RIP The Varsity, and . . .

WCHL is reporting Bruce Stone's official announcement that he's closing the Varsity theater.   He provided them a written statement that's likely to appear shortly in the newspapers as well.

Some excerpts regarding the film industry and Stone's situation with the Varsity:  "This is a business decision, a bottom-line decision. . . . The Varsity especially has been struggling for over two years, with no prospect of an upturn any time soon. . .  with the summers being especially difficult... Our landlord has been understanding and supportive throughout our tenure."

Of particular note, however, are his comments about the downtown situation:

"There are other, secondary reasons that might compromise the viability of downtown theaters in general and to the Varsity in particular.  Many people claim they resist downtown because of traffic, and the expense and difficulty of parking.  Sad that this should be an obstacle, but many see free parking as a birthright.  And of course the excitement of a college town means football and basketball games with all the attendant traffic and congestion... "

The passing of the Varsity - as it likely is, since it's hard to imagine a scenario in which someone would swoop in to restore and preserve this historic place as a working theater - is a most sorrowful thing.  So, too, is the disappearance of the last downtown theater an ominous event for the future of a vibrant downtown area.  "Dinner and a movie" now means Timberlyne (if we're lucky enough that the Chelsea will somehow survive) or The Mall.  I continue to wonder why that simple concept seems to be chronically ignored by city and town planners.

But, in any case, much sincere gratitude to Bruce Stone for toiling so long to keep the Varsity open.  Despite the numbers, you may be sure many of us were grateful for it and will very much miss it. 




Just came back from seeing the (next to) last showing of one of the movies at the Varsity.  The house was about 1/4 full; the staff were truly gloomy; and I didn't see Bruce Stone, although they told me he would be around.  Most of the audience seemed to know the Varsity was closing but some didn't.  Several people brought cameras and took photos of the theater, the seats, the marquee, each other, but it was a wan, sparse, subdued group.  The box office staff took pictures of each other behind the glass in the booth, and one was having trouble holding back tears: "ten years, I'm sorry but it's been more than ten years here..."  I stood trying to memorize the Hopper-esque view into the lobby with the real-butter popcorn and candy counter at the far end, and then the clustered lightbulbs overhead on the marquee canopy.  The effort didn't really work, and the absence of any "farewell" or any "this will be our last night" signs gave the moment a peculiar intangibility, especially given the eighty years and the thousands of photos in which the Varsity was so substantial a part of the view down Franklin Street. I hope that, at least, remains, whatever else happens to the building.I could make this post into a strictly political one by making reference to the lack of local focus and will regarding the "visioning" of what Chapel Hill is, never mind what it will be; but I'd also have to extend it up to the "politics" of things as disparate as real estate development and the film industry.  And sometimes -- all too often lately, it seems -- it's also just something to do with "time passages." (With all due apologies to those who criticize OP for navel-gazing like this...)

As we ponder the history of the Varsity and the future of downtown Chapel Hill, it may be worth considering a community-ownership approach as a possibility, if it is not too late to structure such a setup.Wellsboro, PA has a 4-screen theater called the Arcadia which was about to close.  Instead, it issued 100 shares of stock to the community, for $500 each I believe.  The theater is briefly discussed in a book called Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown by Roberta Brandeis Gratz and Norman Mintz.  You can read the page on the Arcadia here. Before I went to school for urban planning, I was living in Winston-Salem and several of us envied the independent film opportunities in this area.  We explored the community-owned model for a while, but then NC School of the Arts stepped up and started using the Stevens Center downtown as an independent theater when it was not showing live theater, effectively filling the void in the most beautiful venue in town.  I'm sure keeping a theater running on Franklin Street is more expensive than doing so in Wellsboro, PA.  Still, if enough people were willing to step forward with shares, we might have a theater that operates more on the order of the Carolina Performing Arts series than a standard for-profit movie theater.  

The theater could have multiple uses, as you said, beyond just movies.Is there time?

The issue is that Chapel Hill doesn't want to be a real urban center. It needs more (free) parking to attract out of town shoppers and money.  It needs more student businesses to keep a core of activity during the school year.  It needs to increase traffic not look for ways to decrease traffic.  The rents are too high, the taxes are too high.  And on an additional note, I want to shop local business but have found time and time again that many (not all) local shops and restaurants are just much much worse quality than the chains.  Why should I give them my money?  

