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'It was beautiful': Granddaughter of former Theatre Princess owner recalls the historic venue

Linda Dee doesn't have vivid recollections of the theater her grandfather owned, but does remember it was beautiful.

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In the 1940s, the Princess Theater was the ornate building with a large marquee extending over the sidewalk located between the Princess Sweet Shop and a fashion store.
Contributed / Douglas County Historical Society
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SUPERIOR — The Theatre Princess sparks memories for Linda Dee of Denver, Colorado.

As a little girl, she remembers sitting alone in one of the velvet seats while her father, F. Randall Buckley, would go to the theater to help out his dad, Frank C. Buckley, the theater’s owner.

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According to the Evening Telegram, Frank C. Buckley sold his interest in the Savoy Theater and purchased the Princess Theater in 1917. It was built in 1913 by a theater company in Minneapolis, the Evening Telegram reported.

“It was beautiful,” Dee said of the theater her grandfather owned. “I remember big heavy velvet drapes … and I remember sculptures on the sides of the walls.”

The 420-seat theater at 1310 Tower Ave. had a stage where vaudeville could be performed, as well as a screen where movies were shown until the early 1950s.

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Now the city aspires to bring theater back downtown and bring the former Princess Theater and the adjacent building at 1312 Tower Ave. back to life.

The Douglas County Board on Thursday, June 16, approved transferring the property to the city of Superior. City officials plan to renovate the building into a working theater again using money set aside for historic preservation from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Mayor Jim Paine said once the acquisition is complete, the city will hire a firm to do the design work, then put the project out for bid.

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“I’m absolutely thrilled about it,” Dee said. “I never dreamt it was going to happen.”

According to Dee, her grandfather was born in 1874 in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, an only child, and moved to Superior in 1890 at age 16. He went to work as a passenger agent at the Union Station and also worked as a manager at the Grand Opera that once stood on Belknap Street.

“He did not want to be one of those loggers … it was a very dangerous business,” Dee said. “Superior was a booming area back then.”

Dee said her grandparents’ jobs afforded them the ability to travel to China and Europe after they married, and they returned from a trip one year before the theater was built.

“The plan was that my father would take over eventually, so my dad was an usher, and during the Depression, my dad tried to talk my grandfather into having a concession stand,” Dee said. “During the Depression, people didn’t have money, but they could somehow gather 10 or 15 cents to go to a movie theater, forget their problems, and just get away from life.”

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Dee’s father saw that other theaters were selling popcorn and candy, and he tried to convince his father, Dee said. Initially, Frank Buckley said no because it would make a mess, but eventually her father prevailed, and popcorn and candy were sold at the Princess Theater.

“The Princess Theater in the ’40s, he would show second run movies,” Dee said. “So they weren’t new movies. They’d already been shown before. This was in the ’30s and ’40s and people would only pay 10 or 15 cents to go to the movie. It apparently afforded him a good enough income … he bought a townhouse at the Roosevelt Terrace.”

However, she said her father wasn’t interested in running the theater and her grandfather sold it in 1951.

“I was 5 when he sold it,” Dee said. “I remember going there as a little girl to movies, but I don’t have vivid recollection other than it being beautiful and having my grandfather own it. That’s kind of a big deal when you’re a little kid.”

Dee said she remembers the camera shop that later opened in the Princess Theater, Millard Berg’s.

“I was sad that the beauty of it was destroyed to be something else,” Dee said.

Millard Berg’s eventually closed, and Frankie’s Bar opened in the space, expanding to the adjacent building that once housed the studio of Dave Barry, the famous frontier photographer who settled in Superior.

Dee, who travels to Superior every year, said she looks forward to seeing the theater renovated.

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“So, when I found out that it was in the running for this money, the hope is to renovate it back to what it looked like,” Dee said.

Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
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