After being closed nearly four years, the only remaining historic movie theater in Des Moines will reopen under new management in just over two weeks.
The Varsity has undergone a $5-millionr, top-to-bottom renovation, according to Ben Godar, executive director of the non-profit Des Moines Film, which now owns the venue. “The building is more than 100 years old and so it’s a historic preservation project first and foremost,” Godar says. “We worked with the State Historic Preservation Office to identify what are those key, character-defining historic features and we had to absolutely work to preserve those features.”
The main theater seats 240 people while a second, smaller auditorium has been added, with seating for just 38. Godar says they’ve maintained the movie house’s unique, original looks while bringing everything else into the 21st century. “We made the building fully accessible,” Godar says. “We added an elevator, new restrooms, a more modernized ticketing experience, a new concession stand, classic movie snacks, the same Varsity popcorn everyone remembers and loves, but we also have added beer, wine and alcohol.”
Both auditoriums have modern digital projectors, as well as new screens and top-flight sound systems. When the venue reopens next month, Godar says it will feature a mixture of classic movies like the 1952 musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” and “Elf” from 2003, alongside 2022 offerings including, “Decision to Leave” and “White Noise.”
“Our bread and butter is going to be what I think people would traditionally call ‘arthouse,’ American independent film, international film, new releases,” Godar says, “but we’ll also be showing classic films, film series, and we’ve got some other kind of interesting series in the works already.” The structure, located right next to the Drake University campus, has an unusual history that dates back well over a century.
“The building was built in 1917. It was actually kind of a spec industrial building that was briefly automotive sales and service and then it was actually the Coca-Cola Bottling plant from 1920 to 1938,” Godar says. “It was in 1938 that the building went through a significant remodel and became the Varsity Theater, and so it’s been the Varsity Theatre since 1938.”
One of the first things movie goers will notice is the original 1938 terrazzo (tah-RAH-zoe) flooring has been uncovered and refurbished to a gleaming shine. Opening day is Thursday, December 15th.