Varsity Theater

1710 Sherman Avenue,
Evanston, IL 60201

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Showing 76 - 93 of 93 comments

Paul Fortini
Paul Fortini on August 21, 2006 at 7:41 am

I believe that in the 1980s (towards the end), the Varsity was doing revivals and classic films a la the Parkway in Chicago.

If that’s true, then it may have been the VCR and not the multi-plex that did in the Varsity and the Parkway.

StevenEvanston on August 19, 2006 at 9:04 am

I am not sure who made the original sign. The look is similar to the Chapel Hill sign (on paper – the original plans). I am still looking for pictures.

The old ceiling is now just plaster. I am not sure if the old ceiling had a drappery ceiling or another ceiling that has since been taken down. Someone indicated that it used to have “stars” on the ceiling. At this point there is not any indication that they were mounted in the ceiling.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on August 16, 2006 at 1:59 pm

I am pretty sure the same firm made a lot of those second generation theatre marquees. They all looked so similar. White Way maybe? I don’t really know.

SR: what is there in place of the old ceiling?

Patsy on August 16, 2006 at 8:17 am

Is there a photo of the marquee on this site as I just read your above post and the one on the Varsity/Chapel Hill site, too?

Paul Fortini
Paul Fortini on August 16, 2006 at 4:00 am

The marquee on the Varsity Theatre in Chapel Hill, NC (which is still a movie theatre) looks very similar to the one which once adorned this place. Could the two theatres (or at least the marquees) have been designed by the same person?

StevenEvanston on July 5, 2006 at 4:05 pm

great story…any chance you still live in the area. The upstairs in not in the best shape. The old ceiling is not present and about 50% of the plaster “fairy tale castle walls” are present.

SMuench on July 1, 2006 at 3:32 am

I grew up in Evanston, and my father would change the marquees every Thursday night on all 3 of the Balaban & Katz (later ABC Great States) movie theaters: The Varsity, Valencia, and Coronet. It became my job in my junior year of high school (‘71 – '72), and I got to know the various behind-the-screen and under-the-stage spaces.

Earlier years in childhood, my siblings and I had the enviable benefit of not only getting in free, we bypassed the long lines of premiers that circled the block and entered the moment that we arrived. When Balaban & Katz were the owners, I remember going to the annual Christmas party at the Palmer House for the children of employees.

One blizzarding Thursday night while changing the Varsity’s marquee, a few Evanston Police cars had lined up on Church St. along Marshall Field’s, out of sight, waiting to pounce when southbound cars on Sherman Ave., thinking that no one was around, would run the red light at Church Street. This was viewed by me atop a 15' ladder.

I still have many of the pages that I used to compare the letters in movie titles from this week to next week. The letters were metal and had to be carried up the ladder, so one did this in order to re-use as many letters as possible (and haul as few as possible from their storage location).

I remember the Varsity as having a sort of fairy-tale-like castle theme, including the aforementioned starry sky. I believe the Valencia had been a Vaudeville theater. I’ll try to view anything that the Theater Historical Society in Elmhurst has if they have a website, and try to stimulate more memories.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on April 12, 2006 at 9:04 am

Several generations of my family made their living running an architecture firm, and in the process they created some of the nation’s best know theatres. While my grandfather closed the firm in the late 60’s, and I work in an entirely different business, I have been surronded by these places since I was a little kid in one way or another. You might say that I had no choice in the matter!

The people in Elmhurst have been around for a long time, at least since the 70’s. They have a massive archive of photos, news clippings, records and artifacts (a photo of Eddie Murphy signing autographs at the Varsity for instance). This web site I know less about. I think it’s been up for about five years, and it serves as multi-purpose forum for preservationists.

StevenEvanston on April 11, 2006 at 6:09 pm

You seem to have a great interest in Theaters…what’s your attraction to them?

With regards to the interior, it is not intact! There are no seats, no stars and all the original features are gone for the most part. Correction, all the original features are gone except for some molding and fixtures in some of the bathrooms and about ½ of the molding/plaster facade in the front of the theater. It is pretty raw at this point.

Thanks for the Theater Historical Society in Elmhurst.

Whats the difference between Theater Historical Society in Elmhurst and this site?

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on April 11, 2006 at 4:41 pm

Not an Evanston resident these days. But that’s where I grew up. I remember seeing movies at the Varsity while it was still open, and I remember when they tore the marquee off and turned into stores. It was a great house. I clearly recall looking at the stars on the ceiling while watching “the Neverending Story” and “2001”. That was the thing that made it the coolest theatre in Evanston. The Coronet and Evanston Theatres were just big rooms. The Varsity was kind of a magical thing for a little kid, even in the 80’s when I am sure it had seen better days. The Theatre Historical Society in Elmhurst has all kinds of pictures of it, through the stages of it’s life. I have been told by more than one person that the interior is completely intact above the first floor, balcony, seats and all. Perhaps you can shed some light on that. Of course, it would be great to see it return to theatrical use some day. But I also realize that business is business. I wish you success in your venture, and hope that you will keep the theatre’s past in mind if any redevelopment is on the horizon. Even condos can use a nice exterior.

