Newly-Renovated NorShor Theatre Celebrates with Local Music Showcase

Duluth’s Historic Theatre in the “Heart District” Has Been Brought Back to Life

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Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

Last updated on February 18th, 2022 at 10:03 pm

It was an exciting night last weekend at newly-renovated NorShor Theatre in downtown Duluth. The marquee was up, the curtains drawn, and a buzz of “oooo’s” and “ahhhh’s” filled the revitalized, art-deco space.

“My grandmother used to go to dime movies here on Saturdays,” said one woman to her group of friends huddled around a candle lit table in the lobby.

“Hey, remember when this place was a strip club?” said one teenager to his buddy at the bar.

Folks, this place has a lot of history. NorShor has been out of commission for quite some time–but, it’s making a comeback. Let me give you a rundown of the ups and downs of this historical theatre.

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

Back in 1910 it was a vaudeville house referred to as the “Orpheum” hosting the likes of icons such as Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers. In 1941, it officially became the “NorShor” and was transformed into a movie theatre of sorts. Then, by the late 90’s, it was revered as a shabby yet trendy music venue where musicians such as Trampled By Turtles and the band Low played back in the day. But, time took a toll, and the place went downhill–a running joke amongst the artists that gathered the night of the music showcase.

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

But, thanks to the efforts of the community–spearheaded by former mayor Don Ness–the city took on the ambitious task of renovating the theatre.

Here we are, nearly eight years later. The doors are finally open and one of Duluth’s historic gems in the “heart district” has been brought back to life. Throughout the week, I have had the pleasure of talking to several of the artists who performed that night, hearing their unique stories and personal connection to the theatre. 

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

To kick off the evening, we heard from the hauntingly beautiful Gaelynn Lea–showing off one of her latest singles “Bound By A Thread”–joined by Al Church (guitar), Marty Dosh (drums), Dave Mehling (keyboard) and Andrew Foreman (bass).

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

“Bound, bound, bound by a thread/ Going down, down through the ages/ You could’ve stayed but you came here instead/ To fill my life’s empty pages/ And I, I do believe we’ll see the fruits of our labor/ Maybe not now, maybe lifetimes ahead/ If only love would be our guide”

Gaelynn’s live looping of ethereal violin melodies and her light vibrato voice is truly unique. I’ve seen her a couple times live, but to see this Duluthian up on NorShor’s iconic stage–joined by other local artists and her good friend Alan Sparhawk–was something special.

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

“Even though the heyday of the NorShor was before my time in music, it was awesome to be in a place that I know holds so many precious memories for Duluthians. You could just feel a special energy in the air. The renovated theater was gorgeous and I am proud that Duluth took the necessary steps to make the building not only beautiful but more accessible to people with disabilities. I loved hearing all the wonderful local music, and enjoyed playing some of my new songs with Dave Mehling and Martin Dosh for an audience filled with so many Duluth friends.”

-Gaelynn Lea

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

Gaelynn’s performance was then followed by reading and performance by Duluth-based writer, Paul Lundgren. Lundgren joked about his shtick with a bartender at the NorShor back in the day. He would spontaneously make up the name of a drink and his buddy would have to guess the ingredients. Last time he found himself at NorShor, he ordered a “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” to which the bartender replied, “I don’t think we have enough rum for that.”

Over the past 13 years, Lundgren has entertained local readers through his column, “The Next Level,” which appears monthly in the Transistor. Lundgren also blogs frequently on and his first book, “The Spowl Ribbon,” was just released this past February by Whoppin Unlimited. One of the funnier things I’ve seen on his blog was PDD’s ongoing “Upset Duluth” series, in which he featured Duluth News Tribune photos of upset Vikings fans in the wake of Minnesota’s tough loss to the Eagles. Hahaha, too soon?

Soon after Lundgren cracked a few jokes, local act Rick McLean came on stage. The amusing Northlander in flannel charmed the crowd with his humorous take on Petula Clark’s “Downtown.”

