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INSIDER NOTEBOOK: A look at Des Moines’ one-screen movie houses


Writing this week about plans to renovate and reopen the Varsity Theater brought back memories of occasionally being allowed as a youngster to walk to an afternoon matinee at the old Hiland Theater at 423 Euclid Ave.

At the time, the one-screen theater was tired looking and smelled of stale popcorn. Still, it was a fun place to go with friends and stay cool on a hot summer’s day.

That theater, I learned this week, was among about 10 one-screen movie houses built outside of downtown Des Moines between 1933 and 1941, according to local historian James Jacobsen, who did research to support a quest to designate the Varsity a local landmark.

For some reason, the structures are described as “suburban theaters,” Ben Godar said during this week’s meeting of Des Moines’ Landmark Review Board.

“These were [built in] in areas that we wouldn’t really call suburban now; they’re just the neighborhoods of Des Moines,” said Godar, board president of the nonprofit Des Moines Film Society that plans to buy the Varsity.

Many of the movie houses were built by Tri-States Theaters Corp., headed by A. H. Blank, according to Jacobsen. 

The first of the suburban theaters was built in 1933 at 2429 University Ave., and named the Varsity Theater, according to Jacobsen. The second, the Roosevelt Theater, was built in 1934 at 831 42nd St. That building is now home to the Des Moines Playhouse.

Blank’s construction company worked with local architects Edwin Wetherell and Roland Harrison, according to Jacobsen. The firm’s specialty was theater design. And while the construction company wasn’t hired to work on a “new” Varsity Theater planned for a vacant building at 1207 25th St., the architectural firm was, Jacobsen wrote. 

The two-story building was constructed in 1917 and had been home to several auto showrooms and for 16 years, a Coca Cola bottling plant. The architects redesigned the front of the building, adding a marquee and big windows to display play bills. 

According to information Jacobsen unearthed, the remodeling work cost $15,000 and was completed by John Widerberg, who also built the Hiland Theater.

The new Varsity Theater opened on Christmas Day, 1938. In 1961, it began showing French and Italian films, “which was extremely early for anywhere in the United States,” Godar said.

In the mid-1970s, the theater began a transition to “what we would call ‘art house model’ for the films that they were showing,” Godar said. “That truly does make the Varsity one of the oldest continuously operating art house cinemas in America.”
The Varsity remained open for 80 years, closing in late December 2018.

It “outlasted every competing metro movie house” and avoided being bought by movie chains, wrote Jacobsen in the application letter for the landmark designation.

When the renovations are complete, the movie house, which will be renamed the Varsity Cinema, will “serve as an independent, nonprofit film center,” said Michael Wagler, a Des Moines Film Society board member.

“We really envision this being a community building element again in the Drake neighborhood.”

Photos: The photo of the Hiland Theater is from 1940 and can be found here along with other old-time Des Moines photos. The photo of the Varsity Theater was taken by James Jacobsen.

RELATED: Historic Varsity Theater to be sold, renovated and re-opened

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