Interest high over storied Varsity Theater and its landmark marquee

Dan Haugen

One of Dinkytown’s most recognizable icons is for sale.

With its art deco architecture and black and yellow marquee, the Varsity Theater has been a local landmark for decades. Now on the market, the building’s eclectic and occasionally controversial past is adding allure for potential buyers.

“It’s got a mystique,” said Michael Finkelstein, senior associate for St. Paul-based Suntide Commercial Realty, which is asking for $1.4 million for the property.

Interest has been high, he said, with inquiries coming from nightclubs to nonprofits. He said he has shown the space to three or four parties per week since the for-sale sign went up last month.

The original structure was constructed in 1915 and opened as the University Theater. New ownership expanded and reopened the space as the Varsity Theater in the 1930s, adding the now-iconic marquee.

The building changed hands again in 1988 when it was sold for $230,000 to a local investment group. In 1990, a tenant tried to reinvent the deteriorating theater as a nonalcoholic club venue for punk and hip-hop concerts.

Complaints from city and neighborhood leaders over noise and vandalism climaxed in October 1990 when the theater booked controversial hip-hop act 2 Live Crew to perform.

The Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted not to renew the theater’s entertainment license in May 1991, citing parking problems and late taxes due to the city. That prompted former Varsity manager Aaron Keith to accuse city officials of singling out the theater because of its clientele, who were largely young and black.

When John and Laura Mowers bought the building in March 1992 for their photography studio, “it was falling apart,” Laura Mowers said.

After purchasing the theater for $175,000, the Mowers renovated the entire building, leveling the floor and adding a new roof, kitchen and heating and air conditioning system.

“The place has a million stories,” Mowers said. “Almost everyone we worked with would remember a story about a movie they saw there or a date they went on there.”

Minnesota baseball legend Dave Winfield worked there during his college days when it was a movie theater, Mowers said. Pop-punk trio Green Day also performed there when it was a music venue.

The Mowers sold the building to an investor in 1992 for $1 million, and Finkelstein bought it immediately after that for $1.2 million.

Mowers said she hopes to see a business move in that is more open to the public than their photography studio that primarily works for magazines and advertising agencies. They recently moved downtown after forging an alliance with another studio.

Suntide is seeking a single tenant or buyer for the building, Finkelstein said. Because its zoning is flexible, diverse businesses have expressed interest. No movie theaters have approached them, but a couple performing arts groups have, he said. A fitness club also toured the space.

The almost 90-year-old building is a great area asset, said Skott Johnson, president for the Dinkytown Business Association.

“The building is a landmark,” he said.

From a planning perspective, it is important for neighborhoods to have a tall, recognizable structure, Johnson said. Seattle has the Space Needle, other neighborhoods have clock towers and Dinkytown has the Varsity’s marquee.