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

“When life is boring to the point that you’re snoring, you can always go, downtown. You wanna place where you no longer feel safe, you can always go, downtown…”

The crowd erupted into a roar of laughter. Another testament to Duluth’s good sense of humor when it comes to the ups and downs of NorShor Theatre.

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

“When I moved to Duluth the NorShor was in its dying days and formally closed by the time I was of age to be exploring the area’s watering holes. So, for me, the NorShor has always been this mystical piece of local folklore that I had missed out on. It was exciting to hear it was being refurbished and even more so when I was asked to play there!”

-Rick McLean

His songwriting was riddled with wise cracks, an artist that doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. McLean was just happy to be up there on stage, strumming away.

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

Soon after, the much slower-paced eerie and dream-like serenades of Superior Siren came on stage. Lead vocalist Laura Sellner joked about how there bassist was away in the Bahamas, but cellist Rachel Gobin and drummer Emma Deane joined Sellner that night, shortly following a debut performance at Minneapolis’ Icehouse a week before.

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

The group just released their debut, full-length, self-titled album January 12th of this year. However, it was not Sellner’s first time at NorShor. She happened to perform on this same stage her senior year of high school, however at the time she was a part of a hip-hop group (admittedly, an embarrassing memory she made light of that night).

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

“This was not my first time performing at NorShor. In 2009, I left my high school prom to perform with a short-lived hip hop group… It felt wonderful to return to an enhanced stage with the ladies of Superior Siren. It was a lovely night and I look forward to celebrating more music in the venue.”

-Laura Sellner

Following this lovely trio, local author Anna Tennis did a live reading for us. Here’s a snid-bit of one of her many nostalgic stories of NorShor that she shared with us, a place where she came to realize that she was meant to be a writer:

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

“I moved to Duluth in 1998 and this theatre was one of the first places me and my sister found. We stumbled in here one night, accepting the invitation of the golden light of the marquee and the distant face emerging from the clove, smokey interior of the club… it was summer, and we were already drunk, haha. Which, probably made is ‘awesomer.’ Because, in my memory, it was like we wandered into a David Lynch theme park. It was the beginning of such a beautiful thing. People joke about the NorShor being a filthy dive, a hipster bar, a house of somewhat ill-repute. And, it has been some of all of those things. But, for me, it was also a confluence of all the ley lines in this city. Every artist, weirdo, magical miscreant and reject met here and we inspired each other.”

-Anna Tennis

Anna Tennis’ eloquent words and exaltation–of a place that was so transformative in her quest to become a writer–kindled all kinds of emotions from this sold out crowd. Even if you personally did not grow up with a soft spot for the NorShor, by the end of her reading, it was impossible to not feel an overwhelming sense of pride and elation. A place many dreamed would come back to its former glory, became a reality.

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

When Dave Simonett and Benson Ramsey waltzed on stage with nothing but their guitars and began playing a beautiful acoustic version of Trampled By Turtles song “Winners,” a room of already very palpable emotions were on the rise. “Winners,” what a truly fitting song selection that night.

“There were dreams on a full moon night/ Big black hole in the middle of the light/ Painless times yeah we were feeling alright/ We were breaking down the walls”

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

As soon as Dave got to the “Pretty little city built on a hillside” line, the crowd cheered. To many, folks from Minneapolis or St. Paul, that’s what Duluth is, “a pretty little city.” But, Duluth made it known that they were so much more.

Check out a live video of the duo’s closing song “Midnight on the Interstate.”

"Midnight on the Interstate"

Dave Simonett (Dead Man Winter) + Trampled by Turtles) and Benson Ramsey (The Pines) singing "Midnight on the Interstate" at Duluth's newly-renovated venue, NorShor Theatre. The musical showcase over the weekend include many local artists! Stay tuned for photos + in-depth review of that intimate night at the NorShor.

