Des Moines Film, a local film arts nonprofit, is setting out to save Des Moines’ last historic neighborhood theater, the Varsity Cinema. Last year the film society took possession of the 104-year-old building located at the corner of University and 25th Street, and is currently over a third of the way through their efforts of raising funds to renovate and operate the Varsity Cinema.
When Des Moines Film was first founded in 2015 the goal was to grow the film culture in the city, said Ben Godar, Director of Des Moines Film. The ultimate goal of the organization has always been to own and operate its own theater. When the last owners of the Varsity announced they were closing the theatre in 2018, Godar said Des Moines Film saw it as a perfect place to become a base of operations.
“The Varsity is the last operating historic theater in Des Moines,” Godar said. “Originally there were downtown cinemas, but those are long gone, and the neighborhood cinemas have all closed except for the Varsity, which has been operating as a movie theater since 1938.”
The Varsity has been known as a cultural hub sharing more niche films instead of mainstream ones, Godar said.
“In terms of programming the main thing people can expect is the best first-run arthouse and international films,” Godar said. “We will go out of our way to program things that may not be the most popular or familiar, but provide exposure, provide a platform for those voices that might not be heard otherwise, and that is important to us.”
Loretta Sieman, a Drake alumna (‘66) and fundraiser for the Varsity Cinema, agreed to join the project because she was at the Varsity Theater when it was at its prime.
“It’s exciting to see Bulldog Town coming back,” Sieman said. “When I was there it was prime; it was the place everyone wanted to be. Seeing it take back its original character is exciting.”
The building was first transformed into a Coca-Cola bottling plant before becoming a theater. Since 1938 it has been a staple, especially for students who lived across the street.
“At night when there wasn’t a game or activity it was very common to go to the Varsity Theater,” said Sieman. “They had the best popcorn in town, and of course we were all avid Diet Coke and Coca-Cola drinkers.”
The historic essence will remain intact while the lobby is expanded, concessions will be upgraded with beer, wine and alcohol, and popcorn will return. Godar said the renovations will also include the addition of Micro-Cinema on the second floor with roughly 45 seats. The bathrooms will be made more accessible and an elevator will be installed.
“To see Dogtown and the whole area revamped and come back to what it was is exciting,” said Sieman.
Des Moines Film is accepting many forms of donations and contributions including membership levels. There will be student memberships available when the theater is open in 2022. Other ways to get involved include subscribing to the newsletter at https://varsitydesmoines.com/. Those interested in volunteering can also become ambassadors for the Varsity Cinema to help share new information about the project and future programming.
“It is for you all, the Drake students,” Sieman said. “It is for the Drake family.”