General 12-4-2003

The Column: “Will the Last One to Leave Duluth Please Turn Out the Lights”

Christian McShane writes his column this month on the puzzling and catastrophic-for-Duluth closing of the Norshor Theater, the primary venue for anything new in town. Why do these things happen? He has some ideas.

Christian McShane

It’s taken me a while to write this month’s column. I thought, what can I say about this? But there was something, and here it is.

After five or so years, The Norshor Theater closed its doors.

Let’s go back five years and then some. Back in the early 1990s when Low emerged, people in the music industry were astounded. “From of all places, Duluth,” was a common line I read after “I Could Live in Hope” was released. ”That’s right — Minnesota.”
We were all excited and bumping into each other. It was as if someone cut a main power line and stuck it in the lake. But why?

Well, around that time, Duluth was a blight as far as the arts were concerned, a sleepy blight. I’ve been told there was a mass migration of artists and musicians from Duluth to Minneapolis in the ‘80s. Why, I’ve never known, though economics had a lot to do with it. As a friend of mine said, “Back then, someone painted ‘Will the last one to leave Duluth please turn out the lights’ on a billboard heading towards Minneapolis.”

One thing was certain, it got really quiet around here.

Sure, you could catch a cover band playing yet another tortured rendition of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.” You could also buy a painting of flowers to go with your Pier One vases. But original music or art? Let’s push the envelope a tad further . . . good original music or art? Forget it. You went to Minneapolis for culture. That’s where all the real art and music was, right? Great sounds were being made but were trapped in basements and living rooms. Barring Low, nothing good ever came out of Duluth as far as the rest of the world was concerned. It was like a disease.

Around this time, a comatose downtown bar called RT Quinlan’s began hosting original music from local and national acts (they called it “alternative” back then). Solely the effort of a couple employees who were tired of the state of music in Duluth, it was the only place to hear both local and national original acts in town. Not surprisingly, the place was packed from wall to wall every Friday and Saturday night. At its peak, RT Quinlan’s abruptly stopped featuring live music. I remember asking one of the owners why. He told me the regulars didn’t like it. The “regulars” in question consisted of four or five grizzled mumblers hunched over a half glass of warm tap. He was serious. I asked him if money was the problem. “Hell, no,” he said. “We made a killing on those nights.”
I’ve tried to figure that one out ever since.

Then it was quiet again in Duluth. Quite honestly, it was downright boring. Local original music makers went back underground or left town. I myself left town.

When I came back from overseas two years later, a newly remodeled place called The Historic Norshor Theater opened its doors. Initially, the owners wanted the 93-year-old building to be a posh upscale jazz establishment for the upper crust. It didn’t last long. Under the pressure of poor attendance, owner/operator Rick Boo decided to try an experiment. He opened the doors of the theater as wide as their old hinges would allow.

I decided to stay in Duluth.

The Norshor Theater quickly became the only easily accessable, all-encompassing arts venue in town that welcomed all manner of art. Don’t get me wrong — there are other live music venues and galleries in this town, some good, some bad, but not on the scale of the Norshor Theater. It wasn’t a restaurant or coffeehouse; it wasn’t a hastily improvised dive bar where musicians played on top of each other in a corner. It didn’t have to pretend to be anything else than what it was: this is what it was built for. With an enormous opera house stage/theater, 350-seat movie stage/theater, a bar, mezzanine stage and a gallery, the Norshor was gargantuan by comparison to any venue in Duluth. It was a taste of what once was, what Duluth used to be back when Groucho, W.C. Fields, Cab Calloway, and a long list of others made the Norshor a regular stop on their tours.

It housed every kind of music imaginable, from ambient to zydeco. Painters, photographers, printmakers, and graphic designers hung work on its walls. It was a place to see a movie that wasn’t playing at the mall – a place where creative ideas could be expressed in whatever way imaginable. A place where if you just asked, you could get involved in what was going on. It diversified even further. Business meetings, presentations, luncheons, fundraisers, wakes, boxing matches, bellydancing, and, believe it or not, the Norshor Theater even held Sunday morning church services in the upper theater briefly. Even these events were intertwined in some way with music and art. It was an enormous, beautifully ornate old opera house functioning in this modern day, and nowhere, not even the Convention Center, could compete with that much versatility and diversity.

In turn, it raised the bar for what was expected of artists, galleries, and live music venues. It forced them focus and work harder. Most importantly, it made them work together. Local musicians exploded into nearly 100 bands. More venues hosting original music popped up around town. Art began showing up on the walls of some unusual places. The idea was — if you have a wall, start a gallery. Older musicians and artists claimed they’d never seen such a scene in the past 20 years. Duluth was on a roll.

And finally . . . finally this city got a better name for itself than the “backwards little town full of rednecks and drunks up north.” What was going on up here? People from all over were curious. Bands were getting signed. Recordings were pouring out. Artists were getting recognized. Big city dwellers considered moving to Duluth. It had something most places didn’t: it had a bustling artistic community built from the simple foundation of everyone helping each other. There was never a word of infighting or malicious competition — artists just put their heads down and did what needed to be done without complaint. Out of this, it developed a friendly, helpful arts culture — a real rarity. Fact is, it had always had that quality. The Norshor just held a bigger magnifying glass.
And that embittered a lot of locals.

It alienated the hack musicians and the flower painters. Some expecting the usual Duluth fare were uncomfortable upon entering the doors. Vapid chatter flitted about the daytime cubicles and coffee machines. There was too much smoke, too many young people, drinks were too expensive, nowhere else charged a cover, the music was weird, it was just too “different.” Whispers and rumors around town grew louder by those who had never set foot in the place, nor ever planned to. In time, the faces slowly began to change, as did the music; louder, sloppier, angry, ambivalent. The gallery gathered dust.

Plainclothes police began making the rounds. Busts were made. The Norshor became decadent in a bad way somehow. Dark. Edgy. Unfamiliar. A once-electric atmosphere became anemic and sluggish. A variety of resuscitation methods were employed to no avail. The Norshor was poisoned and no one held the antivenom. A great deal of local talent shook their heads in frustration and moved on. The flatline was in sight. Weekend crowds grew thin. Weeknight crowds were near invisible.

Sometimes it seems Duluth is destined to ebb and flow like the ever-present lake that surrounds most of it. Heavy on the ebb. Maybe it’s a sign of the times. Maybe not enough people care. As my mother used to say, “This too shall pass away.” I never did like that saying. It always sounded so defeatist, an easy excuse. It always made too much sense in its simplicity.

I hope those who sincerely miss seeing the twinkle of the marquee lights down Superior Street realize one thing: Duluth will always have its own “scene.” Under the stark canvas blowing wisps of snow, art is constantly being created. If Duluthians want it bad enough, another incarnation of the Norshor will open its doors. Buildings are inanimate, they don’t know or care. People give a place spirit and life, not the other way around. It begins with wanting.

One thing is certain — it’s a lot quieter around here. Again.