Posted by Music In Minnesota on Wednesday, March 7, 2018

After Dave and Benson’s set, there was a short intermission. The crowd retreated for refills of Bent Paddle back at the bar and some of the latecomers wandered around to check out all the nooks and crannies of the place–gearing up for headliner, Low.

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

Most well-known bands that Minnesotans love to brag about hail from Minneapolis. But, the beautiful shores of Lake Superior is home to the famous band, Low. You may know them from the early ’90s–grungy, loud and abrasive. However, frontman Alan Sparhawk decided to shift their sound in a new direction. He recruited his wife, Mimi Parker (drums and vocals) to join him on this musical venture. 20+ years and 12 albums later (the most recent being 2016’s A Lifetime of Temporary Relief: 10 Years of B-Sides & Raritiesthey still call Duluth home.

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

“I guess I’m someone to be around long enough to be at the re-opening of a place… It really was a joy to walk in here and see everything.”

-Alan Sparhawk

Al played a lot of his newer material, joking about how “that’s what bands that have been around for 25 years do.” Even though, according to Al, most people want to hear their old stuff. There was a mix of both.

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

The husband-wife duo have a trademark bleak and slow-paced, reverent sound that builds and vocals that effortlessly intertwine. Mimi Parker has a peculiarly calming voice. When she isn’t taking the lead on vocals, her voice seems to subtly ghost his. 

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

Without a doubt, the highlight of the night was when Alan was so immersed his own guitar solo that he began to play the guitar with his teeth–proof that somehow a slow, morose tempo can evolve into an intense punk song.

Sparhawk’s “When I Go Deaf”–a deep-cut track from Low’s 2005 album The Great Destroyer– closed out the night. The beautiful two-part harmony with Mimi Parker was joined by Gaelynn on violin. He began slowly, his weary words muttering a soft-spoken affirmation that everything is going to be alright.

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

“When I go deaf/ I won’t even mind/ Yeah, I’ll be all right/ I’ll be just fine/ I’ll stay out all night/ Looking at the sky/ I’ll still have my sight/ Yeah, I’ll still have my eyes”

Erupting into a wailing chorus and distorted, reverberating guitar solo, Al turned to Gaelynn. Her shrill violin and the low bass of his guitar melded together–two sounds I would never think to pair together. It was quite beautiful.

Photo by – Kathleen Ambre

Then, lifting himself out of what appeared to be a hypnotic state, Al smiled at Gaelynn and then turned to address the crowd, pointing up to the balcony with conviction:

“Alright everybody, we’re going to make it. You’re going to make it, you’re going to make it, you’re all going to make it.”

To learn even more about the struggles and triumphs of the renovation and re-opening of NorShor Theatre, take a look at my interview with former mayor of Duluth, Don Ness.

Interview with Don Ness:

MIM“Hi Don, this is Kathleen Ambre calling, with Music in Minnesota. How are you?”

Don: “I’m doing pretty great, how are you doing?”

MIM“Good! I’m doing pretty well.”

Don: “So, what can you tell me about this organization? I’m not familiar. Is it relatively new?”

MIM“Sure! It’s been around for a couple years now. And, I’ve been working with them for about 6 months now. But, it’s a collective of photojournalists–writers, photographers, videographers… So, we’ve kind of formed a collective, we’re working together to cover concerts throughout the Twin Cities and Minnesota. That includes interviews, sometimes just profile stories. Yeah! It’s a really cool, creative group of people.”

Don: “Yeah, it sounds like it. I went on the website.”

MIM“Oh! You did?”

Don: “Yeah, and there’s a bunch of stories there. Yeah, it’s very cool.”

MIM“Well, thank you! So, I have the opportunity to visit NorShor Theatre tomorrow. I’m pretty excited about it, and I wanted to ask you more about the restoration of the theatre and kind of the story of how that came to be. I know that theatre has been there such a long time, and now it has kind of taken on a new life. And, I know that you were a big part of that process, when you served as mayor of Duluth. So, I would love to hear about how this project began and I’ll ask you some questions along the way.”