StevenEvanston on April 11, 2006 at 6:04 am

It is a grand old palace and it seems like there are a few folks who have visited the Varsity. I recently purchased the building and would love to hear back some of you to get some additional information and or backround that you may have.

Are you an Evanston local? What was the interior like?



Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on October 30, 2005 at 4:32 pm

See mention of the Varsity about ½ way down:

Central St. Performing Arts Center — Feasible?
By Beth Demes

Evanston Round Table
Volume IV Number 12
June 6, 2001

Performing arts organizations in Evanston are keeping their fingers crossed – twice.

First, that the City Council approves a grant to study converting the old Central Street movie theaters into a performing arts center. And, second, that the study proves the dream feasible.

City Council is expected to consider the $56,100 grant, requested by Light Opera Works and Dance Center Evanston, the two main tenants of the proposed performance venue, at its June 11 meeting. The Economic Development Committee approved the grant at its May 23 meeting after much discussion.

If City Council approves the grant, David Woodhouse Architects, a design firm that specializes in cultural and recreational centers, will assess the feasibility and cost of converting the former Evanston Theater, 1702 Central Street, for use by the two proposed tenants. They will also look at how the space might accommodate other Evanston performing arts groups, such as the Evanston Symphony Orchestra, Piven Theatre, Next Theatre and Organic Theater. “It’s in our best interest to sublease as much of the space as possible [to other performing arts groups],” said Bridget McDonough, general manager of Light Opera Works. The study might determine, she added, that there could be a third theater in the space, potentially allowing a third main tenant for the building.

Gordon Magill, trustee for the owners of the building, said the theater was built in the 1920s as a movie house and was used at one point for live performances. Before being cut into smaller movie theaters, the property had two auditoriums in two separate buildings. The larger auditorium, the original movie house called the “west theater,” now broken into four theaters, is actually located at 1716 Central St. The smaller “east theater,” a former gym converted to a movie theater in the early 1970s, has the 1702 Central St. address.

Light Opera Works is interested in the west theater, which holds 1,200 to 1,500 seats. Dance Center Evanston is looking at the 600-seat east theater for studio and flexible performance space. “I believe in the project, and I believe in the people who are committed to make it happen,” Mr. Magill told Economic Development Committee members at the May meeting.

He said he would hold off marketing the building, vacant since Loews Theaters closed in late February, to other tenants as long as there is steady progress on the project and “light at the end of the tunnel.”

“[Converting] the Central Street theaters from a movie house to a working performing arts center…would ensure that two of our City’s leading cultural institutions would be with us for a long time to come,” Carol Daskais Navin, a Dance Center Evanston Board member, told the Committee.

Light Opera Works has offered musical theater in Evanston for the past 20 years and produces four shows a year, three in Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium and one in the YMCA Child Care Center Auditorium. The non-profit arts organization draws about 29,000 patrons a year and has 2,700 subscribers. Dance Center Evanston, 610 Davis St., opened in 1994 as a dance school for students ages three and older. The school, under owner and director Bˆ©a Rashid, has grown from 70 to 500 students who take classes in ballet, modern dance, jazz and tap. The non-profit Evanston Dance Ensemble is a civic dance company that draws from the school.

Both performing arts groups had already outgrown their present quarters and were looking for larger spaces when the Central Street theaters became vacant. But retrofitting the old movie theaters for major live productions will not be easy. The greatest challenge, said Ms. McDonough, may be adapting the west theater for Light Opera Works' needs, which include an orchestra pit large enough for 35 pieces, a fly loft and wing space.

Several Economic Development Committee members were concerned about the cost of the conversion and ongoing operation and who would foot the bill.

Ms. McDonough pointed out that her organization and Ms. Rashid’s would be signing leases for the space and have already discussed possible rents with Mr. Magill. Both groups, she added, would rely first on their donor bases to raise money for the rehab, before approaching the larger community. She would not say what their fundraising limit might be, or whether the City may be needed to fill a gap, preferring to wait for the results of the study first. The City has also been non-committal about subsidizing such a project. It has not been willing to consider sizable funding in the past for performing arts centers.

