Jon Petersen and Tim Reinders, members of the Des Moines Film Society, put up new letters on the marquee of a historic movie house in the Drake neighborhood. The nonprofit group is buying the theater and plans to renovate its exterior and interior. Photo by Duane Tinkey
For decades, before a movie started playing at Des Moines’ Varsity Theater, dark curtains covering the screen would slowly start opening.
Members of a nonprofit group buying the theater hope to bring back that tradition in early 2022.
In November, the Des Moines Film Society acquired the property at 1207 25th St. that includes what originally was called the Varsity Theater. Today the group is launching a capital campaign to raise $3 million to renovate the century-plus-old, two-story brick building located just east of Drake University.
“People want to see the Varsity reopened, whether that be from the small-town, independent theater perspective or from the emotional connection many have to the theater,” said Michael Wagler, the Des Moines Film Society’s president.
Wagler said he expects the movie house, which has been renamed Varsity Cinema, to play an important social, cultural and economic role in the Des Moines area’s recovery from the pandemic.
COVID-19 has kept people away from family and friends and their normal social activities, he said.
“Not only are they pining to see a movie, but they also want to see it in a place that is authentic,” Wagler said. People also want to “not only relive the idea of going to a theater but also bring back the nostalgia of the comfort-ness of what it was like in the past.”
For much of the past year, Des Moines Film Society members have been preparing to purchase the historic theater and start the fundraising campaign that will pay for renovations that include returning the structure to its original appearance and creating space for a micro-cinema on the second floor and more space on the first floor for gatherings before and after movies.
Looking back at the Varsity’s history
The Varsity is described as the Des Moines area’s oldest single-screen, independently owned movie house. It “outlasted every competing metro movie house” and avoided being bought by movie chains, local historian James Jacobsen wrote about the theater.
The building was constructed in phases, with the first section built around 1908, Wagler said. During its first 15 years or so, the building housed auto dealerships, an auto repair shop and other vehicle-related businesses.
Around 1923, the building was converted to a Coca-Cola bottling facility. In 1938, it was purchased by a local movie theater operator who converted the structure to the Varsity Theater, Wagler said.
In 1954, Bev Mahon and Robert Fridley bought the Varsity; 21 years later, Mahon became the theater’s sole owner. The Varsity, which during the height of its popularity attracted patrons from the Drake neighborhood and surrounding areas, ran movies headlined by John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Danny Kaye, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis. It began showing foreign-made and artistic films in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After Mahon’s death in 2009, his daughter Denise Mahon operated the theater. She closed it in December 2018.
Capital campaign for renovation project Last spring, the Des Moines Film Society revealed plans to buy the Varsity and reopen it as a first-run cinema that would show artistic, foreign-made and specialty films.
The nonprofit organization originally planned to start its capital campaign last summer, with the renovation project starting in the fall. The pandemic, though, delayed those plans.
The Film Society took possession of the property in November after purchasing it on contract from the Mahon family for $381,000, Polk County records show.
While the group is starting its public fundraising campaign today, it has been raising money for the renovation project since last summer, said Ben Godar, the Des Moines Film Society’s director.
“We’ve been in this really long period of what we’ve called a ‘loud quiet’ fundraising phase,” Godar said. “In a typical environment you would have a short period where you’re building up some initial funds and then come out and announce your capital campaign.
“But with the pandemic, it delayed a lot of things.”
The group has raised nearly $1 million during the initial phase of its capital campaign, Godar said.
The group is also pursuing state historic tax credits.
Interior, exterior renovation plans
During one of several remodels of the Varsity, the exterior was painted a shade of off-white and a triangle-shaped marquee was replaced with one that was rectangular in shape. Also, a vertical fin above the marquee was removed.
The renovation will include removing the paint to expose light grayish-colored bricks with blue art-deco detailing, Wagler said. A new triangular-shaped marquee will be added, as will a vertical fin with the word “VARSITY” lit in neon lights.
“That vertical fin was a historic element of the design,” Wagler said. “It wasn’t a sign originally, but more of a vertical member that you see on a lot of historic theaters.”
Plans also include installing an elevator and converting second-floor space that once was Fridley’s office into a 40-seat micro-cinema. Movies will be shown in the second-floor area. In addition, film-related programs and lectures will be held there. Students from Drake University will be able to use the space, as will young people who attend the nearby Gregory and Suzie Burt Boys & Girls Club, Wagler said.
“It’s very exciting to be able to share this space with the community,” said Fabiola Schirrmeister, an independent media producer and member of the nonprofit group. “We are going to be able to come together again, and do great things to educate our community about films.”
Other renovation plans include installing an elevator, moving the first-floor concession from just inside the front entryway to the back of the main theater. About 200 of the theater’s seats will be removed to make space for the concession, restrooms and terraced area for people to sit who use wheelchairs.
The curved theater screen will remain, as will the 15-foot-tall curtains that span the width of the stage and are operated by power motors.
“One of things we hope to do is bring back the tradition of the curtains opening and closing at the beginning and ending of a film so we have some traditional touches to the art of film,” Wagler said. “The motors are there to operate the curtains; we just don’t know yet if they work.”
PHOTO INFORMATION: An architectural rendering shows what the new marquee might look like as well as the new vertical fin with the theater’s name on it. Rendering by RDG Planning and Design
Michael Wagler, president of the Des Moines Film Society, inside the Varsity Cinema. Photo by Duane Tinkey
Capital campaign for theater renovation
The Des Moines Film Society today is launching a capital campaign to raise $3 million to pay for the renovation of the Varsity Cinema, located at 1207 25th St.
One feature of the campaign is sponsorship of a theater seat, Ben Godar, the group’s director, said. For a $1,000 gift, a donor will have a plaque with their name on it attached to the back of a seat.
“I think at a theater like the Varsity, people who have loved the place literally can put their name on a seat,” Godar said.
Memberships to the Varsity are also being offered, he said. “It’s a way we can gain financial support for the organization and the theater, but it’s also a way of asking people to come along with us on this journey.”
People who become members over the next few months will be considered “founding members” and will receive special privileges such as being first in line for tickets to special events. Godar stressed that memberships aren’t needed to see films at the Varsity.