Ben Godar, executive director of Des Moines Film, stands in the updated lobby of the Varsity Cinema, which is scheduled to reopen Dec. 15. Photos below: New chairs in the first-floor movie auditorium will be installed before the Dec. 15 reopening. The exterior of the building at 1207 25th St. has also been refurbished. Blue-glazed bricks were exposed when paint was removed that had covered the upper level of the building. Photos by Duane Tinkey

 

Des Moines’ only remaining historic theater will once again be showing new and classic movies.
The Varsity Cinema, located at 1207 25th St., is scheduled to reopen on Dec. 15, nearly four years after its previous owner closed its doors.
The theater is described as the Des Moines area’s oldest single-screen, independently owned movie house. It was shuttered on Dec. 31, 2018. The nonprofit Des Moines Film Society bought the property in fall 2020, and in early 2021 it launched a fundraising campaign to renovate the 106-year-old building.
“We wanted to preserve the historic nature of the theater but also make some improvements,” said Ben Godar, Des Moines Film’s executive director. “We believe we achieved our goals.”
The nearly $5 million renovation includes an expanded lobby, upgraded concessions with full bar, and the addition of an elevator and second-level auditorium. The inside and outside of the building have been refurbished, a new sound system installed, and new screens added to the auditoriums.
The first-floor auditorium seats 240 people; the second-floor auditorium seats 38.

 

More than 1,000 individuals donated to the theater’s fundraising campaign, according to a news release. In addition, contributions were received from the city of Des Moines, Polk County, the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as several other organizations, according to the group’s website.
Many cities of Des Moines’ size or larger have retained at least one historic movie theater, Godar said. Des Moines only has the Varsity, he said.
“All the movie theaters in downtown Des Moines got knocked down,” Godar said. “There are remnants of some of the neighborhood theaters, but [the Varsity] was the last operating one. It’s important to us that it does continue operating as a movie theater,” which is why the nonprofit purchased the property.
However, transforming an idea into reality was a challenge.
Few of the Des Moines Film Society’s members had experience in historic renovations, Godar said. The group recruited people to its board with backgrounds in development and finance, he said.
Just as the group was ready to launch its fundraising campaign, the pandemic hit.
“We had everything in place to start the campaign; all we had to do was flip a switch to go live,” Godar said. Instead “we pressed pause for about a year. … By the time we recircled the wagons and reassessed the finances, we were told the project was going to cost about $1 million more than we originally planned.”

 

“That was a gut-check moment,” he said.

 

The group made changes to the renovation plan, including retaining the rectangular-shaped marquee on the front of the building. Plans originally had called for replacing it with a metal triangle-shaped marquee. Metal was one of the materials that experienced substantial price increases during the pandemic, Godar said.
While a triangular-shaped marquee would have matched one that was attached to the building in 1938, the cost wasn’t worth it, Godar said.
“We wanted to save the money and make sure we could offer the programming we had planned and make the building accessible,” he said.  
Some historic features of the building were uncovered during the renovation. The theater’s terrazzo floor in the lobby was uncovered when the carpet was removed. Art deco-style door frames were revealed when drywall was removed from the entryways into the main theater. On the building’s exterior, blue-glazed brick striping was uncovered when paint was removed.
“We are really excited to be able to preserve some of the things that were part of the 1938 renovation of the building,” Godar said.
The current renovation, though, won’t be fully complete when the first movie – “Singin’ in the Rain” – is shown on Dec. 15. Glass that will encase a stairway to the second floor hasn’t yet arrived and letters that spell out “Varsity Cinema” planned for above the marquee also are in transit.
In addition, auditorium chairs haven’t yet arrived.
“We’ve had some issues getting materials and equipment on time,” Godar said. “The chairs are expected to arrive Dec. 5. … You really can’t open the theater until you have chairs.”
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Varsity Cinema’s opening weekend plans
The 1952 movie classic “Singin’ in the Rain” will be the first movie shown in the newly renovated Varsity Cinema. The musical romantic comedy stars Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor.
Other movies that will be shown during the theater’s opening weekend include “Decision to Leave,” “White Noise,” “Elf” and “Lost Cinemas of Des Moines.”
Tickets for the weekend shows as well as upcoming movies can be purchased at varsitydesmoines.com.