' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: The Varsity Theatre

Friday, December 21, 2018

In Memoriam: The Varsity Theatre

Whereas once movie theaters focused on, say, in focus projection or, perhaps, proper decibels on the auditorium loudspeakers, now heed is paid first and foremost to amenities. Seats are typically reserved, so you can skedaddle in after the lights have already gone down and the movie has begun, making noise and disrupting those long since seated while trying to find your assigned seat in the darkness. And those seats are often quasi-plush leather, or recliners, or both, with ample leg room, and those seats sometimes are affixed with trays to which snacks can be readily delivered. After all, the data shows that fewer people are going to the movies these days. Declines in patronage have happened before, of course, like at the end of the Golden Age, when new-fangled TV and the studio stranglehold on theaters combined to curb box office. But, much like the current ails of American Democracy somehow feel more perilous than ever before, so does the movie-going experience.

My recent trip to an Arclight, however, found seats that were so dusty you’d swear they hadn’t been vacuumed in a month, which is hardly the filth I’d want in my home. Indeed, all these attempts at replicating your home for a night out feel impersonal. At the same un-clean Arclight a manager came in before the show to spew a few scripted words about…something. I couldn’t hear him. He was at too far a distance and his voice was too quiet. There’s a manager at the Chicago Landmark who often spews a few words pre-show too, and I can hear him, but nothing he says doesn’t feel like it’s straight off some corporate clipboard. No, this is strictly ersatz homeyness, like the Home Federal Savings Bank in “Seinfeld” where a policy of giving the customer $100 if they failed to receive a hello was more marketing-mandated posturing than personal care, the kind of personal care you received at the Varsity Theatre in Des Moines, Iowa, a one-screener with an unassuming facade that is set to close at the end of this year.

Bev Mahon, who opened the Varsity Theatre on Christmas Day 1938 and ran it until he died in 2009, would sometimes thank you for coming to the show. He would thank you afterwards, outside the theater, by the door, and not in the manner of someone reading off a script but impromptu, looking you in the eyes, genuinely thankful. After all, his theatre was independently owned, family run, by his daughter Denise after he passed. The seats were fine, the concessions were fine too, and they forewent pre-movie ads, a huge plus, though what made it really feel like home was Mahon’s careful curation.

In Des Moines in 1997 if you wanted to see Peter Fonda’s Best Actor nominated performance for “Ulee’s Gold”, you went to the Varsity. In Des Moines in 2003 if you, fledgling Sofia Devotee, wanted to see “Lost in Translation”, you went to the Varsity, which is when I remember Mahon saying thanks. I left Des Moines not long after, and things were already changing before I did, partially through the advent of the Fleur 4, an indie theater bringing choices to central Iowa that were not present 30 years ago. And nowadays, with independent offshoots of each major studio, the faux-friendly multiplexes show all sorts of indies that would have only been the province of the Varsity in years past. Even then, however, those showings are mandated, akin to a radio dee jay who cannot serve up the unknown, his/her hands tied by some sonically indifferent conglomerate. The Varsity, on the other hand, felt like going to an intimate neighborhood film festival.

Today, to paraphrase Sam Rothstein’s lament as “Casino” (1995) concluded, going to the movies is like checking into an airport. You might get chicken fingers delivered to your seat, but nobody cares about what’s showing on your screen. The Varsity Theatre, as its unassuming facade foreshadowed before you even walked in the door, did not have to sell you an experience; the experience, Mahon knew, was the movie itself.

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