Varsity Theater

1710 Sherman Avenue,
Evanston, IL 60201

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Showing 51 - 75 of 95 comments

DavidZornig on April 12, 2009 at 2:43 pm

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DavidZornig on November 21, 2008 at 12:28 am

Ah, you are correct. Thanks Cam!
Only in Evanston would the graffiti read “Rosebud”, on a former vintage theatre.

Cam on November 20, 2008 at 8:23 pm

David, at one point there were fire escapes in the north alley. You can just barely see them in this photo:

Man, I miss that place. I loved that theatre!

DavidZornig on November 5, 2008 at 2:49 am

Post, post…Drove by the Varsity today. I saw no type of fire escape on the North elevation of the old Varsity building. There could have been one that was removed, but I couldn’t stop to look closely.
Maybe interior exit/stairwells from the balcony level, fed down to the first floor exits out to the alley back in the day.

DavidZornig on October 31, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Cool. I guess “Booksellers Row” would have implied more than just one store or something. And Bookman’s Alley was quite the quaint place all by itself.

I can’t remember if the Varsity had fire escapes hung over that same alley or not. Or if they were removed or not during the conversion. If so, even if some portions of the Varsity’s old interior are just encapsulated as previous posts imply, ever converting back to some usable theatre space could be hampered. If the balcony exits are no longer usable or up to code. I’ll take a spin by there soon.

Broan on October 31, 2008 at 4:04 pm

Bookman’s Alley. It’s still there.

DavidZornig on October 31, 2008 at 6:39 am

I wanted to add that the GAP was not the first retailer to go into the gutted/“remodeled” Varsity space. The first tenant was a chain record/CD store along the lines of Coconuts or Peaches.
It was there as late as 1990 or early `91.
It was right at the time when new CD’s were being sold in that “long box” packaging format that tried to resemble record albums. A wasteful format that the eco-folks and some prominent musicians quickly fought to eliminate.
I think the GAP only went into the former Varsity space, when/after the old “County Seat” store just a bit further North on the same side of Sherman Ave. finally closed.

After the CD store closed, a similar one just as large if not larger, opened across the street where a CVS is now located. There was a giant, bi-level Barnes & Noble too, which has also since closed on the corner across from & just South of the Varsity.

There was also a tiny vintage book store down the alley and across from the Varsity’s side exit doors. I think it was called Booksellers Row or something.

DavidZornig on August 22, 2008 at 12:56 am

After my Chicago high school had closed, I finished off my sophomore through senior years at ETHS. I used a family friends Evanston address, and commuted from the Near North Side. Until ETHS caught all who were commuting at Howard Street one morning, and sent notices that required all move into Evanston or pay an absurdly high tuition rate. They were right. My mom & I moved out there for the final 2 years.

After graduation, I moved in with some buddys a block from the Varsity, above the Italian Kitchen. Where I had previously worked, and others still did.

The Varsity was a classic, clean palace of a place. A real shame that it couldn’t have remained as original, and as a mixed use theatre. Live stage & film would have been great.
Would have also been nice if NU had thrown the City of Evanston a bone, and taken the place over for just that purpose. Given their hefty tax breaks and all.
But they had their own auditoriums.

I remember seeing “Grease”, “Sgt Peppers”, “The Wanderers”, “The Shining”, “Americathon”, and went back for some of the Marx Bros. double bills when it went to that format.
I think I also saw the pre-curser to “Grumpy Old Men” there. Something about a band of senior citizen bank robbers with the same crew. Walter Matthau, etc.

The illuminated ceiling stars were just like those at the Aragon Ballroom on Lawrence Chicago. Except the Aragon also had a cloud machine.
The Aragon was never a theatre, so theres no page on Cinema Treasures.
But it has a rich history, and would be worth the internet search if one is interested.

The Valencia was a block and a half further South on Sherman. I think that was already closed and demolished by 1979. Evanston artist Ron Crawford did some great drawings of landmarks around town. The Valencia in ruins was one of them.

I thought I read the Varsity was going to take a crack at doing live music at on point. But given the future hell that the Coronet went through when it tried the same, I guess it was a post closure omen.

Broan on October 19, 2007 at 7:00 am

Recent photos are HERE

scorseseisgod on August 25, 2007 at 7:43 pm

Here’s a link to a VARSITY THEATRE schedule from April 12 – June 20, 1981. I can’t believe that I made it all the way through OUR HITLER!