The amount of money that would have to be raised from individuals and organizations to turn the Varsity into a community theater would be monumental and practically impossible in the current economic environoment.  I don't know what the lease would look like, but the tax value of the property is more than $1.8 million.The best hope for the Varsity at this point might be for the University to buy the building.  They may be able to maintain it as a theater with multiple purposes for both UNC and for the general public.  Also, in recent years, the University has been one of the best landlords in the the downtown area as they have a real interest in seeing the area thrive.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for many of the other downtown landlords.

A second example to consider is the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA.  While having a far greater population to support it, the Coolidge has become community-owned in recent years, and has taken some deliberate steps to find ways to maximize revenue from the building in an expensive location.  In addition to the traditional screens, they have added two small screening rooms that can be rented for film classes, corporate events, or private parties.  Add in baby-friendly film showings for parents with infants, and a late-night avant-garde film series, and this community non-profit gets maximum use of its theater to keep it thriving.

Hi folks - I usually just lurk on OP, but in light of this discussion thought I'd post a link to a nonprofit community theater in my old college town. They do movies and live music - the Mrs. and I checked out Alejandro Escovedo there last fall.

Marty Cassady - Advertising Director, The Carrboro Citizen

If I remember correctly VA Tech used the old Lyric Theater for many years after the business in it went bust. Now may be the time for UNC to buy the Varsity building. Then UNC can give a $1 for 99 year lease to a non-profit organization that can operate the Lyric.

Yes it will take lots of time to raise funds to do this but the University could keep the Lyric from falling in serious, and expensive, disrepair. The damage from lack of maintenance seems the most pressing problem...

as a classroom space for several years, while new buildings were going
up on campus. The Lyric had gotten a little rough around the edges but
was still structurally sound, and the renovation is gorgeous. A.
Escovedo commented from the stage on how good the acoustics are. The
proscenium is pretty small and there isn't much of a "wings" or
backstage area (AJ played with his acoustic trio, not a full band, and
most of the live music they book is acoustic fare like Robin &
Linda Williams, but I believe Gogol Bordello played there a few years
ago.) But it's a great place to see movies - they have a real balcony in the back with a great view of the stage & screen and roomy staircases leading up to it.The Lyric was still operating as a movie theater when I was in school at VT in the early 80's. There were 3 screens showing movies in downtown Blacksburg back then, plus they had $1 movies every night at the student union (this was in the days before video rental) and all of them had midnight shows on weekends. I remember seeing things like "Liquid Sky" and "Repo Man" at midnight at the Lyric. Fun times.Marty Cassady
- Advertising Director, The Carrboro Citizen

If Roanoke, VA can have a place like this... Cassady
- Advertising Director, The Carrboro Citizen

A wealthy texan bought and remodeled (gorgeously) the Strand Theater in Rockland, Maine. They have films, music, talks, etc. 

"There are other, secondary reasons that might compromise the viability of downtown theaters in general and to the Varsity in particular.  Many people claim they resist downtown because of traffic, and the expense and difficulty of parking.  Sad that this should be an obstacle, but many see free parking as a birthright.  And of course the excitement of a college town means football and basketball games with all the attendant traffic and congestion... " In April of 2004 the subject of Franklin St. vs. Southpoint came up again, and I emailed the editor of the Chapel Hill News to actually do some research to answer the following question: if you go to movie and dinner at Southpoint, how much does it cost, compared to a similar experience on Franklin St?Strangely enough the reporters went the very night I emailed the suggestion, with the paper picking up the tab for dinner at a movie at both Southpoint and Franklin St.  You have to pay $2.95 to read the article since its so old; the title is Downtown vs. Franklin St, published April 11, 2004.I will summarize the results here, and they will surprise critics of Franklin St.  The Varsity is close to a city parking garage that is actually closer than the average parking space at Southpoint.  If you drive to Southpoint for the convenient parking you'd actually walk farther to your car.  Likewise, for the "free" parking at Southpoint you end up paying $5.50 extra end higher prices on movie tickets and popcorn, more than enough to pay for parking and still leave money in your pocket.If you compare dinner at two Italian restaurants, Franklin Street's 411 West and Southpoint's  Maggianos, the difference is more striking. The approximately same food served at Maggianos was $23 more expensive than the same meal at 411 West, and people had to walk farther to get to Maggianos from their car.  As it turns out, the "free parking" actually costs $23 just for a single restaurant visit!On another topic, no one seems to have mentioned the other movie theatre in town, The Lumina, and their outdoor movies on Fridays and Saturdays in the summer.  Although they don't carry quite the same movies as The Varsity, its only a couple of blocks from my house, and my family has been spending most of our movie entertainment dollars there.  

