It was a cold and quiet morning as the screams of engine sirens and the bustling of nearby bystanders awaked community members. The crowd grew as word of fire spread up and down the block; their eyes paralyzed on the monstrous, smoldering flames that were consuming the 12th Avenue East Duluth Playhouse just before dawn in March 1971. Every costume, set and technical device collected throughout the decades was now being succumbed to the fire. They cursed and sobbed until tears froze to their cheeks on that frigid Sunday morning. It was at that moment that they knew the Playhouse would be no more.
“After its two opening performances, the show was interrupted Sunday when fire destroyed the interior of the Merle Building, which housed the Playhouse and several businesses,” said a 1971 article in the Duluth Herald.
The day after the fire, James Glazman, first vice president of the Playhouse, and Miss Corrinne Lauterbach, second vice president of the Playhouse, released a joint statement in a 1971 Duluth News Tribune article. It stated, “The loss of our physical facilities is a great hardship, but even more tragic is the loss of costumes, properties and set materials which have been donated or constructed by hundreds of Playhouse workers and area residents.”
Not everything from the fire was lost. The upstairs office was left untouched by the fire, so all of the company’s records and documents were recovered. In fact, the Playhouse has archives dating back to 1914 when it was first known as “The Little Theater.” The Little Theater started documenting everything possible into large scrapbooks.
“They kept all of the newspaper clippings and all of the pictures from the newspaper on anything that the Playhouse did,” said Tessa Lenneman, promotions manager of the Playhouse. “Whether it was a story on the show coming up, or the season, or the review, they documented it in these scrapbooks.”
Jean Endrizzi, a 55-year veteran of the Playhouse, has held nearly every important position at the Playhouse since she came to Duluth in 1957. Endrizzi, along with many others, were heartbroken when they received news about the fire.
“The spontaneous outpouring from people who’d been around for a long time was just quite remarkable,” Endrizzi said.
The tragic fire happened after the company’s second showing of the musical “Roar of the Greasepaint,” the 307th production of the Playhouse. The show was called off temporarily, but as theatre always says, “the show must go on.”
“People stayed around all day, went out for lunch, came back, and sorted, cried, you know, were in despair about the whole thing,” Endrizzi said. “The volunteers started coming then, and it was decided at a meeting that we’re going to redo this show. As soon as we can open, we will be opening.”
It took just seven days to resume the musical in the relocated spot of Cathedral High School, which is now Marshall High School. Endrizzi and others from the Playhouse referred to it as “the seven-day miracle.”
Left with nothing but documents and community support, the Playhouse was in desperate need of a new home. It was an extensive search, but they finally decided on the 25 W. 1st St. building, better known as the former Covenant Club.
Numerous volunteers joined in to help the long and time-consuming journey to get the Playhouse back on its feet. After many tedious months, the Playhouse opened its first show of “The Miser” at the “C” Club in October 1971.
“The new Playhouse may be likened in some respects to a modest miniature Guthrie, offering tremendous possibilities to invigorate community theater with experimentation rather than imitation,” a 1971 Duluth Herald article said.
After six years at the “C” Club and almost a decade of planning, the Duluth Playhouse moved to the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, better known as the Duluth Depot, where it remains today.
“It shows community theatre, any theatre, is really vital, and people do have a place for it in their lives,” Endrizzi said.
The Playhouse is currently planning its 100th anniversary celebration coming up in 2014.