IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Historic Duluth school theater gets push to return to former glory

Published: Jul. 6, 2023 at 10:22 PM CDT
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DULUTH, MN. (Northern News Now) - The theater at Duluth Denfeld High School is getting a push to be restored to its once-pristine condition.

The Denfeld High School theater is roughly a century old, hosting pep rallies, famous artists, choir concerts and school theater productions.

Over time, several students have found their voice on the stage of one of the Northland’s most historic theaters.

“I have one student who, when I first met her, she was so shy, she just didn’t even talk,” Keely Waechter, a Work Based Learning Coordinator and advisor for the school’s Drama Club, said. “In our one act, she actually had a line and she came out on stage to perform and it’s amazing to see this shy kid finding a safe place and just being awesome and excelling.”

According to Waechter, there are about 70 students in Denfeld High’s drama program.

They’ve performed everything from musicals to Shakespeare and specialty shows.

In the fall, the theater showed its age, forcing them to have to scramble right before a one-act show.

“I think it was the week of the show, our speakers broke. So we ended up making a call and getting someone to lend us speakers so we could put them on the floor and then navigating these speakers on the floor so we could have sound,” Waechter said.

The theater has hosted thousands of students and Northlanders in its seats.

About 1,800 people can fill the old chairs, which creak when they’re brought down.

While the theater may be in less than ideal condition, students who see it for the first time are always mesmerized.

“Just jaws open, eyes wide open. Some of them like to make a little noise to hear an echo, you know, little sound a little song,” Waechter said.

The theater’s history is well-documented in Duluth’s archives.

At one point, it hosted then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1954 and Johnny Cash in 1959.

Although some big names have appeared on the stage, it’s the theater students at the school who aren’t able to dance and sing on it like others have in the past.

“Students want to be there, they come in here, they love it, and then they’re not performing on it,” Waechter said. “And that’s, that’s really hard.”

What makes the job harder for the students and teachers, is the failing equipment.

“Well, we don’t have reliable ability to do microphones in here, they’ll cut out,” she said.

It’s not just a failing sound system from the 1980s either, the theater only hosts a few spotlights, making it difficult to put on bigger productions.

Productions like Chicago the musical in May of this year, which was the first musical the drama club put on in five years.

They didn’t perform at Denfeld, rather they performed at nearby Lincoln Park Middle School.

“We had like three days to load everything in and learn how to do everything in a space we’d never been in before,” Waechter said.

The Duluth Public School District has a few up-to-date theaters at its disposal.

Superintendent John Magas said the upgrades that need to be done at Denfeld will be a big undertaking, but a few pieces will hopefully get the help they need.

“The sound system is really the main piece that I see,” he said. “We also had some issues with our choir, staging and sort of the band shells; that’s something that we have ordered as well.”

Those purchases will take a big chunk of change to get done.

“It would be over half a million probably closer to $800,000,” he said.

Although Magas said he recognized the growing need to get the theater into the 21st century, Waechter said she feels like funding doesn’t appear.

“I don’t know who does get the money, but I know we don’t get as much as we’d like,” she said.

It’s taken Waechter down a rabbit hole of filling out forms that need to be approved by the School Board.

Along with that, she’s had to look outside the district for funding, like using grants for updated technology.

Magas said in order for the entire project to get done, it’s going to take a community-wide approach.

“I think it’s important for us to consider what we can do for additional funding for the schools, not just for the theater, but thinking about all the needs of the district,” he said.

Funding that can transform theaters can make local stars.

Wes Drummond, the Executive Director of the Duluth Playhouse, said he has seen it firsthand.

Several students from Denfeld High School and fellow Duluth East High School have performed on the NorShor Stage.

“They [students] often perform on our main stage, they often teach for us, they often are involved in a lot of the rest of the playhouse programming so, Duluth has so many opportunities for the arts and it really does start at the high schools,” Drummond said.

The NorShor was renovated a few years ago and is now restored to its former state, hosting thousands of Northlanders each summer.

Stars have been born on stages at the NorShor and at Denfeld, but Waechter said that’s not the only goal of performing on stage.

“You don’t have to come in here and be a star some places can be competitive,” she said. “I think we’re really lucky that it’s, it’s all about growing together and supporting each other; it’s a really, it’s a lovely community.”

Superintendent Magas said he hopes to see renovations start soon.

“I think it’s really important that we preserve it and make sure that we continue to use it not just for the school district, but the community as a whole,” he said.

Drummond said a renovation is possible.

“If anyone can restore a historic theater it’s Duluth, Minnesota, we’ve seen it done,” he said.

Waecher just wants everyone to see its beauty.

“It’s a beautiful space that is hidden and in secret,” she said. “Everyone needs to see this place to be in here and experience it.”

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