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Des Moines’ historic Varsity Cinema reopening after four-year, $5 million renovation project



The grand opening of the Drake Neighborhood Varsity Cinema takes place on Dec 15, 2022. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

The Varsity Cinema near Drake University is reopening its doors to the community after being closed for four years.

The historic Des Moines theater features “a variety of programming including prestige new releases, the best of art house & international, curated repertory series and classics, upscale genre and late-night movies, kids and family series” according to the nonprofit Des Moines Film.

Des Moines Film currently operates the theater, which reopens Thursday, Dec. 15 after a $5 million renovation project.

The Varsity Cinema patiently awaits its new marquee in September 2022. — Brittany Brooke Crow/Little Village

Built in 1917, the building originally served as an industrial space — first, a coal and feed store, then a Student Army Training Corps facility in 1918 during WWI, then a Coca-Cola boiling plant in 1923, and finally a theater in 1938. It replaced The Varsity, a theater around the corner that closed after four years.

Varsity Cinema underwent a tragic fire 20 years later in 1958, when it was under the ownership of Bob Fridley and Bev Mahon. Mahon became the sole owner in the mid-1970s. After his passing in 2010, his family kept the business afloat, and it remained open until 2018.

Renovations revealed the Varsity Cinema’s original stone walls. — Brittany Brooke Crow/Little Village

Named a Landmark Building by the City of Des Moines Landmark Board in 2020, Des Moines Film made it their mission to transform the community space back into a full-time theater.

Des Moines Film is a nonprofit organization pushing for more local film exposure around the Des Moines culture and community. The organization was founded to grow film programming, film education, special events and filmmaker support in the region.

The former Coca-Cola plant now houses two theaters, one main theater with restrooms and concessions right outside of the theater doors, and a smaller Loft Cinema on the second floor with its own lobby.

Historic features like the rock wall and floating staircase remain, along with the box office. Vintage movie posters, newspaper clippings and other artifacts that speak to the cinema’s history are displayed on the second floor.

The first films to be shown in the revamped cinema on opening day Thursday include:

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Lost Cinemas of Greater Des Moines (2021)

Decision to Leave (2022)

White Noise (2022)

Elf (2003)

Die Hard (1988)

Babylon (2022)


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