I'd be interested if things had changed in the five years since that article. One thing I noticed on many nights at the Varsity (and many late nights working on Franklin Street) that I think really concerns people is that to walk out of the parking garage to get to the Varsity you had to walk through two alleys that aren't lit very well. As I write this, more lights for Amber Alley have not been installed but are sitting inside a building on Franklin Street. During the school year, you'll often be approached by people asking for money, which many people might pay more money just to avoid. I personally enjoy downtown Franklin Street, but I can see why others might prefer a situation where they don't have to walk through alleys.

Also, as a college student a few years ago, I know that students live by their credit cards, and the Varsity didn't take credit cards.

One early report mentioned the Chelsea is also for sale.  That movie house lacks a marquee, but screens consistently good films.  Sigh ...

Not to belittle any of the local theaters viewing choices (I've enjoyed my experiences at Varisty & Chelsea) but I used to spend many hours at the $1.50 Blue Ridge Theater in Raleigh when I lived there.  The movies might not have been the newest, but they were still the latest things that would be hitting the shelves at Blockbuster & cheaper to see them there than rent them, and a its always fun & cheap night out too... especially for broke college students or anyone really during a recession.  I've always thought a dollar-fifty movie theater could do well in Chapel Hill.  If the Varisity or Chelsea have to go, could this be a viable option for either of them?

Arthouse and indie theatres are going through a really difficult time everywhere, which is tragic:  several important distributors for international film (in the US), like New Yorker Video (whose vast 50-year catalog of global films is now locked up in legal squabblings) and Wellspring, have gone under over the course of the last 6-to-9 months, and most of the others are struggling; and no significant start-ups have managed to swing the funding to step up to the plate and fill the gap.  The economic downturn is deccimating niche film, and this is a factor that local cinemas are struggling with.  The Triangle has been the most art-house-heavy metro between DC and Austin for some time; the very real possibility that the only option for thoughful and creative cinema may be a long trek to the Galaxy in Cary (What if ya don't have a car?  You're not allowed to have taste?) is rather depressing.I think the economic demographics of the Triangle, college towns and otherwise, have also undergone some changes.  A friend who is a native of the area, left for a few years, before then moving back, commented on the Varsity situation with his contention that "Chapel Hill used to want to be Berkeley, and would now rather be Mill Valley."  This is a bit severe, and not entirely accurate, but it does acknowledge that the area, and it's tastes, have veered somewhat away from the kind of cool (decorative or authentic) being debated in "Has Chapel Hill Lost It's Cool"-type community forums.  The loss of The Varsity, and the possible loss of The Chelsea does say something about the state of local life and culture, as much as it says something about the real estate melodramatics of Franklin Street.  To reverse this state of affairs will require engaging with the less comfortable parts of "what this says about us," being honest about who we are and being honest what we are becoming as a town. 

Just an FYI. Orange Count GIS info for 123 E. Franklin Street.

