A long-lost vaudeville theater renovation gained ground this week when city officials authorized grant money to fund a business loan for the West Duluth entertainment district project.
The Duluth Economic Development Authority approved a $150,000 grant Jan. 25 to the city of Duluth 1200 Fund for restoration work at the Alhambra Theater, 321 N. Central Ave. The move allows the 1200 Fund to loan building owner Paladin Properties LLC a total of $200,000 for project completion.
The Duluth City Council will vote on the loan plan at its Feb. 13 regular meeting.
Duluth Reader publisher and Paladin Properties LLC principal Bob Boone said the money will help pay for heating and air-conditioning installation, new projection equipment, carpeting and a replica of the historic theater sign among other things. Boone purchased the Alhambra Theater in the summer of 2018 while completing restoration work on another Paladin Properties building — the neighboring West Theatre.
Boone said the two buildings will be connected to create a variety of entertainment options on Central Avenue. The art deco-era West Theatre, which went dark in the 1970s, reopened in June 2019.
“Two-screen theaters do better than one-screen theaters,” said Boone. “This is going to be really good for West Duluth.”
The West Theatre currently screens one first-run Hollywood film seven days a week. Live music takes over the stage on occasional Thursday nights. Boone said a restored Alhambra will offer additional programming like classic film festivals and family matinees, major televised events like the Kentucky Derby, weddings and live music every night of the week.
Alhambra reconstruction is underway. The roof has been repaired, ceiling plaster work is nearing completion and framing for a ticket booth, offices and a screening room is in place. A vaudeville stage replica and seating has yet to be installed.
Boone said a Producers Club — a group of community supporters, film fans and friends — have provided money to help pay for the Alhambra restoration costs. “These are people who think this was a beautiful building and we’ve got to give it back to the community somehow,” he said.
Boone said he also has multiple bank loans to support the project.
According to the grant agreement, Alhambra Theater ownership approached the 1200 Fund “for assistance in renovating and equipping the theater to provide an opportunity for expansion of the art and entertainment industry in West Duluth.”
The 1200 Fund was established by the city in 1985 to provide low-interest loans for job growth and business expansion. In recent years, it has focused on Lincoln Park and West Duluth, funding projects like OMC Smokehouse, Duluth Pottery and the Hotel Pikku.
According to the grant agreement, 1200 Fund bylaws would not permit the full $200,000 Alhambra Theater loan request. The 1200 Fund provided $50,000 for the project and requested a $150,000 grant from the Duluth Economic Development Authority to complete the full loan request.
Calls to 1200 Fund, Duluth Economic Development Authority and City Council member Arik Forsman and Duluth Interim Director of Planning and Economic Development Adam Fulton were not returned.
Boone said city officials had offered financial assistance during the West renovation. He said the loan, with an interest rate of about 6 percent, will help keep the theater projects moving forward.
“Because, with a little bit of bad luck, if the Alhambra isn’t opening the West could close. A minute after that the Reader would probably fold,” he said. “The banks sometimes tie all these things together.”
Boone said the loan will deliver a much needed second screen (the Alhambra) and stabilize operations at the West.
“I think (the loan) does that overnight and then I get to give this back to the community: an authentic theater,” he said.
The Alhambra Theater opened to motion picture screening and vaudeville performances on Central Avenue in 1913. According to the Duluth history website, Zenith City Press, the theater operated until 1926, closed for a year, reopened as the State Theater then closed again in 1928.