Duluth’s Empress Theatre

The building that has been home to the Electric Fetus music and gift store since 1987 was once a theater. From 1903 to 1911 the Bijou Theatre operated at 12 E. Superior St. until it was renamed the Empress Theatre. It burned in 1915, but the structure survived and was converted to retail.

The photos in this post were shot by Hugh McKenzie. The one up top shows the theater operating among other businesses on the stretch. To the right is M. Bolin Millinery in the Brown Brothers Block, a location that is now a small plaza with an entrance to the Duluth Lakewalk. To the left is the St. Paul Cafe restaurant, later the location of the Strand Theater and now the location of the western end of the Wieland Block.

The life of the Empress came to an end in May 1915. Following a controversial spat between owner W. M. Abrahamson and the Manhattan Opera Company, a fire ravaged the building. The newspaper clips below are from Nanci and Allan Garon’s website.

Below is a shot of the smoky blaze that ended the Empress Theatre’s short run.

6 Comments

Gina Temple-Rhodes

about 6 months ago

For just a little while, the next door shops often posted in their newspaper ads that they were "next to the Empress Theater" ... a bit of a flash in the pan I guess.

John Michel

about 3 months ago

This was the theater where Charlie Chaplin appeared. The March 25, 1911, newspaper ad for the Karno Company's appearance in Duluth. This image and the next are courtesy of Dave Kirwan, Grand Sheik of the Duluth-Superior "Busy Bodies" Tent of the national Laurel & Hardy appreciation society "The Sons of the Desert." Dave was asked to research the Duluth leg of the Karno tour, since, in addition to Chaplin, the Karno Company included another young British comedian named Stanley Jefferson (later known as Stan Laurel). On this tour, Stan was Chaplin’s understudy and room-mate!
  

John Michel

about 3 months ago

Below is a poster for a 1915 Chaplin film based on the same Karno Company skit they played on tour in 1911. In "A Night in the Show," Chaplin played two roles: one as Mr. Pest and one as Mr. Rowdy (both more than a little tipsy). A colorized version of the whole 17-minute movie is on YouTube.

  

John Michel

about 3 months ago

A 1911 photo of the Karno Company in transit over the sea. It was not all that glamorous a life. In his book My Autobiography, Chaplin writes: 

We were 12 days on the high seas in terrible weather, bound for Quebec ... We travelled via Canada on a cattle boat, and though there were no cattle aboard there were plenty of rats and they perched arrogantly at the foot of my bunk until I threw a shoe at them.
Chaplin is framed by the life-saver, and that's Stan Laurel kneeling to the far left.  

John Michel

about 3 months ago

After playing in New York, the Karno Company headed West by train. Chaplin writes: 

Travelling on the train, we would look out the window and see hog farms and go into paroxysms of excitement. We ate, slept, and dreamed hogs. But for buying a book on scientific hog-raising I might have given up show business and become a hog-farmer, but that book, which graphically described the technique of castrating hogs, cooled my ardor and I soon forgot the enterprise.
No joke: They were serious about these hog-farming get-rich-quick schemes: Land could be purchased in Arkansas for 50 cents an acre, and, they computed, if all went well they could make $100,000 each in 5 years by raising and selling hogs. In purchasing power, $100,000 back then would be worth at least $1 million dollars today.  

John Michel

about 3 months ago

A 1911 photo of a rather glum-looking 22-year-old Chaplin taken in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during the tour. "Living was cheap," Chaplin writes. "At a small hotel one could get a room and board for $7 a week, with three meals a day ... for a nickel one could get a glass of beer and the pick of a whole delicatessen counter." 

Chaplin's salary was $75 a week. As a young man in his early 20s with money to spend, Chaplin was hardly a puritan when it came to wine, women, and song -- but prudently did manage to bank most of the $75 he earned each week while on tour.

Chaplin does not mention Duluth in his autobiography, but does write: "Such cities as Cleveland, St. Louis, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Kansas City, Denver, Butte, Billings, throbbed with the dynamism of the future, and I was imbued with it." He also mentions making friends with a millionaire realtor in Minneapolis and having a "romantic weekend" with a young lady from St. Paul.
  

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