Orpheum (NorShor)Theatre/Duluth, MN

Finance & Commerce (Minneapolis, MN)

November 2, 2010 Tuesday

Duluth’s historic theater a step closer to renovation

By Brian Johnson

Duluth officials are opening the curtain on a proposal to renovate the city’s century-old theater.

The Duluth Economic Development Authority has put out a request for preliminary architectural services for the NorShor Theatre, which the city hopes to use as a performing arts venue.

Last June, the DEDA purchased the one-time strip club, along with the connected Temple Opera building and NorShor Annex, for $2.6 million. The building is located at 211 E. Superior St. in the city’s "Old Downtown. "

The idea is to make the theater a "focal point" for arts and entertainment in the downtown waterfront district. But first, the theater needs some "TLC and some improvements to access," according to Brian Hanson, executive director of the DEDA. Planned updates include sound and lighting improvements.

Hanson said it hasn’t been determined how much the project will cost. One reason for the RFQ is to get a better handle on budget details and to prepare for a future state bonding request.

Overall, the 100-year-old structure is in pretty good condition, according to Christine Gradl Seitz, executive and artistic director of the Duluth Playhouse, which will manage the theater.

"It doesn’t have the equipment and supplies that are needed to support live performances," Gradl Seitz said. "It needs improvements and updates … but structurally, it is very sound. "

Built in 1910, the venue hosted vaudeville acts in its first life as the 1,600-seat Orpheum Theatre.

Mary Pickford, Jack Benny, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields are among the stars who entertained there, according to a theater history posted on the NorShor website.

In 1941, the old vaudeville house was renovated as an Art Deco movie theater, based on a design by Minneapolis architects Jacob J. Liebenberg and Seeman Kaplan.

After the theater stopped showing movies in the 1980s, the building changed hands several times, hosting a wide range of events including rock concerts, comedy acts and exotic dancers.

Part of the plan now is to turn the theater into "something that all members of our community can enjoy," Hanson said.

According to the RFQ, the city is looking for designers with "experience in historic theater rehabilitation projects of similar size and scope" and
"knowledge of local codes and rehabilitation requirements. "

"The qualifications we are looking for in the successful firm is that they can turn this project around fast and demonstrate how they are going to do that," Hanson said, adding that the DEDA wants to be prepared for a possible bonding request in January.

Gradl Seitz said the renovated theater could be a real "arts hub" and a "gem" in the community.

However, there’s no hard-and-fast schedule for when the renovated theater will reopen to concerts, plays and other live performances.

"It takes time and everyone needs to be patient and we need to take the right steps … for it to ultimately be successful," she said. "We need to go about it in the right way, and that takes time. "

Not everyone is convinced that it was a smart move for the city to acquire the building. Todd Fedora, a Duluth city council member, believes the city moved too hastily in paying $2.6 million for a property that "faces some challenges. "

For example, "the building is not ADA-compliant, and because it is within the public realm, it can’t hold any events until it is brought into compliance," Fedora said. "As a result, it is looking like that building will be dark for much of 2011. "

Fedora is also skeptical about the prospects of getting state bonding assistance.

"It takes a while to get in the queue for bonding at the state level, and so to think you are going to get bonding money on your first whack at it in St. Paul is a bit of a stretch," he said.

"My whole point is I am not necessarily against the NorShor. It’s just that we should have learned what the challenges of the project were on the front end, rather than deal with them on the back end. "

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