Built in 1917, Varsity Cinema is getting a $5 million upgrade thanks to Des Moines film lovers

Ben Godar stands under the awning of the Varsity Cinema, still under construction. — Brittany Brooke Crow/Little Village

In the mid-1990s, Ben Godar started making the drive from Ames to Des Moines to go to the Varsity Cinema.

“Back then, the Varsity was just one of those places that would get films that nobody else had,” he recalls.

Now, as four years of renovations on the Varsity come to a close, Godar, who is the executive director of the Des Moines Film Society, is excited for the chance to maintain that standard when the historic theater reopens in late 2022.

The Varsity Cinema was not always a film destination. When erected in 1917, it was meant to be an industrial building. Shortly after, it became a Coca-Cola bottling plant until 1934 when it became the beloved Varsity Cinema.

Since then, the Varsity Cinema has been showing arthouse films to movie lovers from near and far. Run by the Mahon family since 1954, the theater became well known for showing movies that wouldn’t be playing in the bigger box theaters in the city, which was a draw for movie aficionados like Godar. In 2018, the Mahons sold the theater to the Des Moines Film Society. It has been under construction since then.

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

In the new renovations, Godar and the rest of the Des Moines Film Society aim to maximize the space available for bringing unique programming to Des Moines. To do this, they’ve added a second screen in a discreet, top-floor microcinema with 35 seats.

“Because in film booking, you know, sometimes when you have a new film booked, you might be contractually obligated to give them a two-week clean run or something like that,” Godar explains. “So if you have one screen and you have something that you booked on a clean run, that’s all you’re showing. The second auditorium gives us the flexibility to show more interesting rep programming, like older classic films and stuff like that.”

Renovations also aim to focus on space where patrons can gather. In the previous iteration of the theater, the Varsity’s single screen faced about 500 seats. After renovations, the main screen will face only 210 seats. The rest of the space will be repurposed for bathrooms, updated concessions, expanded lobby space and accessibility features, like an elevator that brings patrons up to the microcinema on the second floor.

At the end of the day, Godar expects the renovation project to cost about $5 million, about $2.5 million more than what was originally expected due to rising costs triggered by the pandemic. And while that is a daunting number, Godar said they have experienced nothing but support from the community to make it happen.

“A big component for us was, we had to fundraise,” Godar said. “And we had to kind of find that support. Bravo Greater Des Moines was a lifesaver, really, there. One of the first really big pieces we got was a capital grant from Bravo. And that allowed us to really kickstart the project.”

The Des Moines Film Society has also made it a priority to preserve the theater as a historical building. In order to pursue historical tax credits, the organization had to invite a historic consultant in to determine which elements should be preserved and which could be updated.

But monetary reasons are not the only reason to retain some of the Varsity’s vintage elements. Because the theater has had such a rich history for Des Moines movie lovers, Des Moines Film Society also wants to nod to those who came before them by keeping some of its recognizable features, as well as showcasing a few surprises uncovered in the renovation process.

One of these surprises was original terrazzo flooring found underneath carpeting in the entrance area. The red and white candy cane stripes will greet patrons as they enter the theater. Godar says the mid-century floating stairs leading up to the second floor will also stay, as well as hand-hung letters on the marquee, although the marquee itself will be new.

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

“So it’s kind of unique, even just nationwide too. It’s a very old arthouse theater,” Godar said. “Arthouses sometimes don’t have a long lifespan. So this one has a pretty exciting history.”

The Des Moines Film Society has not yet announced when the Varsity will reopen, but Godar is confident it will be before the end of the year. In the meantime, eager patrons can follow the cinema’s progress on its Facebook page, website and mailing list.

This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 006.

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