began hearing from people in other parts of the country with whom I was acquainted. Unfortunately, I missed it.


And Hollywood never called.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Duluth: Out in the middle of somewhere...

Written for the Duluth News Tribune by Jim Heffernan/July 9, 2022

So, the people in charge of promoting Duluth have come up with a new slogan: “Love it Like We Do” (even when it’s foggy, rainy and chilly on the Fourth of July?). Those of us who live here must love it or we wouldn’t have stayed, right? I have lived in Duluth for a long, long time.


Long enough to remember when we had other catchy slogans like “One Great Lake and a Whole Lot More” and even “Hay Fever Capital of…” of something. I forget. The Midwest? Maybe America. The world?


Duluth got a lot of mileage way back in its colorful history by declaring itself the Hay Fever Capital. Those were the days before widespread air conditioning, when people from the dust bowl and pollen-rife breadbasket of the nation sneezed a lot in the summer, eyes watering.


Duluth welcomed them with open arms and frequent cool breezes off Lake Superior, just as we welcome their successors today by sharing with them our love of, to recall another old slogan: “The Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.”


Several years ago the old Duluth Convention and Tourist Trap Bureau people were retiring whatever slogan was then extant and asked the public for ideas for a new slogan. I had an idea and let them know what it was. Now I share it in print for the first time: “Duluth: Out In the Middle of Somewhere.”


That has a ring to it, don’t you think? Kind of exciting, combining thoughts of our vast outdoors opportunities (out in the middle of nowhere) with our multifarious urban amenities (somewhere). Never heard a word from them, making me feel like chopped liver. It doesn’t take much to make me feel like chopped liver.


Onward. I read in this newspaper that another group has been organized to promote community learning and civic engagement here. They plan to meet monthly at a forum called The Lyceum. Sounds like fun but is that a good name? Lyceum?


Of course it’s drawn from the ancient Greek venue where the philosopher Aristotle said all kinds of wise things. But to Duluthians of a certain maturity it brings back thoughts of an old theater downtown on the site where the big Maurices building now stands. After an auspicious past, the Lyceum eventually became known as “The Rats’ Palladium.”


When it was completed in 1893 (I don’t actually remember the grand opening — I’m not THAT old) it was considered one of the finest theaters north of Chicago. Huge stage, hosting some of the top touring theater companies of the day featuring well-known stars.


The Lyceum Theater had an orchestra (that’s what they call the main street-level auditorium) and three — yes, three — balconies. Total capacity was upwards of 1,500 souls.


By the time I came along 50-some odd (I’ll say) years later it had gone down hill quite a bit. Its imposing entrance on Superior Street was covered over and a tacky marquee placed on the front of the building advertising movies — two at a time for 50 cents.


As a kid I loved going to the Lyceum on Saturdays, gobbling 10-cent popcorn and sitting through four hours of second-run movies.


But by then the grand old theater’s reputation had slipped to the point where it was sniggered around my junior high school that the top balcony — the third balcony — was actually (cover your eyes if you are sensitive) a balcony of ill repute. This unfounded rumor was believed because there was a blinking red light atop the marquee outside. Blinking red lights used to connote…well, you know.


Years later, after I’d reluctantly grown up and become a fledgling journalist, the Lyceum showed its final double feature in 1966, was shut down, and razed when urban renewal wiped out Duluth’s bowery, including a tavern down the street with the oxymoronic name “Classy Lumberjack.”


But before it was demolished, an open house was held for people to wander at will through the theater. It allowed me to stand on a stage where many stars of the long past had performed, their names still well known then but not now. Does anyone still know who Sarah Bernhardt was?


Before I exited that day, recalling those old rumors of nefarious goings on on the third balcony, I wandered up there to see what it was like. It was filled with old rolled up carpets and other discarded stuff from the building.  No evidence whatsoever of a sordid past.


Good thing. If all those rumors had been true, it certainly could have negated the slogan “Love it Like We Do.”


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at