Scene: A family winds along a remote two-lane road en route to a rustic northern vacation spot — the kind of place where trees are so rampant, it’s almost impossible to open the car doors.
They meet the wild-eyed lodge keepers, a crusty husband-wife duo, in the front office. She’s taming her perm with a visor, and he is wearing a T-shirt that has become an iconic prop in local pop culture history.
“I’ve Been to Duluth,” it says, black lettering on a white shirt.
The reference comes less than 5 minutes into the 1988 movie “The Great Outdoors,” starring John Candy and Dan Aykroyd, and catching this on a big screen is a lasting memory for some.
“I remember seeing that in the movie theater and everyone losing their mind,” recalled Jonathan Lee, a Duluthian who now lives in Panama City, Fla., where he is a teacher. More than 20 years after it played at Cinema 8, Lee received an “I’ve Been to Duluth” T-shirt as a gift.
“I wear it to school, and kids ask me ‘Where is Duluth?'” he said.
For decades, Duluth has been name-dropped on screen, in literature, music — or any place where a certain sort of city fits the narrative. Beyond a kitschy T-shirt, it’s the hometown of an applicant for a wait staff position in the movie “Garden State,” and in the Meat Puppet’s song “Lake of Fire,” it’s where a lady got bit by a dog with a rabid tooth and went to her grave “just a little too soon.” In Richard Cecil’s poem “Internal Exile,” a hypothetical person is sentenced to “Forty years accounting in Duluth!”
And, it’s where Ruth Hussey’s character grew up in the 1940 film “Philadelphia Story.”
“Well it was years ago,” she says of her divorce. “I was only a kid in Duluth.”
“Duluth. That must be a lovely spot. It’s west of here, isn’t it?” says Tracy Lord, played by Katherine Hepburn.
For Lee, this Hepburn moment is among the best references — and he’s got an internal library cataloguing a bunch of them. You haven’t heard the word “Duluth” pronounced until Hepburn says it, he said. “That’s the finest pronunciation.”
The Duluthiest Duluth-dropper of all
It’s possible that no one has referenced Duluth more than homegrown comedian Maria Bamford, who was name-dropping the Pioneer Bar on the internet in the mid-2000s.
“The Maria Bamford Show” is a web series that had shades of the more recent “Lady Dynamite”: a character named Maria Bamford moves back to her hometown, Duluth, from Los Angeles to tend to her mental health. She moves into her parents’ home and navigates a cast that includes her sister and high school friends — all played by Bamford. Her Netflix Original Series, which premiered in 2017, also includes color-muted flashbacks to her hometown.
“I think ‘Lady Dynamite’ has referenced Duluth more than all the other references combined,” said Paul Lundgren of Perfect Duluth Day.
The Bamford oeuvre has earned the seal of approval from Mayor Emily Larson.
“My fave Duluth reference: all things Maria Bamford,” she wrote in an email. “Funny, funny stuff.”
Even beyond the show, Bamford has audiences curious about her hometown.
In her first appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” she opened with a shout-out to her old neighborhood.
“Hi. I’m Maria Bamford. I’m from Duluth, Minnesota,” she reportedly said. Then added: “Duuuu-loooth in the hoooow-sse.”
Before “Lady Dynamite” aired, newsy website Bustle gave readers the 411 on Duluth — information ranging from population to the fact that the Duluth Public Library is shaped like an ore boat.
Bamford isn’t the first to set a show here, but with two seasons of “Lady Dynamite,” her run has been far more successful than “The Louie Show” starring fellow Minnesotan Louie Anderson as a therapist. Five episodes of his show aired on CBS in the mid-1990s.
The case of the mysterious lift bridge
In an informal poll of people with ties to Duluth, a favorite large-audience local reference is a 2006 skit on Saturday Night Live about a corny morning show with a theme song called “Fly High Duluth.” The 6-minute bit includes footage from Duluth and Lake Superior, and actor Scarlett Johansson provides the earnest vocals — “Fly High Duluuuuuth.”
After it aired, the News Tribune reported some responses from a “Saturday Night Live” message board, which ranged from:
“‘Fly High Duluth’ was hilarious — especially being a former resident” from username Googuse; and Duluthbeerguy’s “So what the heck is with the Duluth slamming.”
As part of the media blitz behind “Leatherheads,” a 2008 movie based on the Duluth Eskimos football team, George Clooney and Renee Zellweger made a stop at the Duluth Depot.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s among Duluth fan Crystal Pelkey’s favorite Duluth references in pop culture.
