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Working to save the NorShor
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The NorShor Theatre was built in 1940. Its art deco architecture is largely intact. It closed last month, but a local group vows to open it again. (MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
The last downtown movie theater in Duluth closed last month. But locals are trying to re-open it. A national historic preservation group is helping.

Duluth, Minn. — The NorShor Theatre opened in 1940. It still has its original marquee. The marquee juts out over the sidewalk almost to the street. It's covered with small lightbulbs ready to blink off and on in waves.

And when you stand on the sidewalk under the marquee, you almost feel like you could walk in for a nickel and see Gone With the Wind or The Grapes of Wrath.

Those days are gone. It hasn't been a big movie theatre for decades. But in the last six years, it's housed a bar and a smaller theatre.

The bar is where people go to check out the up-and-coming local bands.

Donny Ness has been on the city council since he was 23. He's been on a crusade to bring new life to the eastern end of downtown.

Ness says the NorShor has been like an incubator for lots of creative events.

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Image Donny Ness

"The Homegrown Music Festival, which has over 60 local bands; community theatre ideas have been born there; fun things like the Geek Prom," Ness says. "If it wasn't for NorShor Theatre, those ideas wouldn't come to Duluth."

And Ness says it's that creative culture that can persuade young people to stay in Duluth. The city has been trying to find ways to encourage young professionals to settle in town.

"Whether you're talking about technology or the new generation of business leaders or arts and culture," Ness says. "It's creativity that's really at the core of the new economy."

Ness says the NorShor nurtures creativity. He says the nightclub and other activites spawned at the old theater are essential for businesses to thrive here.

Even though it's closed right now, the NorShor is still the anchor of this block.

Donny Ness and Rick Boo are hanging letters on the lighted glass of the marquee. They're advertising the grand openings of three new businesses on the block.

The letters going up on the marquee are made of metal. They're 60 years old. There aren't enough of the big silver letters, so the message is a mix of silver, black, and polka-dot letters.

Donny Ness and his fiancee own one of the new stores - it sells vintage clothing. The others are a used bookstore and an antique store.

The NorShor started its life as an opera house in 1910. Touring theatre companies and vaudeville acts performed here. In the golden age of Hollywood, it was converted into a movie theatre.

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Image Relief sculpture

The main floor theatre is dark and dingy. But the doors are covered with leather, accented with tacks arranged in a graceful curving pattern. You peer through narrow windows etched with the same curves.

A wide staircase sweeps past a carved wooden mural full of sailors, lumbermen, and other characters from the region's history.

Up on the mezzanine, the old NorShor featured a milk bar, where movie-goers could get a soda or malt.

"We still get many people that come in the door, their first dates were here from years ago," says Rick Boo. "There's just a lot of memories here."

Boo has been operating the NorShor for six years. He ran the bar and booked the bands and films.

But a few weeks ago, Boo decided he'd lost too much money and it was time to close the NorShor. Right away, people approached him about re-opening. But Boo says the building needs work.

"At this point we're going to need a sprinkler system throughout the building," he says. "There's some electrical work that needs to be upgraded, the roof needs to be patched, it's starting to leak - a little heavier than normal."

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Image "Keep the faith"

Boo says the building is worth saving. And he's not the only one. A team from the National Trust for Historic Preservation was in Duluth last week.

Mac Nichols says it's a "gorgeous building."

Nichols is an expert on using old buildings for economic development. He agrees, the NorShor is a key part of revitalizing the eastern end of Duluth's downtown.

"The challenge is to try to make sure there's a business plan that goes with the rehabilitation," Nichols says.

The local group is forming a non-profit organization, and working on a business plan, to save the NorShor. They'd like to open again in the spring.

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