The University Theatreopened with high hopes and great pretensions on December 6, 1915. As the Minnesota Daily reported at the time, "The management plans to make the quality of the pictures shown here equal to any in the city; to show the kind that will appeal to the intellectual ones rather than the lovers of the spectacular."
Ninety years later, lovers of the spectacular seem to have won out. Dinkytown's long-darkened movie house, which changed its name to the Varsity in 1939, has reopened as something closer in appearance to a modernist opium den. The art deco lobby leads to a cavernous white room draped with red velvet curtains, with a café bar and red-sateen-covered air mattresses for seating. In the past few months, this space has hosted DJ nights, comedy improv, punk shows, and video screenings. This week alone, you can catch a "scientific theory slam" (Thursday), rock band Halloween, Alaska (Friday), and a multimedia hip-hop party with "live" visual art by Ernest Bryant (Saturday).
Anything goes at the new Varsity Theater, at least for now, according to Loring Pasta Bar owner Jason McLean, who refurbished the space and recruited arts impresarios Patrick Scully (namesake of Patrick's Cabaret) and Rod Smith (a contributor to City Pages) as collaborators. "Whoever wants to be involved in booking, the field's wide open," says McLean. "Just give me some good ideas, and I'll cut you in on the action."
Freewheeling eclecticism fits a marquee that has seen it all--vaudeville, kiddie matinees, late-night beer sneaking, foreign art films, riots in the streets. After the venue closed as a regular movie house in 1989, it hosted hip-hop shows and queer dance nights. If one building tells the story of Dinkytown, it's the Varsity.
"A theater means something for an area," says McLean, who attended the old University High School a few blocks away. "It's a symbol of life and community activity and artistic creation. And when you shut it down and turn it off, sometimes the psychology of the neighborhood is such that it represents how the area is going nowhere. That's why it's so important to get it up and going again."
If McLean representsthe Varsity's future, its past was defined by a Russian immigrant who arrived not long before the University Theatre opened. When Nathan Fisher came to Willow River, Minnesota, he was a penniless teenager who didn't speak English. Taken in by a community of fellow Jewish immigrants, he married into a family that owned a dry goods store. He later joined his brother-in-law in the theater business at the Southern, where amateur vaudeville, Swedish theater, and "movies" played before the newspapers took the word out of quotes.
Vaudeville also played at the University Theatre, shoehorned between Paramount silent thrillers and travelogues. A typical 1916 Minnesota Daily advertisement lists "Morgan + Brown Dixie Minstrels," and "Mr. Scobey comedy and chimes," both featured before a screening of the 1914 biblical film Sign of the Cross.
Family members aren't sure exactly when Fisher started working at the University Theatre, but one Dinkytown resident remembers him running it by the late '20s. He was a tolerant and soft-spoken man, by all accounts. He played babysitter to a whole neighborhood of kids on Saturday afternoons in the days when parents handed out dimes for matinee serials and nickels for Holloway candy bars.
"What today they call Dinkytown, we never heard that word," remembers Lorraine Ofstie, who went to the movies every Saturday. "We would have been appalled if anyone called that corner Dinkytown. It was 'University,' because we were proud of being part of the university."
Charles Gorder was an usher at the theater in the 1930s, and says that his former employer inadvertently gave Dinkytown its name. "When it was the University, it was called by the nickname 'the Dinky,'" he says. "Once it was remodeled and expanded, we called it the Varsity. But newspaper reporters had started writing up the whole neighborhood as 'Dinkytown.'"
According to property records, Fisher bought the building itself in 1938, the same year he hired Minnesota architects Jacob J. "Jack" Liebenberg and Seeman Kaplan to remake the theater in the streamlined modern style. (Enduring examples of their work include today's Suburban World, the Uptown Theatre, and the NorShor in Duluth.) The "Varsity" opened with the Burns & Allen picture Honolulu on April 21, 1939.
Dinkytown flocked to the Varsity in the prewar years, when Fisher held "bank day" drawings for prizes such as new dishes, and sometimes even let patrons stay overnight in the cool air conditioning, which was provided by air pumped through water drawn from an underground well.
"Very few places had air conditioning in those days," says Beatrice Perper, one of Fisher's daughters, who worked the box office. "Many times in the summer, he left the theater open, so people could sleep there. He hired two people to stay and watch the theater. People used to bring whole families."
Fisher did well enough with the Varsity to buy the future Oak Street Cinema, re-enlisting Liebenberg and Kaplan to design the Campus Theatre out of what had once been a smaller movie house, then an indoor miniature golf course, then a garage. He later bought the Ritz (now being renovated for Ballet of the Dolls) from his brother-in-law. It was a family business, and the Varsity property stayed under one Fisher name or another until 1993, passing through Nathan's son Sol, then through Sol's ex-wife, Marion Fisher (who was awarded the theater in a divorce settlement).