Denfeld News

March 11, 2007
Duluth Budgeteer News

Denfeld Auditorium restored to ’20s elegance
By Matthew R. Perrine

Like all good Denfeld graduates, Joe Vukelich loves his alma mater — so much, in fact, that he’s been there for the last 18 years.

“It’s just a given when you go here that your brothers or sisters had fun here, your parents had fun when they were here and you just look forward to it,” said the government, economics and world history teacher, estimating that at least a quarter of the school’s staff once roamed its majestic halls as students.

The Budgeteer caught up with the class of ’77 graduate, who penned the book “Come Back Home: A History of Denfeld High School” in 1995, to talk about the school’s legendary auditorium, which is in the final stages of a costly 10-month-long restoration project.

“You go in and you’re thinking, It all looks just … clear. You can tell it’s been dusted, painted and spruced up,” Vukelich said of the project that covered everything from a new roof and polished-up chandeliers to new curtains and a fresh paint job.

He said those involved did a “good job” of returning the auditorium to the grand splendor it enjoyed during the ’20s and ’30s.

Built in 1926 with the rest of the school, the $25,000 auditorium would go on to host a slew of national names, including — but definitely not limited to — Johnny Cash, Richard Nixon, Liberace, Ed Sullivan, Andy Griffith (in the Broadway play “No Time for Sergeants”), Nat King Cole, the Grand Ole Opry, Johnny Mathis and Jesse Ventura, Vukelich joked, “when he was popular.”

“We didn’t so much as ‘get them’ as it was one of the only available places for a star to come — and big enough to sit enough people,” he said, explaining that the DECC wasn’t built until 1967, leaving pretty much only Denfeld Auditorium and the Armory to play host.

Vukelich also said that Denfeld’s auditorium was built on the corner of 44th Avenue West and Fourth Street so it would be easily accessible to the public.

Along with the school’s domineering bell tower, Vukelich said the auditorium is a must-see stop on every tour he gives there.

“It’s like going to England and not going to London,” he joked.

One particular tour, with the class of ’53, effectively illustrates the love affair between the school’s former inhabitants and its de facto landmark.

“I went to open the door and let everybody in, and one woman, Barbara Humphrey, came scooting through,” Vukelich said. “She just ran up onstage, threw her arms out and her head back and twirled around. She said, ‘I’ve waited so many years to come back here and do this.’

“Those types of things are not an exception. That’s pretty typical of people with the tower and the auditorium. They love seeing it. They never get tired of it.”

Unfortunately for this year’s graduating class, the only event they’ll enjoy in the auditorium is graduation. They missed out on the lavish makeup the auditorium traditionally gets during Maroon and Gold Day (the Friday of homecoming week).

As expected, the seniors grumbled about being the only class to have to celebrate that special event in the school’s gymnasium.

“Nobody could say, with a straight face, that not being in the auditorium was OK,” Vukelich admitted. “You can’t replace a venue like that.

“Other schools might have (special events) at the DECC, but we don’t want to leave. It’s like, ‘Hello, we’ve got the auditorium.’”

He said one of its main draws is its ability to create an “aura of class.”

As such, he struggled to pick a favorite aspect of the 1,900-seater.

“It’s like having four children: Which one do you love better?” Vukelich said. “The pipe organ is amazing. It’s got pipes that go all the way up the side of the stage. That’s like a story and a half of pipes behind there. When that pipe organ is being played, it’s just gorgeous, and you can even feel it.

“It just reverberates with such power.”


Grand reopening celebration to feature Arrowhead Chorale

A grand reopening celebration for the Denfeld Auditorium will be held at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 17.

The show, “On the Silver Screen,” will feature music from classic films performed by the Arrowhead Chorale and the Denfeld Concert Choir and Solid Gold Show Choir.

Cost is $12. For more information, call 628-4863 or visit

Dr. Stanley R. Wold, who is conducting the Arrowhead Chorale, said the night’s performance wasn’t originally intended as a grand reopening celebration.

“Arrowhead Chorale was aware that the Denfeld Auditorium would be completed near the proposed concert date, so we ‘took a gamble’ that it would be completed,” he said via e-mail from Miami, where he is attending the national convention of the American Choral Directors Association. “... The (Denfeld) alumni association contacted us to discuss their festivities and we thought it was a great idea.”

For those who won’t be able to attend the program at Denfeld, it will also be performed by Arrowhead Chorale at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 16, at UMD’s Weber Music Hall.

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