Don: “Sure! So, I think you know for me the story started in the late 90s. There was a very cool music and arts scene based at the NorShor Theatre. That was a time when there was not a lot of local, live music happening… original live music happening in Duluth. So, we had this old theatre that was kind of falling a part, but became this hub of really creative and entreprenerial people in Duluth that were supportive to one another and kind of took on a do-it-yourself attitude towards building a music and arts scene here in Duluth. And, rather than grumbling that we didn’t have the national acts coming through, we essentially created a community that started producing national acts right here in Duluth. You know, Charlie Parr, supporting Low, Trampled By Turtles… You know, they kind of all merged from that scene. But, then, the struggles of the building and a lack of attention and maintenance in a large building started to catch up with it. The fire marshall would shut down concerts, and there was water damage on a regular basis. Burst pipes… and the economics of trying to maintain a large, historic theatre became too much for that. And, at the same time, as Duluth’s music scene started to grow. Pizza Luce, and other venues started popping up and make the scene a little more diverse, it made the economic challenges at the NorShor even greater. And so, it took this unfortunate step of shutting down the local arts part of it and turning it into a strip club.”

MIM“Haha, I heard that yeah. That’s a little bit of an eye sore in east downtown.”

Don: “Yeah, one of the most prominent buildings in downtown Duluth with the marquee promoting a strip club, there were also all sorts of problems with prostitution and gang activity right outside of Duluth’s last remaining historic theatre. I think there were a lot of folks, selling synthetic drugs just a block away. I think the combination of those two things really put downtown’s liability in question. So, we took an aggressive step in purchasing the theatre.”

MIM“That’s right, yeah”

Don: “Yeah, when I was mayor I took a lot of criticism for that. Many folks felt that it was a project doomed to fail because of the challenges of restoring a historic theatre. But, I felt it was really important for downtown and for our arts scene to demonstrate our support and to put it on a different path. Many years later, here we are and we’re excited to have the first concert back in that space. And, in many ways, this is kind of a recognition of that arts scene of the late 90s and how important music was to changing Duluth’s reputation across the region.”

MIM“Yeah, I heard that the non-profit Duluth Playhouse is actually going to eventually operate and own the theatre. That’s correct? In seven or eight years? I think that’s incredible, that ownership is going to be passed off to Duluth Playhouse.”

Don: “Yeah, so they are the current managers, they are the operators of the theatre and they will take full ownership after the end of those seven years. And it would’ve actually been sooner, but there are tax credit pieces that were important in funding in the overall project that kind of needed to run its course over the next seven years.”

MIM“How do you think historic theatres play an important role in cities such as Duluth?”

Don: “Well, I think they play a more significant, symbolic role in cities our size. Because, it is a big challenge, you know. There aren’t deep pockets. There aren’t… we can’t tap into the large foundation budgets, or donor budgets. So, for a city like Duluth, or Fargo, or St. Cloud to commit to saying ‘our art community, our historical preservation community, and our downtowns are important enough to us to make a significant commitment both financially and in our attention’ I think speaks volumes about that community. Again, there were a lot of people who were maintaining this pessimistic outlook on Duluth’s future. Saying, ‘that’s not a project that can be successful in Duluth. We’ve tried those sort of things in the past and they’ve failed.’ I think with the success that we’ve seen there and people loving the space, I think we’ve kind of demonstrated that our commitment to the arts has been worth it.”

MIM“Yeah, like you said, in Fargo and more recently Palace Theatre in St. Paul… you’re seeing different historical structures come back to life. And, I will say, after Palace Theatre was open to the public, I’ve noticed in that neighborhood in that area of St. Paul that there’s so much more traffic there with people coming out to St. Paul and I’m sure that helps support a lot of those businesses. And, I wouldn’t be surprised in the next year or two, if different bars and breweries pop up in that area.”

