Varsity Cheer

"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

The University Theatre opened 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 represents the 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).

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.

"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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