The Varsity Theatre wasn’t the first business I saw close in Campustown. Stay around Ames for a few years and you can challenge your friends in the chronology of a location – Oleke Te, Maid-Rite, Angie’s Kitchen. . . or was it Santa Fe Café? Somehow though, when I saw the dumpster outside the Varsity Theatre, the feeling was different. I wasn’t disappointed – I was crushed.
I started going to the Varsity Theatre in 2004. My friends and I would go over for a midnight film. We saw classics like Spaceballs, The Shawshank Redemption, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the crowded theaters. The Varsity had a knack for knowing the films that I grew up with and separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Despite it being a Cinemark-owned theater, it always felt that the Varsity was truly property of the community.
But the theater that once showed films like The King of Kong and A Very Long Engagement became the theater that had Dane Cook films on two screens for a month at a time, and in January 2009, it finally closed. When I walked by on a winter day early last year and saw the seats being thrown in a dumpster outside, the magnitude of the loss struck me. How had we lost one of the final historic locations in Campustown? What hope did an area that couldn’t support a theater next to buildings filled with 2,000 18- to 24-year-olds have? I asked the men moving the seats into the dumpster what would become of the theater – who would take it over? They didn’t know, they said, as they emptied the assets of the last small theater in Ames into tomorrow’s trash.
It was the Varsity Theatre’s closure that moved me to start working on Campustown issues. Progress was slow at first. The Campustown Student Association and Campustown Action Association were only beginning to exist as organizations and were starting with the small tasks – district flags, community events, and Campustown court. Iowa State University’s Government of the Student Body administration, while vocally interested in Campustown revitalization, was uninterested in theater ownership.
In July, I started talking with GSB Finance Director Tom Danielson about the theater. We had similar thoughts on the space: have the university occupy the building, renovate it into a theater once again and move pre-existing university film programming (SUB Films and Free Friday Flicks) into the space, and take programming that does well in crowded lecture auditoriums and move it into a real theater – big screen, quality sound, popcorn aroma, the works. As our conversations progressed into meetings, e-mails, and proposals, we found supporters all around town, from public library and Memorial Union employees to the Committee on Lectures and the property owner who would love to see his block of Ames retain a treasure remembered by residents and students over several generations.
In February, the GSB will vote on a bill to fund the rental, renovation, and programming of a student-owned-and-operated theater in the former Varsity Theatre location. To call this movement grassroots is disparaging to grass – we were more like seeds when we started. With no formal training or experience, a small group of students have tirelessly advocated for the operation of a theater. We have collected over 800 surveys to demonstrate student support for the project. We have been in meetings with all levels and flavors of university and city officials, some highly supportive, some blatantly dismissive.
We aim to create an affordable theater that will cater to student and community needs for film, both educational and entertaining. Tickets will be $1 for students and $3 for community members. We see this venture as both a means and an end – a means to increasing student feelings of ownership in a Campustown treated by some as the dumping grounds of their frustration and destructive tendencies, and an end as a cultural asset and a facility to support the enjoyment and love of cinema. This project may serve as the best litmus test yet of whether the City of Ames and Iowa State University can truly work with students to create a culturally rich and viable Campustown.