Some excellent points here, including comments about the redundancy between the Varsity and the Chelsea -- although the Varsity did try to run films with slightly more appeal to students.  I have wondered about what seems a deterioration in film "connoiseurship" among students; but that's either unfair or depressing, so I won't go too far down that road other than to note that the physical condition of the Varsity possibly became off-putting for the students -- it badly needed restoration and reconfiguration. I do agree the film industry producers and distributors have become cowardly in their choices as well as excessively narrow in their goals.  If you believe in the ability of the market to correct itself (which I don't, necessarily), there may be a shift in balance - as might be heralded by the appearance of some uncharacteristically thoughtful movies during the usually mindless summer offerings.  And after all, those of us who turn to VisArt (may they survive and prevail, TOO) or Netflix or Blockbusters tend to do so more in the summer, when the multiplexes are running explosion-gore-fests or animated fantasies for months on end.The community-owned theater is a wonderful, wonderful model, and it would be enormously heartening to see such a thing here.  But as Jim and others point out, it would take a daunting amount of money that probably isn't out there unless a handful of very committed souls much wealthier than you, me, and most of us were to take it on.  Even with funding, however, there would have to be inspired, gifted, and committed management to keep it going.  I've had thoughts, too, about adding other, unusual features to the place - cafe, gelato, pet-friendly, coffee-house, special events, etc.  All that would require even more intensive managing, and most of it has been tried elsewhere usually with less than stellar success -- it's worth noting, though, that one of the things that makes the Chelsea so attractive is the symbiosis between the theater and Cup-a-Joe.The thing is, there's plenty there already on Franklin Street to make the Varsity an attractive destination - at least as attractive as the Lumina/Southern Village combination, all other things being equal.  But they're not equal, which brings us back to our original concern about downtown, which reaches well beyond whether someone can make an old shell of a theater viable within steps of a major college campus -- and that is, what makes Franklin Street itself viable.  When I consider an evening on Franklin Street, I confront first the issue of parking  -- I'm sorry, but there's just no evening bus service that makes any sense at all. However, I don't mind paying at all, and I seriously doubt that the lack of "free parking" figures in to most patrons' decisions.  It's the availability of space and the perception of security in later hours that makes me think twice. There's also the odd rhythm of activity on Franklin Street -- sometimes an early and mid-evening lull that can approach ghost-town emptiness followed by the late-hour peri-weekend surge; and then other times a choking congestion that's just not worth venturing into.   What would I like to see there?  What I saw when we arrived 16 years ago, maybe - a variety of restaurants/cafes, a string of independent bookshops and boutiques for browsing, a choice of movies, and for afterward some coffee house options, and maybe an ice cream/bakery shop.  Southern Village has that; Timberlyne almost does, too; Rams Plaza almost did; and certainly Southpoint has the chain-store, Stepford version of all that.  (I love the comment about CH shifting from Berkeley to Mill Valley.....).  And a reasonable combination of parking and transit that matches the patterns of patronage.         

...had midnight shows...

I think The Colony in Raleigh does midnight shows, and offers free indoor bicycle parking.

I keep hearing people talking about Southern Village, and I can't, for the life of me, figure out why.  There's little to no retail there any more.  Virtually none that is left is thriving.  It's fake community insulated inside of a plastic neighborhood.  There's absolutely nothing practical in Southern Village.  The Lumina is decent for a generic movie theater, but there's nothing else to do in Southern Village.  It was set up by land developers as a "community" so Chapel Hill would let them put in such a large development.  Same as Meadowmont.  But almost a decade later, Southern Village is as sterile as the day it was clear cut, and Meadowmont is the same.  Both of these projects, in my mind, are absolute failures, and I don't consider either one of them to be part of Chapel Hill.

It's too bad The Varsity has closed but this area has grown a lot over the past 20 years and as a result the competition for the entertainment dollar has increased.  And since most people don't go out to see a movie and then go home, The Varisity wasn't competing with other movie places but instead Franklin St was competing with other areas that show movies. Southpointe has 16 screens and The Varsity has 2 or 3.  Southpointe has a bunch of restaurants and ice cream places and all that and Franklin St has far less.   I don't get out to Southpointe much but I remember once when I was there walking from the mall to my car past the movie place and I sat down for a rest by that giant fountain and watched all the people and everything and it was really neat.  You just don't get that feeling on Franklin St anymore.Once people get into their cars...and most of them do and many of them have no choice but to if they want go out... they have a lot more options than they used to.  There just isn't all that much on Franklin St these days.  And whatever is there, you have to wade through panhandlers to get to it.  Someone said that the walk from the car to the theater is longer at Southpointe than on Franklin St and that's true but not only have I never been panhandled at Southpointe, the thought of being panhandled at Southpointe has never even occurred to me.  Sadly, Franklin St is a different story entirely on that account. 

Here is another thing re. Franklin St.  Think of Top Of The Hill restaurant.  Personally I don't like the place because it's just not me.  But I do go there now and then when people I'm going out with want to go there.  And there's something I notice about the place and that it is it always crowded.  I bet Top Of The Hill won't go out of business anytime soon.  They've figured out how to provide something that people want and they can't sell their product fast enough.  It comes down to figuring out what people want and then letting them know you'll provide it.  I also can't help but notice that it's in one of the few (or perhaps only) new buildings on that stretch of Franklin St in the past 20 years, although that often empty space on the ground floor below it says that there's nothing magic about the building being new.

