Nostalgia helping raise money for historic Des Moines theater’s reopening


DES MOINES, Iowa — The sounds of drills and power tools show that Des Moines’ iconic Varsity Cinema is in the middle of a revival. For $60 the community can have a front row seat quite literally.

“They’ve had such great memories in those seats so they have the opportunity to take those home and have a piece of the Varsity with them that they remember,” said Des Moines Film President Michael Wagler.

For Mary Bernau and her husband who purchased seats through Saturday’s fundraiser, the theater holds dear meaning. “My fondest memory is coming to see Pride and Prejudice with my daughter just before a family Christmas,” said Bernau.

Lisa Helland also left with seats. She said, “It’s a piece of my family and the history my family has had for it.” Her grandfather, Elias Garbett, helped build the Varsity and was its first owner. Helland said, “My dad talked a lot about when he was a younger boy working in the theater on the weekends and it just is a very special memory.”

After 80 years of operation, the theater closed down in 2018 but local nonprofit Des Moines Film saw a brighter future and began fundraising to bring back its historic charm. “I hope the Varsity is a catalyst for economic revival here in Dogtown whether after COVID but just a destination for the community here in Dogtown,” said Wagler.

For eight decades the Varsity Cinema gave people moments to last a lifetime. Bernau said, “We just want to do what we can to help and this is a great way because you get something to take home with you.”

Fundraising is currently around $2 million of their $3 million goal. Wth the opportunity to capture a piece of nostalgia and help the cinema’s future, organizers feel it was a win-win opportunity to make sure the Varsity’s final act is far from over. “You don’t want to lose the good things you’ve got,” said Bernau.

Construction for the renovation will begin this fall with a completion date set for the spring of 2022.

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