“I met George Clooney,” Pelkey said. “It was a milestone in my life.”
It’s a more subtle, insiders-only nod that also gets a lot of props. In a reboot of “The Gilmore Girls” that aired on Netflix, Sookie makes a wedding cake for Luke and Lorelei that includes, among its fondant decorations, an Aerial Lift Bridge and a sign for Duluth.
Even Reddit users haven’t solved the mystery of why.
‘We tend to be more interesting than others’
Duluth-centric website Perfect Duluth Day has been collecting Duluth references for more than a decade. Lundgren, the site’s president, said he thinks it started when a user created a video montage of Duluth mentions in movies.
The video, which is still on the site, starts with Patty Duke on her way to Glensheen mansion, where she will be terrorized by her mother-in-law (“You’ll Like My Mother”). It includes roadtrippers cruising past a Duluth sign (“Tommy Boy”) and Charles Durning eyeing the Aerial Lift Bridge from a hospital bed. He darn-near growls “No men left up here. No man in his right mind is going to stay up here in this Christless country … except us” in the 1988 Duluth-made movie “Far North.”
The posts are tagged “References to Duluth in Film/TV or other Media,” and there are about 40 instances, Lundgren said.
Among the posts: In November, Scott Simon dropped Duluth as a host for the 2026 Winter Olympics on NPR’s “Saturday Sports.” In October, an episode of “Supernatural” was set in Duluth. A St. Scholastica alum was on “Jeopardy!” last year, and a sex worker from Minnesota, on HBO’s “The Deuce,” is heckled about Duluth.
Not to mention, satirical news site The Onion regularly drops a Duluth dateline on its stories.
Lee said it seems Duluth is the answer when a writer needs a location reference that everyone has heard of, but no one knows where it is.
“It sort of hits that Venn Diagram center,” he said. “We’re big enough to be real, but small enough to be ‘Whoa. Somebody said our name.”
If you’re from Hibbing, Lundgren said, these references would be few and far between. If you’re from Minneapolis, they happen all the time, so you aren’t going to care.
“We’re a cold northern city; we get picked on for that a little bit,” he said. “Among cities in the 80-90,000 population range, we tend to be more interesting than others.”
Ed seems to like us
As far as we know, Ed Sheeran doesn’t have a physical tie to Duluth, but he spends a lot of time walking around with our name on his chest — or, rather, Duluth-based Duluth Pack.
The local company, known for its handcrafted canvas and leather bags, delivered a sweatshirt to Sheeran before his 2016 concert at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
This is standard practice with Duluth Pack, which has offered goods to Blake Shelton, Maroon 5, Stevie Nicks and more.
“Within the first two months that he had the sweatshirt, he was publicly seen wearing it over 20 times,” said Andrea Johnson, the company’s marketing manager, who literally handed the swag to Sheeran.
The sweatshirt — which features the Duluth Pack logo — was already a bestseller.
It has done even better since then.
“The best thing was the social media interaction where people were like ‘I just got my logo sweatshirt from Duluth Pack,'” Johnson said.
This practice doesn’t stop with Sheeran. Johnson said they have plans to make more deliveries to Xcel Energy Center.
Be prepared, Instagrammers, for the next Duluth Pack-celebrity connection.
Beauty and the beer
Matt Dressel experienced his first Duluth-style fan-frenzy soon after he moved to Duluth from California. He went to the theater to see Pixar’s “Inside Out,” an animated movie about a family that has just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco.
“I’m sitting in the theater, and they make a passing reference that they lived in Minnesota,” recalled Dressel, who is now in charge of programming at Zinema 2. “The crowd went nuts.”
Since then, he has seen it happen more often — especially during premieres of locally-made movies.
“Everybody likes a reference to their hometown — as long as it’s a positive one,” said Dressel, whose own hometown in Michigan is represented in “Tickled,” a documentary about the world of competitive endurance tickling. “In Duluth, people are really proud of their city. What we have, our landmarks, our businesses, any chance we have to share that is regarded as being good. People really latch on to that and want to share it.”
Pelkey said it has to do with visibility. She grew up in Little Falls, Minn., boyhood home of Charles Lindbergh and National Book Award-winning writer Louise Erdrich. She doesn’t hear as much about her hometown.
“Duluthians, in general, we love the city we live in, and we take pride in the very unique assets,” Pelkey said. “From its physical beauty to its craft beer scene to its art scene. When other people recognize it, it’s validation.”
Christa Lawler is a features reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Follow her on Twitter at @dntane.