It would be a huge loss for Chapel Hill to lose its only remaining Art theater.The Rialto in Raleigh hosts a monthly Film society-admissions by subscription-which provides the theater with guaranteed sold seats.  We could use a similar local group showcasing classic movies and/or foreign films.I doubt that Vis-Art will survive...the last remaining one in Carrboro will have to close when construction begins in a few months.  This leaves us with the censored Blockbuster inventory, the superficial Red Box kiosks, and TCM on TV!It really is up to the community to organize and patronize both the Chelsea (surrounded by Cup A Joe, Sage vegetarian Persian, Oishii Japanese, China Wok, and Queen of Sheba Ethiopian restaurants all in Timberlyne with plenty of parking)  and Vis-Art.  If they fail, we will have no right to complain.    Del Snow


I rented an Incredible documentary on Howard Zinn at Vis-Art recently.  Could I have found such at BB or RB?Vis-Art reminds me of stores in Germany--no excessive lighting.  BB is lit up like the inside of a tanning booth--yuck.

We discuss this type of problem rather frequently anymore, rallying in spirit to save businesses which are failing for various reasons.  The notion that we're somehow responsible for keeping every sinking ship afloat is just plain misguided.  When they go under, it's not our fault! 

It's not our fault that some businesses fail, but I question the right to complain about it if you don't try to support them.  For a lot of us, the sad note is that in our consumer oriented world we are actually LOSING choices.  There is a glut of "stuff," but a shortage of quality.  Trying to support businesses that broaden our minds, expand our entertainment venues, and/or satisfy our taste buds with originality helps to fight the tide of homogenization that is overtaking the world.Del Snow

Interesting ideas from a former employee and recent UNC grad on saving the Varsity:

Another successful community movie theater is in my hometown of Normal, Illinois.  It's cheapish, if I remember right, and they have old-fashioned newsreels, a prize drawing before the movie, etc.  The movie is more of an event, and they show a mix of popular older movies and fairly current art-house type of stuff.

I just read a Internet rumor (TM), take with grain of salt, that the Cat's Cradle is buying the Varsity and moving in. Can anyone here confirm or deny?

they wanted to expand and weren't being allowed to, and thus were considering some offer to move to Durham. But that was a while back, and I'm not sure how authentic that was. The Varisity location would give them both more room, and a location that would see more student traffic. But I haven't heard anything on this specific rumor that you mentioned.   It would bring some "cool" back to Chapel Hill. =p   (although relaly Carrboro & Chapel Hill are too intertwined to consider it a net change)

Very interesting idea.  But I'm trying not to gasp at the thought of what could happen to parking ... among other things, the large buses that the performers tend to travel in, although I guess it's usually only one such bus at a time.  (And would it affect the future of VisArt to have the Cradle gone?) In any case, it does prompt some additional thoughts about what could be put in that space.   I agree that with enough will and leadership, the community could certainly come up with any number of creative "visions" to preserve it as a movie-house-plus - and I'd be willing to join with any group with a mission to do that.  But could any one of us devote the time and energy to leading that group?  It would be a daunting task.

Once again like a stuck record I have to protest all these exhortations to "do something" when a much-loved business or institution goes under.  "We have to do something !!!" say the Varsity patrons, barbecue lovers, Chelsea fans, etc., when there's nothing we can do.  It's over.  Wah.  When the Main Street development gets underway, that whole strip will be razed -- ArtsCenter, Visart, Cat's Cradle.  This might account for rumors (which I've heard) about the Cradle moving to Durham.  

Back when Chapel Hill had downtown live music "coolness" in the 70's there was the Town Hall (where Johnny's T-Shirts, the Cantina, etc. is), which became the Mad Hatter. Great local music plus artists like Delbert McClinton, Butch Trucks, Tracy Nelson, I think Bonnie Raitt as well.In the end, the crowds and the energy were too much for downtown & the powers that be nixed the venue.

I seem to remember (before I arrived here) that there was an extremely popular gay club (drag/dance/music/bar) on the main strip.Despite its success, it was closed down, and-- this is just what I heard, correct me if I'm wrong-- by the mostly Southern Baptists who were property owners downtown at the time.Which made me wonder why they didn't seem to have a problem with excessive binge drinking and public drunkenness.Boys dancing together- now THAT'S a sin we just can't tolerate. As far as  I know, to this day Chapel Hill hasn't had another gay bar. Name one other college town with that record.  (There have been "gay nights" at a few  clubs, and some "ambiguous" scenes, but that doesn't count...)Anyone remember the name of the club? It was very popular with Duke & State kids (another possible strike against it).


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