Varsity Cinema returns to help screen out the noise

The nonprofit Des Moines Film Society renovates what’s arguably the center of the Iowa moviegoing universe

November 18, 2022 8:00 am

Ben Godar, director of the Des Moines Film Society, stands inside Varsity Cinema’s main theater during renovations. (Photo by Kyle Munson)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.A buzzsaw whined from inside the building as a construction worker named Nick walked out the front door carrying a long and thin artifact.

“Want to keep your old handrail?” Nick said.

“No, but I appreciate the offer,” said Ben Godar, director of the Des Moines Film Society, the nonprofit renovating this historic Varsity Cinema in the heart of Des Moines.

Satisfied, Nick flung the handrail into the waiting Dumpster with a thud.

I stood there pondering the significance of one more screen in 2022.

Eighty-five percent of Americans own smartphones. We carry screens everywhere in our pockets.

At home, the average size of TV screens has grown for years and shot up by a few inches during our pandemic hibernation streaming binge that lasted roughly from “Tiger King” through ”The Beatles: Get Back.”

Yet in this world saturated with screens, sitting still and silencing our phones in a dark movie house alongside neighbors retains its allure.

That’s what drew Godar and his allies to this place at 1207 25th St., next door to Drake University. The nonprofit has rallied grants, tax credits, financing, and more than 1,000 individual donors toward what’s expected to be a $5 million revival.

Construction costs have surged as supply chains snarled, and the pandemic forced Godar and team to bet the nonprofit’s entire fate on the return of regular moviegoing. Their capital campaign scheduled to launch March 2020 was — for obvious reasons — pushed back to February 2021. It was all or nothing.

“There was no Plan B,” he said.

So here we are, with the Varsity, shut down since 2018, expected to reopen by the end of the year.

This is personal for filmmaker Godar in so many ways. He honestly doesn’t remember when he first stepped inside the Varsity but suspects it was to see the 1994 Italian film “Il Postino” (“The Postman”). He just remembers his first glimpse of the marquee glowing through the trees of Drake campus at twilight.

That was back when the Ames native still lived in his hometown, where he graduated from both high school and Iowa State University. He later earned an MFA in screenwriting and lived and worked in Los Angeles, before moving back to Iowa in 2007.

Des Moines Film Society, which Godar co-founded in 2015, was inspired by Iowa City predecessor FilmScene. But the Varsity arguably is special because it can be considered the epicenter of Iowa movie culture.

Headquarters for a ‘regional movie house empire’

This site began inauspiciously in the early 20th century as a coal and feed store that became an automobile garage and then a Coca-Cola bottling plant. It debuted as the Varsity in 1938 — as a theater relocated from just around the corner on University Avenue where it had first opened in 1933.

Business partners Bev Mahon and Robert Fridley purchased the theater in 1954 — a pair that came to define Midwestern moviegoing as much as anybody.

“The Varsity can be arguably credited with serving as Fridley’s point of inspiration in building his regional movie house empire that would at its zenith entail some 70 screens and three states,” James Jacobsen wrote in the 76-page nomination that earned the Varsity its official status as an historical landmark.

Fridley died in 2021 at age 103. His obituary credits him as the owner of 87 theaters between 1936 and 2014. His Fridley Theatres company endures with 97 screens in Iowa and Nebraska — including an IMAX on metro’s western fringe.

Fridley exited the Varsity in the mid-1970s, leaving Mahon and his progressive programming to cement its reputation as the flagship for independent cinema in the capital city. His daughter, Denise, carried on after Mahon’s death in 2009. In the words of a 2012 university graduate thesis, “As the overall lifespan of (Des Moines) theaters, more or less, shrank over the years, only one theater astonishingly managed to survive from the mid-1930s: the Varsity Theater.”

The Varsity went dark in 2018, appropriately enough, with a final showing of “Cinema Paradiso.”

One of the first details you spot when walking into the theater today is the beautiful terrazzo floor in the lobby that had been hidden beneath carpet.

Bob Fridley’s faux fireplace and built-in bookshelves are tucked into the corner of the Loft Cinema. (Photo by Kyle Munson)

But the gem of the renovation as far as I’m concerned is the new intimate “Loft Cinema” on the second floor, with seating for about 35. The space had been Fridley’s office during his postwar heyday. A faux stone fireplace and built-in bookshelves from that era were deemed essential historical features to be preserved in exchange for tax credits. So they’re tucked into the corner of the room just left of the screen.

I reassured Godar that, rather than an awkward design workaround, they’re highlights that lend the room its special atmosphere. They helped me feel the arc of history as I stood there, from the golden age of Hollywood to the rise of suburban multiplexes to the disappearance of massive downtown movie palaces such as River Hills in Des Moines.

Varsity Cinema will help fill a very real hole in the capital city.

Arthouse-friendly Fleur Cinema on the south side of Des Moines hasn’t reopened since it closed for COVID. Cobblestone 9 in Urbandale shut down at the end of October.

The Loft Cinema shown during renovations. (Photo by Kyle Munson)

Similar to Godar, I can’t swear which Varsity film was my first, but I remember seeing “The Crying Game” in early 1993, oblivious to the plot before I entered the theater. I was among a group of college students whose politics professor told them to expect a drama about the Irish Republican Army. We got a lot more than we bargained for.

Even when dates and details fade, Godar says, everyone remembers the feeling of a night at the movies.

“The elimination of distraction is the thing,” he says. “That’s what you experience when you go to the cinema.”

True. Waving the remote at my TV at home as my phone buzzes, the dog barks, the dishwasher chimes, and another Amazon Prime box hits the doorstep doesn’t quite enable the same focus—let alone a collective community experience.

Fridley’s former quaint mancave today offers escape from all our other screens as much as it offers escape into some moviemaker’s magical world.

This column was first published by “Kyle Munson’s Main Street” and is reprinted here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Kyle Munson
Kyle Munson

Kyle Munson is a storyteller, writer, journalist, and marketer. His career includes experience in daily news, corporate content strategy, and nonprofit organizations. He’s a fifth-generation Iowan who lives in Des Moines. He writes a column, Kyle Munson's Main Street, and is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative.