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Varsity Cinema in Des Moines announces grand reopening weekend

The wait is over for moviegoers in Des Moines. This week, the Varsity Cinema announced they will reopen the historic theater on Dec. 15.

After closing their doors for nearly four years, the Varsity is preparing to show their first slate of movies since 2018. Their grand reopening weekend will showcase the following new and classic films:

  • Singin’ in the Rain, the classic Hollywood musical starring Gene Kelly
  • Decision to Leave, the new thriller from South Korean director Park Chan-wook
  • White Noise, director Noah Baumbach’s new black comedy adaptation
  • Elf, the classic Christmas comedy starring Will Ferrell
  • Lost Cinemas of Greater Des Moines, a local documentary from an Iowa filmmaker

What to expect from the new Varsity

Audiences can expect the Varsity to show a wide array of film genres, according to Ben Godar, director of Des Moines Film, the nonprofit that owns and operates the cinema.

“There’s going to be elements of the past Varsity that will remain, and there’s going to be new elements,” Godar said. “The Varsity was essentially Des Moines’ long-time arthouse cinema. A lot of the programming that the Varsity had done was really very similar to the kind of programming that we would do in our mission.”

Godar said their focus is to highlight diverse voices, partner with community organizations, spotlight artistic values in film and generate financial return.

Educational opportunities are another area the Varsity plans to develop. As a recipient of the Science on Screen grant, they will be presenting a series of science-related films accompanied by scientific-themed discussions and demonstrations.

Regular programming will also include two additional film series: Midnights at 10, which will spotlight cult classics, and Cinema Clubhouse, a weekend program for families.

In addition to film series and classic revivals, the Varsity will specialize in new releases of independent and international films.

“Our bread and butter is going to be first-run arthouse programming,” Godar said.

Speaking of butter, Godar confirmed that the Varsity’s popular popcorn topping will return.

“Yes, we will be doing real butter on the popcorn,” he said.

The Varsity will also introduce new items to the concession stand, including beer, wine and liquor.

Building renovations

For 80 years, the Varsity served as the community theater in the Drake Neighborhood, located on 25th St., right on the edge of Drake University’s campus. At one point, the building sported stripes of blue bricks, matching the college’s colors. The blue-glazed bricks were just one of the vintage features uncovered in the nearly $5 million renovation.

Returning moviegoers will also notice the building’s newly renovated interior spaces, including the lobby, auditorium and restrooms, as well as a second level. These modern amenities have been introduced alongside historic elements of the former theater.

The newly renovated Varsity Cinema features an updated lobby and concession stand. The second level now houses an additional smaller auditorium.
The Varsity Cinema
The newly renovated Varsity Cinema features an updated lobby and concession stand. The second level now houses an additional smaller auditorium.

As a Des Moines landmark, certain architectural features of the original Varsity were left intact.

“We’ve preserved those character-defining features,” Godar said. “The rock wall, the floating staircase, the box office — just a lot of those mid-century elements that [people] would recognize in the lobby. Also, a lot of those Art Deco details from the 1938 renovation. In fact, we actually revealed some that were hidden away, including the terrazzo floor.”

The second level, which previously functioned as an office and storage space, is now home to another lobby area and smaller screening room called the Loft Cinema.

Using the Varsity to build film culture in Des Moines

According to Godar, the Loft Cinema makes it possible for the nonprofit-run cinema to provide additional programming to the community.

“Just by virtue of the second auditorium and our mission, we’re going to do a lot more,” he said. “Since the end of 2018, we’ve been focused almost exclusively on this mission to acquire, renovate and operate the Varsity Cinema to deliver our film programming. […] It's been a very long time coming.”

Now that the reopening of the Varsity is in sight, Godar looks forward to growing the film culture in Des Moines.

“We’re excited about being able to use the Varsity to get back to doing open-screen nights for local filmmakers — to put their films up there, to have a space for filmmakers to host premieres for their films — and other opportunities like that for local filmmakers,” Godar said.

In addition to post-screening discussions, Godar plans to eventually expand the Varsity’s programming to include in-depth educational opportunities.

“Down the road, we certainly hope to be able to offer full-blown classes and even summer camps,” he said.

Show times and tickets for the grand reopening are now available on the Varsity Cinema website.

Editor's note: The Varsity Cinema is an IPR sponsor.

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