Don: “Yeah, I think the fun thing is that there has been a growing nightlife scene in what we call ‘the heart district,’ the historic arts and theatre district of Duluth. And, I think that the theatre will actually be a shot in the arm to the entrepreurs that took a risk and started up downtown. So, I think that a part of what we’re seeing is that it’s possible for suburban communities to build these brand new shiny facilities that are really out of reach for cities like Duluth, because new construction is so expensive. But, there is something different about seeing a show in a historic theatre. There’s that kind of authentic feel to it, I think there’s a more vibrant sense of community in historic theatre. And, I think, the memories alone of people that remember seeing movies there as a kid or remember seeing a great punk show back in the 90s. Or, even the challenges that the space has seen over the years. The fire marshall closing down a concert, or that it was a strip club and required the community to rally together to find a solution. All of that history and all of that struggle lends itself to add something a little bit different and a little bit special to a concert or to a play.”

MIM“Definitely. I think the narrative of this theatre and historical site is very interesting to learn about. I mean there were big names like the Marx Brothers and Jack Benny there, back then.

Don: “Haha, right!”

MIM“Yeah, and you could go to a movie. It was a movie theatre initially, you could buy a ticket for a dime. And, I think, it progressed over time, and now it’s on the rise again which is really exciting.”

Don: “Yeah”

MIM“So, it officially opened February 1st. There was a showing of Abba… the musical, ‘Mama Mia.’ How did that first opening night go?”

Don: “Oh, it was just special. So many people that were critical were there. And, the playhouse, they are one of the oldest, local theatre programs in the country. The quality of the production was outstanding. People were just in awe of how the theatre took shape and the care that went into the historic preservation of that space. For decades, people thought of the NorShor as this dumpy place that was falling apart that was defined by its problems. And to have a show where people were in that space and looking around with such pride… not only in the space itself, but in this community for doing it so well.”

MIM“Yeah, I saw some of the photos. It’s a beautiful theatre. I’m excited to see it in person. What are you most looking forward to this weekend with the musical showcase and so many local artists? Which, I mean, ties into this community effort. It’s only fitting that so many local artists will be opening it up this weekend with the musical showcase. What are you looking forward to the most?”

Don: “Well, it’s a lot of my friends up there on that stage, especially Low. Al, in particular, has really been the driving force behind Duluth’s musical renaissance over the last twenty-five years. And, his presence and Low’s commitment to staying here in Duluth, really gave people a source of confidence in the sense that you could create a musical career and live in Duluth. And, more and more folks have been doing that. So, I think seeing Low up on that stage will definitely be the highlight.”

MIM“Yeah, Al Sparhawk is awesome. I was fortunate enough to talk to him a little bit. I think we’re going to try to connect later today.

Don: “Oh good!”

MIM“But, hearing Gaelynn Lea talk so fondly of Al was pretty incredible. And, it’s not a surprise to me, after having those conversations, that there’s a reason why those artists chose to stay in the small, yet very unique music scene that is in Duluth.”

Don: “Well, and even those that didn’t stay. I think about Haley Bonar and her connection to Al and the encouragement that he gave to her at a critical time in her career. We couldn’t be more proud about the success that she has had. And, with Gaelynn, that partnership that she had with Al and with The Murder of Crows, really opened people’s eyes to what an incredible artist Gaelynn is. And, I think that confidence of playing with Alan, and having the community really rally behind that project, really played an important role in her performance with the Tiny Desk and opened up all these doors. And now she’s touring internationally.”


Don: “And, I think folks in Duluth… see, folks in the cities can appreciate the success that local artists have on that level. But, in Duluth, I think it’s to that next level of pride. Because, it’s more unlikely that happens from Duluth. And, so much of the success is based upon that close-knit, music and arts community that exists in Duluth because it has to exist. If you don’t have that close-knit community, things just don’t happen naturally going forward and the arts scene would fall apart very quickly. So, folks are continuing to double-down, supporting one another and continuing to come up with new and exciting initiatives that highlight what a cool thing we have going here.”

Written by Kathleen Ambre

Photographer | Designer | Writer | Chronic Creator


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