After four years of renovations, the Varsity Cinema reopened on Dec. 15, 2022.
The historic building was constructed in 1917, but it was renovated and first opened its doors as a theater on Dec. 25, 1938. It then operated as a small family-owned theater until it was bought in 2020 by Des Moines Film, a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting and celebrating film.
According to Michael Dunham-LaGree, director of operation and general manager of Varsity Cinema, Des Moines Film strives to amplify diverse voices. They are trying to listen to as many community members as possible and trying to give a voice to an audience that often doesn’t get talked to.
“We’re small enough to where we can kind of do our own thing and find our own place and honestly, part of that is creating diversity and inclusivity in this local theater and in the community,” Dunham-LaGree said.
The theater recently had been named a landmark building in 2020 and its history is a big part of what makes the theater so special, Dunham-LaGree said. He said that throughout the renovations, they tried to retain as much of the nostalgia and charm as possible.
“75% of the people coming in let you know how they grew up here and how much popcorn used to cost, they really like to tell you that kind of stuff,” Dunham-LaGree said. “It is an interesting place to be, where you have to be cognizant of the past right and the past of this theater, but also how we can maybe elevate things in a way that will serve the community better.”
According to Dunham-LaGree, the renovations served to both modernize the theater and make it more accessible. They installed a lift, full concession stand and a second theater.
“It keeps us nimble, so we can push stuff upstairs if it is not selling well, bring in the next big thing or do the special programming. It gives us another avenue for this special programming and introduces as many things as possible,” Dunham-LaGree said.
Additionally, Varsity Cinema plans to show primarily artistic independent films. Dunham-LaGree states this will help to amplify all different types of media and potentially draw in Drake students. He wants this to be a place for casual moviegoers and die-hard movie fans alike.
“I think that the fact they’re showing older and indie movies is just fantastic. The Varsity is paying respects to the classics while also giving smaller filmmakers a shot. However, if you still want to see a more mainstream movie, they’ll show it there too,” junior Chris Veninga said. “I want to keep seeing smaller films that are made out of passion, not necessarily made for financial gain.”
Another way Varsity Cinema is trying to connect with the community is through special events. They will be hosting events such as Midnight at Ten, a program where they will be showing cult classic movies, such as “The Room” and “Science on Screen,” typically starting at midnight – a program they put together with the help of Drake librarian Dan Chibnall.
Varsity Cinema also partnered with Pyramid Theater Company, a local theater troupe. The two organizations are working together to create a film series for the next month. Dunham-LaGree said these are just some of the special events that make going to Varsity Cinema a unique experience.
“Spending a little extra time putting events together, it’s going to offer a unique experience that you aren’t going to get anywhere else. And that elevates us, and also, makes the experience a little more inclusive and robust,” Dunham-LaGree said. “This special programming kinda gives us the option to play some fan favorites and some things that you know, people love and have loved for years. That you just aren’t necessarily finding anywhere else right now.”
Dunham-LaGree added that the whole Varsity Cinema staff is excited to share their passion for movies with Des Moines, specifically Drake students.
“I really enjoyed the atmosphere. Though I’m always down to go to any movie theater, the smaller and local ones always appear to have more heart than the chain cinemas,” Veninga said.
According to Dunham-LaGree, the Varsity Cinema seeks to be a small community-driven theater. He believes this wouldn’t be possible without connecting with Varsity’s neighbor, Drake University, and he wants to hear what they are interested in.
Veninga also was excited about a potential partnership, as he said that he would love to see Varsity Cinema do a student film festival for interested Drake students.
“It would be tough to build a true community here without engaging as much as possible with Drake,” Dunham-LaGree said. “I just think we can partner and do some great things and we’re just excited to show movies to people that love movies. I mean, that’s really the base right? And everyone behind the camera and everyone that works in the theater, we just love movies. It’s a passion project.”