Reclaiming Varsity Theatre

February 6th, 2010 · 7 Comments

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.

Tags: 2010 · AP Issues · Commentary · January 2010

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 James Stenstrom // Feb 7, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    I’m really glad to see that the varsity will not go to waste. I was the manager of the varsity and loved it dearly. Keep it’s spirit alive. Good luck!!!

  • 2 Isaiah C // Feb 9, 2010 at 3:32 am

    I’m glad to hear you guys are taking over the space. The other abandoned theater on that street turned into a boring-ass insurance company or something. Boo insurance, Yay student theater.

  • 3 Shelley // Feb 9, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    I planned by class schedule around when new films opened at the Varsity – never had a class on Thursday afternoon so a friend and I would go to the Varsity. That was back in the mid-70s.

  • 4 Tyler // Feb 23, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Yes, it’s a great idea to waste nearly $187,000 in purchasing and rebuilding it, then $40,000+ a year to run it at the most optimistic projection of having all seats a third full. There’s more costs beyond that in the GSB’s attempt to create a play place for students and get involved in private business at a time when budget cuts are badly effecting students groups and clubs across campus.

    I am greatly offended at the prospect of wasting tens of thousands of my student fees while at the same time cutting the budgets of GSB funded student groups, like mine – Ethos magazine, by nearly 80% over three years and aiming the barrel of another budget-cutting gun at us.

    Creating a play place, re-opening a business that already failed because they couldn’t compete or appeal to students is not a priority over funding clubs on campus that prepare us for our future careers. For some majors, like journalism, the majority of learning comes outside the classroom but those opportunities are shrinking only because GSB has decided they don’t want us to have as much money. These cuts came before the University started suffering budget cuts, before the recession started by anyone’s measure.

    Denying student clubs money while buying a movie theater during a recession is like a parent telling their kids they won’t buy them school supplies because they just got a new HDTV.

  • 5 MysteryCrunch // Feb 24, 2010 at 4:09 am

    Unlike your jerk-water club, this place should be able to pay for itself eventually. Stop hating, this theatre is (fingers crossed) gonna rock, and unlike what-ever the hell your pretentiously named magazine-hole, this theatre will benefit the whole community. Ames has plenty ass-hat student magazines (no offense to Progressive), it has no art theatre.

  • 6 Tyler // Feb 27, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    The most optimistic projections of the theater’s business show it running at a 1/3 capacity overall while draining nearly $100K a year out of the GSB to keep its doors open. It would only be open Thursday through Sunday in the afternoon and evenings. There is no parking anywhere near the location. That’s not enough to satisfy the community, especially when Cinemark plays everything next to Staples. If you seek “art theater,” the independent films you find at Fleur Cinema in Des Moines, the same they used to show at the Varsity before the Varsity closed, won’t bring in enough revenue to sustain such a small theater. It failed already, the community voted by not attending it when it was open that it’s not vital nor valued. It is not the GSB’s position to get involved in private business with student fees, especially not one they project to run at a deficit.

    And pretentiously named? I’d like to know what is pretentious about an ancient Greek word that refers to culture which is exactly what we right about. But without reading our publication, you’d never have any idea of that would you?

  • 7 MysteryCrunch // Feb 28, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Yeah, I am sure the ancient Greeks couldn’t be prouder of magazine with a sexting cover story. Ethos and Teen Beat, keeping the first amendment alive. AMES deserves an art theater. You shouldn’t have to shlep into the Windy Apple to see a new independent movie or an old classic on the big screen. And the varsety NEVER played current indi and art movies. Once in a blue moon it would have a midnight showing of Clerks, but that’s about it. Also it is gone. Also there is parking on campus, and not unlike certain rag publications, it sucks but its there. ALSO, there is a huge population of students who live or work or go to school within walking distance of the building. Remember that big campus-looking-thing near where the Varsity was? Its a campus; who knew, right? It’s right near that big parking-garage-looking structure. While I highly doubt your numbers are the most optimistic, frankly I don’t care. It is the Universities duty to give students an entertainment option more culturally appealing then football games or meth. I am greatly offended your mom forgot to get an IUD.

    PS: Running Thursday through Sunday (very few movie theaters have AM showings by the way) is 4/7th capacity, not 1/3rd. Have a lovely day.

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