The Varsity Cinema returns to block out the noise

Iowa Writers' Collaborative.  Connecting Iowa Readers and Writers.A buzz saw whined from inside the building as a construction worker named Nick emerged from the front door carrying a long and thin artifact.

“Would you like 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 organization renovating this historic varsity movie theater in the heart of Des Moines.

Satisfied, Nick threw the handrail into the waiting dumpster with a thump.

I stood there pondering the meaning of another screen in 2022.

85 percent of Americans own smartphones. We carry screens in our pockets everywhere.

At home, the average size of TV screens has been growing for years, skyrocketing by a few inches during our pandemic hibernation streaming binge, which lasted roughly from “Tiger King” to “The Beatles: Get Back.”

Yet in this screen-saturated world, sitting still and silencing our phones in a dark theater next to neighbors retains its appeal.

This is what drew Godar and his allies to this location at 1207 25th St., next to Drake University. The nonprofit has raised grants, tax credits, funding and more than 1,000 individual donors for an expected $5 million revival.

Construction costs have risen as supply chains have been thrown into disarray, and the pandemic has forced Godar and his team to stake the nonprofit’s entire destiny on the return of regular cinema-going. Her capital campaign, scheduled for March 2020, has been pushed back to February 2021 – for obvious reasons. It was all or nothing.

“There was no plan B,” he said.

So here we are with Varsity, closed since 2018, expected to reopen at the end of the year.

For the filmmaker Godar, this is personal in many ways. To be honest, he can’t remember when he first entered college, but thinks he saw the 1994 Italian film Il Postino (‘The Postman’). He only remembers his first glimpse of the marquee glowing through the trees of the Drake campus at dusk.

At the time, the Amesian native was still living in his hometown, where he attended both high school and Iowa State University. He later earned an MFA in Screenwriting and lived and worked in Los Angeles before returning to Iowa in 2007.

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

Business partners Bev Mahon and Robert Fridley bought the theater in 1954 – a couple who defined cinema-going in the Midwest as much as any other.

“The Varsity can arguably be viewed as Fridley’s point of inspiration in building his regional cinema empire, which at its peak would span some 70 screens and three states,” James Jacobsen wrote in the 76-page nomination, which earned the Varsity its official status as a historic landmark.

Fridley died in 2021 at the age of 103. His obituary lists him as the owner of 87 theaters between 1936 and 2014. His company Fridley Theaters has 97 screens in Iowa and Nebraska – including an IMAX on the western edge of the subway.

Fridley left university in the mid-1970s, leaving Mahon and his progressive programming behind to cement his reputation as the flagship of independent cinema in the capital. His daughter Denise carried on after Mahon’s death in 2009. In the words of a 2012 college thesis, “Astonishingly, as the overall lifespan of (Des Moines) theaters more or less dwindled over the years, only one theater from the mid-1930s managed to survive: the varsity theatre.”

University appropriately went dark in 2018 with a final screening of Cinema Paradiso.

One of the first details you notice upon entering the theater today is the beautiful terrazzo floor in the lobby that was hidden under carpet.

Bob Fridley’s faux fireplace and built-in bookshelves are tucked away in the corner of the loft theater. (Photo by Kyle Munson)

But the jewel of the renovation for me is the new intimate “Loft Cinema” on the second floor with about 35 seats. The room was Fridley’s office during his post-war heyday. A cast stone fireplace and built-in bookshelves from the period were considered key historical features to be preserved in exchange for tax credits. So they are hidden in the corner of the room just to the left of the screen.

I assured Godar that they are not awkward design evasions, but rather highlights that give the space its special vibe. They helped me feel the arc of history while I stood there, from the golden age of Hollywood to the rise of suburban multiplexes to the disappearance of huge downtown movie palaces like River Hills in Des Moines.

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

The art-house-friendly Fleur Cinema on Des Moines’ south side hasn’t reopened since it closed due to COVID. Cobblestone 9 in Urbandale closed at the end of October.

The Loft Cinema will be shown during the renovation. (Photo by Kyle Munson)

Much like Godar, I can’t swear to which varsity film was my first, but I remember watching The Crying Game in early 1993 without noticing the plot before stepping into the theater. I was among a group of college students whose politics professor told them to expect drama about the Irish Republican Army. We got a lot more than we expected.

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

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

TRUE. Holding the remote in front of my TV at home while my phone buzzes, the dog barks, the dishwasher chimes and another Amazon Prime box sits in front of the door doesn’t allow for quite the same focus — let alone a collective community experience.

Fridley’s former quaint mancave now offers an escape from all our other screens as well as an escape into the magical world of a filmmaker.