Varsity Cheer

How vaudeville, motion pictures, and hip hop came to Dinkytown through one controversial theater--now reopened with beds for seats!

Having multiple theaters had obvious advantages, says Idele Vinokour, another Fisher daughter who worked for Dad. "The Ritz and the Varsity used to bicycle pictures back and forth so they could have one set of prints for both theaters," she says. "Usually it would just be a kid on a bike. When the reel was over, they'd take it out and give it to the kid, and he'd race over to the other theater."


By the time Nathan Fisher died in 1976, the movie business had changed--and so had Dinkytown. Even after Fisher retired, he'd scoop up grandkids in his Buick every weekend for a trip to the theater. (Everyone knew him as "Nate" back then; even Hubert Humphrey called him by his first name.) But by the 1960s, the theater had begun catering to a growing population of college students.

"A theater means something for an area":  Jason McLean and Patrick Scully have remade the Varsity as a theater-bar-café for music, film, and performance
Allen Beaulieu
"A theater means something for an area": Jason McLean and Patrick Scully have remade the Varsity as a theater-bar-café for music, film, and performance

"It became a campus neighborhood," says House of Hanson owner Laurel Bauer, who began working for her father at the same store in the late '60s. "When I grew up, we had five elementary schools here. We were down to one at one point. 35W came in and took out two square blocks of single-family homes."

When Bob Dylan arrived in 1960, he found "kind of a little village, untypical of conventional Minneapolis," as he writes in Chronicles, Volume One. "[Dinkytown] was mostly filled with Victorian houses that were being used as student apartments."

While local folkies held hootenannies on nearby rooftops, with a clear view of the Varsity's marquee, the theater began making good on its haughty 1915 promise to favor the intellectual over the spectacular. A 1963 advertisement for The Leopard with Burt Lancaster, for instance, announced: "Program notes given to each patron to further the enjoyment of this outstanding film and familiarize the viewer with the historical background of the story."

But attendance began dropping in the '70s as Dinkytown's streets filled with protests against the Vietnam War. When some shops on Fourth Street were torn down, the Red Barn burger chain announced its intention of moving into the vacant lot. Soon, young Dinkytowners were participating in one of the city's first anti-corporate protests--turning the empty lot into a people's park, and blocking bulldozers from doing their work. "Helicopters landed with tear gas," remembers Bauer. "The Varsity watched it all, I'd say. If that marquee could talk...."

One of Fisher's old friends, Ted Mann, took over the Varsity in 1962, a decade before selling his theater chain to General Cinema. Eventually, control of the venue landed in the hands of Mann's nephew, Steve Mann, whose Cinemaland Theaters (now Mann Theaters) ran the business though the '80s. In the Varsity's final decades, it survived as a sometimes bizarrely booked repertoire house (one memorable double feature: Midnight Cowboy and The Outlaw Josie Wales).

But foot traffic through Dinkytown had begun to slow already, as the U of M became a commuter campus, and competition from multiplexes was fierce. In 1988, Cinemaland let its lease run out, and the Varsity closed.



When Aaron Keith, a former keyboardist for the funk band Mazarati, took over the theater in 1990, he found a largely gutted interior. He began hosting a series of musical happenings that would presage McLean's classier Varsity--and become legendary in local club culture. Kevin Cole hosted an early Depth Probe dance event there; Green Day played a pre-Dookie gig; Front Line Assembly played there, too. The club's weekly hip-hop "Peace Parties" paved the way for a Varsity concert by then-notorious 2 Live Crew.

"I was running a whole spectrum of events, from wrestling shows to gay and lesbian nights," says Keith. "Most of those events would fly under the radar of the neighborhood. But when it was a hip-hop event, the whole screen blew up. Basically, the community there didn't want hip hop."

Jon Hurt, Keith's right-hand man at the Varsity, remembers the city demanding that they hire off-duty cops for the 2 Live Crew show, which ended up going off without a hitch despite a heavy police and media presence. "We'd get complaints from neighbors, and ask, 'Wait a minute, when was this car broken into?'" says Hurt. "Then it would turn out we weren't even open that day. From there, it just seemed to go downhill."

After the Varsity closed in 1991, it became clear that there were other problems, too. When John and Laura Mowers bought the theater in 1993, converting it into a photography studio and filling the sloping floor with dirt from Memorial Stadium, their careful renovation immediately went $100,000 over budget when the leaking roof collapsed.

Still, Jason McLean confirms that neighbors have been both supportive and wary of his project to bring live music--including hip hop--back to the Varsity.

"It's always a conflict," says Keith. "Commercial wants traffic, residential wants peace and quiet."

But peace and quiet won't last in the neighborhood named by the Dinky, as it becomes less of a daytime draw and more of a nightspot.

"I think the concern is that more people are here at night than during the day," says Skott Johnson of the Dinkytown Business Association. "And a lot of the businesses are closed at those hours, so you get a little nervous. It's just something we have to get used to."

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