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Over 18 Years In The Making: 'Lost Cinemas Of Greater Des Moines' To Premiere At The Varsity

Mark Heggen 'Lost Cinemas of Greater Des Moines'
The documentary "Lost Cinemas of Greater Des Moines" premieres Friday, May 14, in the Varsity Virtual Cinema.

This Friday, the public will get a chance to see “Lost Cinemas of Greater Des Moines,” a documentary film over 18 years in the making. The film will premiere online in theVarsity Virtual Cinemafor free May 14 and run through May 27.

DirectorMark Heggenfirst started researching the history of Des Moines movie theaters in 1986. He recalls driving around the city and noticing all the buildings that looked like abandoned cinemas.

“Being a sort of natural list maker, I started making a list, and it grew to be a pretty huge list,” Heggen said. “I went and researched at the library, looking at old city directories clear back to around 1905 and just made this giant chart. I started finding news clippings and old photos, things like that, and it just snowballed from there over the course of several years.”

Heggen initially intended to publish his findings as a book, but while working as an animator at Technicolor in 2002, he began experimenting with motion graphics and decided to turn the project into a video.

Mark Heggen 'Lost Cinemas of Greater Des Moines'
Mark Heggen 'Lost Cinemas of Greater Des Moines'
The original Varsity Theatre opened its doors in 1938 and operated until 2018.

“I kept adding things to it as recently as a couple years ago,” Heggen said. “So, the thing has really evolved a lot over the last 18 years.”

Several versions of “Lost Cinemas” have screened at film festivals over the years, but Heggen said Friday’s premiere is the final cut.

“This is truly the finished version of the film,” he said. “It’s got all of the final pieces in place. It’s definitely different than the festival versions.”

The final runtime totals 55 minutes and includes animated photos, black-and-white footage and color footage from as early as the 1950s.

The premiere is presented in partnership with Des Moines Film, a nonprofit arts organization that recently acquired the historic Varsity Theatre in the Drake neighborhood. Ben Godar, president of Des Moines Film and director of the Varsity Cinema, said the organization is honored to host the premiere.

“The Varsity is featured in the film, so you’ll see where the Varsity fits into the historic evolution of cinemas in Des Moines,” Godar said. “All the downtown cinemas are gone. All the neighborhood theaters are closed and mostly gone. The Varsity is kind of the last one. I feel very good about the Varsity being the host for this program because it’s a way for us to wave a flag about why this place is important and why theaters like this are important.”

Mark Heggen 'Lost Cinemas of Greater Des Moines'
Mark Heggen 'Lost Cinemas of Greater Des Moines'
The Varsity Cinema is offering free Varsity popcorn as part of the film’s premiere.

The Varsity Theatre operated as a single-screen movie theater from 1938 to 2018, when the long time owners announced their retirement. Shortly after the doors closed, Des Moines Film purchased the building and began a rehabilitation project to restore the theater, which will reopen as the Varsity Cinema.

According to Godar, he and Heggen were planning an in-person premiere at the Varsity over a year ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic put their plans on hold.

“I had been hoping to do an in-theater premiere, but, of course, the pandemic changed that a bit,” Heggen said. “But this Varsity situation is really great because I’ve always loved the Varsity. It’s probably the first theater I ever went to in my life. I think it’s going to be a wonderful thing and help draw people to this new, revived version of the Varsity.”

While doing research for “Lost Cinemas,” Heggen discovered how one local cinema, Amuzu Theatre, adapted during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

“One-hundred years ago, when the Spanish flu epidemic was going on, the guy that ran that theater was trying to keep patrons going to the theater,” Heggen said. “So, he sort of did an early version of social distancing, where he would only seat people in alternate rows, and they would actually hand out face masks to the customers.”

Despite the challenges movie theater owners have faced during the pandemic, Heggen said he believes theaters will find a way to survive.

“People love going to movie theaters enough, that I don’t think it will completely go away,” Heggen said. “The Varsity comeback is a prime example of how things could and should go.”

To celebrate the premiere of “Lost Cinemas,” the Varsity is giving away free bags of their beloved popcorn Friday, May 14, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

“We’ve been proud to present our Virtual Cinema films over the last year, and we thought this was a great opportunity to also let folks enjoy the movie concessions they’ve missed,” Godar said.

Nicole Baxter is a Sponsorship Coordinator and covers film as a contributing writer for Iowa Public Radio.