View link

Cam on August 23, 2007 at 7:27 am

OK, after a delay of only five months or so, here is the image I promised to upload: a scan of one of the old film schedules from the Varsity. I’m not sure, but I believe this one is probably from 1981 or 1982:

View link


Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on August 21, 2007 at 8:05 pm

Great photo set. That is about what I figured it looked like. The Varsity is sleeping silently above the first floor stores, waiting for the next chapter.

Here is an article from the Evanston Round Table, published last September:

View link

6 September 2006 Vol. IX Number 17

TIF Revenues Top Budget Forecast
By Bill Smith

Tax revenue this year from the Downtown II (Research Park) tax-increment financing (TIF) district centered on Maple Avenue north of Church Street will top the City’s budget forecast by nearly a million dollars.

The district, which includes the Century Theater complex, the Optima Views and Optima Horizons condo high-rises and the Hilton Garden Inn, is now assessed at $133.7 million, compared to $1.8 million when the district was created two decades ago.

The Cook County Clerk’s office last week reported that incremental tax revenue to the City from this TIF district this year will total $10.1 million, a 29-percent increase from last year and 10 percent more than the City had forecast.

The City has used revenue from this TIF to build the new Levy Senior Center on Dodge Avenue, replacing the old senior center located in the district, and to build the new Maple Avenue parking garage.

The Downtown II TIF is scheduled to expire in 2008. After that most of the increased revenue will start going to Evanston’s school districts.

The County Clerk’s figures show that the Washington National TIF, formed 12 years ago, topped the City’s revenue forecast by nearly 23 percent.

That district includes the area bounded by Church Street, Chicago Avenue, Davis Street and Benson Avenue, plus the former Marshall Field’s and Varsity Theater buildings and Fountain Square.

The Washington National TIF, created in 1994, was named for the now-defunct insurance company whose headquarters building once occupied the corner of Church Strret and Chicago Avenue. It now is home to the Park Evanston rental apartment high-rise and the Whole Foods market.

The Washington National TIF will generate $1.8 million in incremental tax revenue for the City this year. That is less than a fifth of what the Downtown II district provided, but the yield from the Washington National district is expected to grow dramatically once the Sherman Plaza condo and retail development is fully occupied later this year. Its valuation, now $48 million, has nearly doubled since its creation.

Revenue from the Washington National district has been used to construct the City’s new Sherman Plaza parking garage. The City has said it anticipates using additional revenue from that TIF to improve Fountain Square.

The Southwest (Sam’s Club) and Southwest II (Howard-Hartrey) TIFs showed little change in tax revenue this year. Combined, they will yield a total of $1.9 million in incremental tax revenue to the city. Their valuation has increased by about 400 percent since they were established in the early 1990s.

The City’s two newest TIF districts, Howard-Ridge and West Evanston, have seen little new development so far and will generate just $128,000 in incremental tax revenue to the City this year.

CHICTH74 on August 6, 2007 at 9:52 pm

Great pic.
Whare was the gap store i mean was the theatre walled off and the store buld on the front. With the theatre in the back?

HowardBHaas on August 6, 2007 at 6:05 pm

Hidden behind Gap store:
View link

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on April 20, 2007 at 4:00 pm

Here is another example of a treatment similar to that employed at Evanston’s Varsity Theatre when it was converted to retail:

View link

GrandMogul on March 28, 2007 at 11:05 pm

Famed “Schmeling-Louis” fight film shown at Varsity—–


Chicago Daily News, Friday, June 26, 1936, p. 36, c. 1—–


The Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight pictures, complete from beginning to end have been booked in as extra screen attractions at eight Balaban & Katz theaters starting today. In the loop the pictures will be shown at the Roosevelt and Apollo theaters; west side Marbro; south side, Tivoli and Southtown; north side, Granada, Varsity and Uptown. The pictures showing the knockdown in slow motion, also start at the Regal theater on the south side on Sunday

Nortown on March 5, 2007 at 4:30 am

Hello Cam:
I would love to see anything that you have on the Varsity. I was a relief manager for Plitt Theatres and would give the regular manager at the Varsity his night off. I also worked at the Nortown and Gateway Theatres in Chicago. I remember that many “B” movies were shown at the Varsity. The busiest time that I recall was when we showed the George Burns movie, “Going In Style”. I am curious if it is possible to see what is left of the original inside of the building. As a side note, it had a somewhat interesting design to the manager’s office. There were actually two of them, a very small one on the main floor that contained the safe and a fairly large office on the second floor.

