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Varsity Cinema Construction is Underway

Varsity Cinema

May 19, 2022

Renderings Courtesy of RDG Planning & Design.

It was more than three years ago that we at the nonprofit Des Moines Film began working toward a vision to restore the last operating historic movie theater in Des Moines and transform it into a modern film center. We are now under construction and excited to welcome the community back to the Varsity Cinema later this fall.

Preserving a Landmark

One part of our mission is preservation. We worked with the city to get the Varsity designated as a Des Moines landmark and are working with the State Historic Preservation Office to maintain the historic fabric of the theater. Some of these elements are familiar. Others — like the terrazzo lobby floor, glazed brick and art glass facade — have been hidden away for many years.

Our larger mission is to update and transform the operations of Varsity so it can remain vital for another 80 years. We aren’t re-inventing the wheel: Our model draws on very successful nonprofit art houses around the country, including in Iowa City and Omaha.

The first priority was to add a second auditorium, allowing us to bring even more diverse films and variety to Greater Des Moines (DSM). We will be doing that by adding a second, upstairs auditorium into an area that was previously office and storage space.Interior Rendering

We are also expanding the lobby to provide more room to gather before or after the film, whether formally or informally. A cinema is a place to come together, and a vital community cinema needs to provide space for conversation. While folks gather in the expanded lobby, they will be able to enjoy some upgraded concessions, including beer, wine and signature movie-themed cocktails.

Accessibility in the Theater

To add an upstairs auditorium and expand the lobby, we are also making some major improvements to accessibility. We will be installing an elevator to take folks upstairs but also provide an alternative to the stairs between the upper and lower lobby. New, fully accessible restrooms are also being added in space that was previously the very back of the main auditorium.

The main auditorium will return with the same large, curved screen, but some significant facelifts. New, more comfortable auditorium chairs will be installed. The walls will feature beautiful new wall coverings. Projection and sound quality will be upgraded.

Those physical changes are just beginning to take shape behind the construction fencing outside Varsity. A new slab to support the elevator and some structural reinforcements has already been poured. By the end of the month, walls will begin to be framed, showing for the first time the new contours of the space.Upstairs Rendering

Future Programming + Operations

The progress on construction also allows us to begin to cast our eyes ahead to programming and operations. When the Varsity reopens its doors, the bread-and-butter will remain the American independent and international films that the Varsity has featured for years. But we plan to supplement that with programming from all across the broad canvas of film art. Expect to see classic films and film series, including late night genre films and weekend kids and family features. As part of our mission to grow the film culture in DSM, expect to see unique voices from around the world.

We are likewise excited to partner with local organizations for screening events, as we have done in the past with groups like Iowa Environmental Council and Latino Center of Iowa. There will also be space for our burgeoning local and regional filmmakers to see their work on the big screen.

It’s an ambitious vision, and through major support from local, county and state, corporate foundations and more than 1,000 individual donors, plus financing from Fortress Bank, we’ve been able to break ground. But we still aim to raise an additional $800,000 to reach our $3 million goal by the time we turn the projector on.

The support from across the community has made this possible. And while the theater itself will be largely self-sufficient, it is with continued financial support that we will be able to offer the special guests, the educational programming, the mission-driven films and so much more that will make Varsity Cinema not just a movie theater, but a true film center and key piece of our city’s cultural fabric.

Thank you to so many who have already supported our work. For anyone who would like to join the campaign, you can donate and find out more at: varsitydesmoines.com.

Throughout Greater Des Moines’ (DSM’s) 10-county region, a thriving economic environment is attracting more Investors to do business. Learn more about other recent development projects in the region.

Ben Godar

Ben Godar is the Director at Des Moines Film, currently renovating Varsity Cinema.