Varsity Theater might reopen by late November

Jason McLean might spend $250,000 to $300,000 to refurbish the building’s interior.

by Jared Roddy

Theater lovers unite – the Varsity Theater will soon return.

The theater on Fourth Street Southeast played its last public film in 1989, but it will soon be host to concerts, plays, film screenings and more when it reopens as the Varsity Theater Project later this year.

Owner Jason McLean said he plans to spend $250,000 to $300,000 to buy new equipment and refurbish the interior for his new vision. McLean, who also owns the Loring Pasta Bar and the Kitty Cat Klub, said the Varsity will be home to a cafe that, pending city approval, will serve alcohol.

“It will be like an Espresso Royale with liquor,” McLean said. “But it’s not going to look like a bar.”

Barring unforeseen snags in the renovation, McLean said, he hopes the business reopens by late November.

He said he thinks the theater will be ready, but outside forces, such as getting city approvals, could cause slowdowns.

“It’s just the work is hard enough as it is,” McLean said.

Some Dinkytown businesses feared that the Varsity would cause problems with parking and crowd control if given a liquor license, Dinkytown Business Association President Skott Johnson said.

Those fears were apparently put to rest when the association unanimously endorsed the theater’s liquor license application last week, he said.

Built in 1928, the Varsity will be a venue for local talent, as well as national concert acts, and area theater and dance troupes. McLean also said local acts and groups would have access to the stage.

“This will be a location for people to gravitate toward,” McLean said.

The Varsity’s round-wall lobby will be the location for the cafe, which will be open every day. The cafe will also serve as a box office. A small rise near the entrance could serve as a place for “a guy with a guitar” to play cafe music for the patrons, McLean said.

The large, tinted windows that face the street will be replaced with clear doors that can be opened during nice weather so the cafe can spill out into the sidewalk.

McLean said the cafe might open before the theater is fully functional, but he wants to make sure patrons’ expectations are met.

“My experience tells me you want to be careful with the image you present and how you open up,” McLean said.

Acting as general contractor, McLean said he wants to let the theater and the interior “evolve organically,” which takes time.

Theatre in the Round’s Executive Director Steve Antenucci said giving fledgling actors and writers a venue to get a start was a great idea.

“I just don’t know what kind of demand there is or what

kind of other venues there are,” Antenucci said. “There’s certainly a lot of performance spaces in the city, but if there’s a specific University audience or need, I can’t say.”

Developing and coordinating a theater can also be a nightmare, Antenucci said.

“But Jason knows what he’s doing – it’s not like he’s a neophyte,” Antenucci said.

Antenucci was referring to McLean’s acting experience and previous theater space, called the Loring Playhouse. During McLean’s “rampage” of expansion through the Fawkes Building on Loring Park, he built a small space for local acts to play before an audience.

The difference, McLean said, was that the Varsity was originally designed to be a theater, so it didn’t have to be completely revamped.

“This time, we can spend the money on stuff that will be a lot of fun to play with,” McLean said.

McLean is using his money to install a professional lighting and sound system. He also plans to drape the theater’s bare walls in “rich crimson velvet curtains,” he said.

The Varsity has long been a landmark in Dinkytown. Originally called The University, previous owner Laura Mowers turned the space into a photography studio from 1991 to 2002.

“It had been vacant for a couple years when we got it,” Mowers said. “We gutted it and remodeled it. It was in very rough shape.”

The theater would “come alive” when full of people, Mowers said. She said she was excited to see the Varsity become a theater again.

“I think it’s destiny,” she said.