Cam on February 3, 2007 at 1:06 am

I think the dates in the description here are a little off. I believe the Varsity closed in 1985 or 1986. I have some photos of the building when the conversion to retail space was underway. You can see a couple of them in Set #12, at this URL:

Damn, I love that graffiti. :–)

And no, I am not the one who wrote it… but ironically, that is where I saw “Citizen Kane,” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.” The Varsity was marvelous. Absolutely magical.

Anyway, on the back of my original print, I had written “12/86,” and I’m fairly certain that is accurate.

As Life’s Too Short mentioned, the Varsity and the Parkway were both showing art films in the early 80s. I was thinking that one of the chains bought out the Varsity in about ‘84, though, and then showed first-run movies. I seem to remember seeing “Conan the Destroyer” there.

Anybody out there from the North Side want to weigh in?

I’ve still got a couple schedules from both the Parkway and the Varsity. They used to have ‘em tucked in the Reader about once a month. If anyone is interested, I’ll see if I can photograph or scan them.

mwynia on January 13, 2007 at 2:39 pm

To SR and others –
I just returned from Portland Oregon, where over the last 15 years they’ve seen about 12-15 of these old theater’s reclaimed for use as brew-pub/restaurants, where you can eat while you watch a film on the big screen. It’s a terrific use of the space, an asset to the community, and obviously they’re doing well as businesses. They typically take out all the old seats and replace them with scattered sofas and coffee tables, or they remove every other row of the theater seating and put in long tables, so that eating is quite comfortable. They serve good but simple fare, along the lines of high-end pizza or burgers, along with wine and beer (often micro-brewed, though not on-site). At non-peak times they use the space for classics, art film series, midnight shows, birthday parties, kids movies and so on.

Any interest is seeing this sort of development? If so, contact me.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on December 25, 2006 at 10:47 pm

Take a look at this modern-day photo of the Garfield Theatre in Milwaukee Paul:

View link

This is similar to what was executed at Evanston’s Varsity. You can walk upstairs above the offices that were fitted into the walls of the Garfield’s orchestra and look down on the false ceiling from the balcony. Light fixtures removed, a few walls blown out. But the Garfield still exists and could be returned to theatrical use.

Hopefully someone will come up with a viable plan to return the Varsity to the people of Evanston. It would be a shame if this, the best theatre ever built in the city, was carved up into condos. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how viable condos would be in Evanston at this point. There is so much existing capacity. It would be interesting to see some stats on occupancy rates, etc.

Merry Christmas to all!

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on December 12, 2006 at 3:59 pm

I watched them do the retail conversion back in the day. They blew out the wall between the lobby and auditorium main floor. Then they leveled out the main floor grade and built the retail stalls within the walls of the auditorium. Based on stories I have heard from people working in the stores, the comments of the building owner above, and the fact that the City of Evanston was considering renovation of the building as an arts center a few years ago, I think it is safe to say that a large portion of the theatre still exists. If the right project came along it could serve some sort of entertainment purpose again.

However, unless I miss my guess, the owner is thinking about building condos on the site and is monitoring this web site to try and get an idea of what sort of community resistance might rise up against such a project.

Paul Fortini
Paul Fortini on November 22, 2006 at 7:33 pm

But just how much of what is photo'ed in Russell Phillips remains, espeially now that it’s a GAP store?

Broan on November 5, 2006 at 11:39 pm

Russell Phillips Photos:

Varsity Auditorium
Varsity Lobby
Varsity Upper Lobby

The layout here looks a lot like Pridmore’s designs at the Evanston/Stadium and Nortown, except T-shaped instead of L

RickB on October 15, 2006 at 3:39 pm

Plitt operated it in the late ‘70s. When I left Evanston in the summer of 1980 Plitt had recently stopped showing movies there and somebody was booking concerts into it.

Paul Fortini
Paul Fortini on October 15, 2006 at 11:54 am

Wasn’t this place a Plitt Theatre?