Robert Boone and Theatrical Serendipity
Bringing Movie and Entertainment Magic Back to West Duluth
From the time he was a kid, Robert Boone had dazzling dreams of the movies, movie stars, and theaters. Amazingly, he became the manager of the Palace Theater in Superior when he was just nineteen years old, a job he held for seven years.
Over the years since then, this ambitious entrepreneur has owned a variety of businesses, including “The Reader,” that he continues to be the owner, editor, and publisher of today. His heart, however, kept going back to his love of the movies.
He was drawn to the empty West Theater at 319 N. Central Avenue in Duluth, which originally opened on Christmas Day in 1937. Pictures from the time show the original theater’s gorgeous interior, a variation of the classic Art Deco style.
After the theater closed in the 1950s, the building housed a number of small businesses, and then was vacant for over a decade.
“I really wanted to restore this to a first class movie theater,” Boone said. “West Duluth deserved a theater, and I saw the restoration as something important for the betterment of the community.”
Dave Oman had his Raven and Associates Screen Printing Business there until he decided sell the building in 2015. He knew of Boone’s interest in turning the building back into a movie house and agreed to hold a $500 check of Boone’s until he was able to find the funds to renovate the building.
Despite the building’s gutted auditorium, lack of a furnace and with the original marquee gone, Boone was pleased that the building was structurally solid and had a lobby that was in nearly original condition.
So setting out to bring the West back to life as a theater and use as a concert venue, in October of 2016, Boone acquired the building with the assistance of Park State Bank, the Northland Foundation, the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund, and some government loans and grants.
Boone began his quest to make the needed improvements, including a new marquee, a digital projection booth, HVAC, seating, and more. They also added a bathroom backstage and a small “green room.”
Despite running over budget, nearly three years later, at an overall cost of $1.3 million dollars, the West Theatre had its Grand Opening on June 21, 2019.
COVID beginning at this same time hit the theater hard. So Boone’s West Theater, like many businesses had to close for a while, and run at minimal capacity when he was able to reopen. Boone is happy now to have the theater back at full capacity.
West Theater continues to be a popular family venue for events, live music and a variety of classic and new films.
Theatrical Lighting Strikes Twice
Despite COVID, Boone was hoping eventually to expand the West Theater into the building next door that had also had a number of businesses in it over the years. It was Boone’s plan to punch a hole in the wall between the two buildings, so he could expand his West Theater space.
When the building became available, he purchased it. Only after making the deal, did Boone find out that the building is the site of the long-forgotten Alhambra Theater, a vaudeville house and a “‘photoplay’ (movie theater) from 1913-1928. It takes its name from a palace/fortress in Granada, Spain.
A story from the Duluth Herald reported that over 1,000 people attended the two opening night performances of film and music on September 15, 1913, at the Alhambra. Movies featuring such notable film stars as Theda Bara and Douglas Fairbanks were big draws for audiences.
The former owner, Paul Persons, told Boone that somewhere around 90 percent of the original plaster work was still in existence above the suspended ceilings and behind the sheet-rocked walls. They discovered columns, corbels, and poster cases. According to Boone, the uncovered plasterwork is as ornate as that in the Greysolon Plaza.
Despite the increased cost of renovating yet another theater, Boone decided to restore the Alhambra by adding a lounge area to the front of the building, accessed through the West lobby. Other plans include building an auditorium in the Alhambra and returning the facade to its original 1913 design.
Working with volunteers, Bremer Bank, and some other backers, the Alhambra project got underway; the plan is to include a 61-seat theater and have family films as their niche with other family-friendly activities. With the Alhambra showing movies for at least part of the week, the West could be used for concerts and other events,
In phases, they are creating the lounge and installing a sprinkler system, with plans to restore the back half of the building and equip the movie theater. They are installing digital film equipment, stage lighting, and sound. Boone is also still raising funds to complete the renovation of the Alhambra.
Boone explained that they have been fortunate to receive some special donations of a beautiful antique bar and some salvage rights from Virginia High School including for antique brass railings, sconces, plaster cold air returns, retractable movie screens, velvet drapes, and stage lighting
Boone said, “We also hope to bring some vaudeville style live performances back to the Alhambra stage.” He is excited about the Alhambra’s opening and of his movie “empire” in West Duluth.
The hope is to spark more investment interest in West Duluth, creating another development like that in Duluth’s Historic Arts and Theater District downtown and the Lincoln Park Craft District.