For the last 40 years, The Varsity has been Des Moines’s art house cinema, featuring film voices from around the world — or what longtime owner and the proverbial Mr. Varsity Bev Mahon called, “Movies worth talking about.” The nonprofit Des Moines Film is proud to carry on that tradition.
The lot at 1207 25th St. had been used for a variety of purposes, including a coal and feed store, and its abstract includes the signature of Hoyt Sherman himself. But in 1917, William Ghormley built a spec industrial building which would initially house the University Motor Company, an automotive sales and service station. Beginning in October of 1918, the building was used for the Student Army Training Corps to support student volunteers entering World War I.
By 1923, the building had become home to the Coca-Cola bottling plant. From 1923 to 1938, if you held a Coca-Cola bottle produced in Des Moines, it was produced in the building we know today as The Varsity.
The 1938 Renovation and Birth of the Varsity
In 1938, the building was purchased by The Garbett family, who owned an early chain of theaters including the Avalon and The Forest. In the 1930s, the first “suburban” theaters were being built outside of downtown Des Moines. In fact, an earlier theater, also called “The Varsity,” operated briefly around the corner at 2423 University from 1933 – 1937.
The Garbett family hired notable Des Moines architecture firm Weatherell & Harrison to design the renovation of the building, which converted the previous industrial space – which had included a basement – into one large auditorium, and added art deco detailing to the facade and lobby. The Varsity Theater opened on Christmas Day, 1938.
Fridley, Mahon and the Midcentury Renovation
Bob Fridley and Bev Mahon purchased the theater in 1954, one of several they owned together. In 1958, a small fire damaged the theater. The repairs brought with them a renovation with included significant midcentury modern renovations to the lobby and 2nd floor. These included the rock wall, floating staircase and ticket booth, as well as an updated overall look to the lobby.
The 2nd floor included a large office which was primarily used by Fridley, which was renovated with decorative elements including a non-functional fireplace using the same stone as the lobby fireplace.
In the 1950s and 1960s, The Varsity was known for its musicals, but featured a variety of other film programs as well. One notable example: The theater served as the home for Cinema ’77, a local club of Cinephiles who screened international film series beginning in 1961. Their annual series would feature the works of Bergman, Kurosawa, and De Sica.
Mr. (and Ms.) Varsity
In the mid 1970s, Bev Mahon took sole ownership of The Varsity and shifted the programming focus to what we would call art house cinema: American independent films, international films, and prestige studio releases. He was a familiar face to patrons of the Varsity and his wit was clear in the theater’s newspaper ads. While a number of slogans were used over the years, perhaps none was more popular or apt than “movies worth talking about.”
During these decades, The Varsity would periodically make a local media splash as the only theater willing to play a controversial film, such as The Crying Game or Farenheit 9/11.
After Bev Mahon’s death in 2010, Denise Mahon and others in the Mahon family ran the theater until December of 2018.
The Varsity Cinema
The nonprofit Des Moines Film was founded to grow the film culture in Des Moines, with a component of that mission to operate a full-time cinema. With the closure of the Varsity, it was clear that the organization’s mission lined up perfectly with what The Varsity had been doing for years. Des Moines Film launched a major capital campaign and, with support from local, county and state leaders, major corporate donors, plus more than 1,000 individuals, were able to purchase the building, fund a $5 million renovation, and reopen it better-than-ever as The Varsity Cinema.
We look forward to being the stewards of this amazing, historic building for another 100 years.