Two years ago, as part of the plan for the downtown Church Street Plaza development, the architect hired by developer Arthur Hill estimated that the construction cost for a second-level performing arts center above a new Levy Senior Center would be about $13 million. As an alternative, the City looked into rehabbing the former Varsity Theater on Sherman Avenue; that also proved to be expensive at $10 million. With estimates of private fund-raising capacity limited to $4 million and the City’s inability to fill the funding gap, that proposed performing arts center fell apart.

An earlier attempt in the late 1980s for an Evanston performing arts center to house the Northlight Theatre also failed because of cost and funding difficulties.

In a separate interview, Ms. McDonough said she thought the Central Street proposal would be different. Compared to the Varsity Theater, the Central Street theaters are in better condition and should not be as expensive to retrofit. She also said that instead of creating a new non-profit to raise the funds and operate the building, as the Church Street Plaza plan contemplated, two existing, established arts organizations would take the lead, making the fundraising easier.

Scheduling multiple groups for the space, always a challenge in a single performing arts venue, might also be easier because of the inherent priority of the organizations leasing the space.

Some City officials have pointed out that Evanston already has a performing arts center – the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St.

Ms. McDonough and others in the arts community say the Noyes Center is very supportive and valuable because it offers space to arts organizations at reduced rent, but it has limitations.

Joyce Piven, artistic director of the Piven Theatre Workshop, told the RoundTable they juggle holding classes and performing shows in their space at the Noyes Center.

“If we are able to put out one or two [of our four shows per season] in another venue, it would give us room to breathe,” explained Ms. Piven. That is why the Central Street proposal is so appealing. Ideally, she said, they would be looking for a house with 200 to 250 seats.

“We seem to have a burgeoning of very solid performance groups in Evanston that have already received city-wide recognition, either through the [Joseph Jefferson Awards] committee, or through Chicago newspapers, or through the gathering audiences that we have here,” Ms. Piven continued. “We feel that a performance center of some kind would really be a stunning thing for the North Shore. It’s something that is waiting to happen.”

mistertom on July 15, 2005 at 8:50 pm

Before home videos, there was a new old-movie double-feature at The Varsity every two or three nights. I recall one night watching The Black Stallion, when a woman’s screams panicked the entire theater. People were checking out in the alley, the bathrooms, everywhere – but we couldn’t find her.

It turns out she was downstairs under the stage. Her long hair got caught in a huge ventilation fan, which was winding her in. Suddenly, a guy popped up from under the stage and yelled, “Someone give me a knife!” It was pandemonium, as people ran for the doors – and the rest of us waited to see if she was okay, secretly hoping to see the rest of the movie.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on April 18, 2005 at 3:45 pm

Pretty amazing, isn’t it? I’ll bet most people who walk by those stores don’t realize that there is a great theater above them. I don’t hold out too much hope. But, if the Oriental (in Chicago) can come back to life after years as a retail store, so can the Varsity.

bellita on April 6, 2005 at 1:07 pm

Well, count me as someone who had no idea what that building really was! The tall building in the left of the photo used to be a Marshall Field’s. The current tenants in the Varsity space are the GAP and recently, a furniture store. You can see paper signs in the photo of the furniture store space announcing that an OSCO Drug was going to go in there, but obviously that didn’t pan out.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on January 19, 2005 at 4:40 pm

Yeah…it’s gone. The internet doesn’t stay the same for very long. It was a passing reference contained in a discussion of the Evanston Theater. It added figures to what I described. The project was estimated at $10-11 million, if memory serves. Something like $7 million was accessible. This large funding gap led them to look at other options. I wonder how much of that cost would have been associated with adding a real stage to the place. 2500 seats, opened in 1926…no working stage. I can’t figure that one out.

I would also be curious to know how many current Evanston residents know what that building really is.

Seems like a good sign that the owner was willing to at least look into the matter of an arts center.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on December 27, 2004 at 8:00 pm

See page 13 of this PDF file:

View link

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on December 27, 2004 at 3:52 pm

Man, this place was the greatest. Hands down, the best theater in the area back in the 70’s & 80’s.

I think gutted is probably too strong of a word. People who worked in the building during the 90’s said the balcony…and everything else above the first floor was still there. In fact, your receipt from Musicland (long-time tenant) had “Varsity Theater” printed on it. Further evidence lies in the fact that all the fire doors above the first floor are still visible…although they took down the escapes after a small fire (maybe ten years back). It was never a pharmacy…always multiple tenants. I’m not sure…but, you may be giving it a few too many seats.

Most surprising is the fact there was consideration given to renovating it as a performing arts center four or five years ago, although it proved to be cost-prohibitive. Maybe it will come out of hibernation some day. Here’s an article:

View link

I wonder who owns the building, and what they think of all this…