Visiting The New Varsity Theater On The Verge Of Its Reopening

This Friday, the 27th, the Varsity Theater in downtown Chapel Hill is officially reopening (there was a sneak preview showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ on Sunday night, the 22nd). The theater, which closed last June, has been undergoing heavy renovations so I thought I’d visit and check out just what the new owners – Paul and Susan Shareshian – are doing to restore the theater to its former movie-house glory. Last Friday Susan Shareshian showed me around as the carpet was being installed and we talked a bit about the changes they’ve made and their plans for the theater’s future.

Dan: Well, I’m really impressed with the place. It’s got the old fashioned theater look going in the nicest way.

Susan Shareshian: Thanks – we had UNC art students paint those murals on the panels.

D: Those look incredible and the whole place looks so clean.

SS: Yeah, it took a long time to get it like this… to get it free of dust.

D: So what are the Holiday movies you’re going to be showing in December and are they going to be 35 millimeter prints?

SS: They are all going to be original prints. We have “A Christmas Story”, “Polar Express”, “Miracle On 34th Street”, and “Christmas Vacation”.

D: So I see the birthday room is that going to be where the office was before – have you had bookings for that yet?

SS: We do have bookings for not only birthdays but we have bookings for holiday parties – not just for kids but for adults. We also have some private screenings for people who have made films and want a place to show it. At this point, it’s been about a month, it couldn’t be better. People are very very excited about it. We’re thrilled. This is all very grass roots, it’s really just Paul and I and our friends and family that are helping us. The goal is on the site to have the calendar so you see what’s coming, also to do advance purchase for tickets.

D: In the theaters how much work has been done?

SS: They are all being re-carpeted too. The chairs are the same, the carpet’s changing, the curtains are new, the moldings are new, and that’s about it. So far. And then in the red theater, the big theater…Paul wants to name them but he can’t come up with good names…

D: So you’ll show the older films in the small theater?

SS: Probably. It depends, “The Wizard Of Oz” we’re going to show in the big theater.

D: When did you decide to take on the theater and make a go of it? Was it right when you heard the theater was going to close?

SS: Yep, and then we had to be really thorough about understanding about how to run a successful theater and what that means. What the distribution companies want and how they work and all that stuff. One thing we’re going to do is we’re going to ask “what do you want to see?” I can tell you right now that everybody wants to see “Star Wars”, everybody wants to see “Back To The Future”, so when we show those it’s gonna be busy. Then if we pick some that are my favorites we probably won’t be as busy but that’s okay! We’re also going to do some other cool stuff like Wednesday afternoons we’re going to have foreign films for seniors. We’re going to work out deals with senior communities to have them bused here so they can be dropped off. Things like that.

D: Well I’ll definitely be here on opening day.

SS: Good! We’re going to do pre-sales starting on Monday. We’ll be here at the ticket window – I’m going to take the paper off the windows on Monday but leave the paper on the doors until Friday.

D: So you’ll be set up for credit cards?

SS: Yep. Mastercard, Visa, and debit but no American Express.

D: Will there be any differences with concessions?

SS: We’re working something out with Sugarland across the street to have desserts and we’ve been also talking about bringing in a gelato machine. But other than that it will be pretty traditional movie theater candies.

D: The classics?

SS: Yep. The classics.

I was sorry to miss the sneak preview last night which I heard was a rousing success but, like I said, I’ll be there this Friday for the Grand re-opening. It’s great to see the theater in such great shape and here’s hoping that Paul and Susan Shareshian’s enthusiasm and drive will help the Varsity thrive for a long time.

More later…

The Historic Varsity Theater In Chapel Hill NC Is Reopening!

This has just been announced – after closing its doors on June 25th last summer the beloved downtown theater is being re-opened under new management and with renovations. The press release:


Franklin Street’s iconic Varsity Theatre, located at 123 E. Franklin Street, near the corner of Columbia, will reopen under new ownership in mid-November after extensive renovations including an upgraded lobby and concessions area and the addition of a children’s birthday party room. Chapel Hill residents Susan and Paul Shareshian have begun working to restore the theater to its former elegance. “We want to bring back the feeling of a classic old-time movie theater and also provide a clean and fun space – with excellent service and a customer focused staff – where local residents can enjoy a movie at a reasonable price,” says Paul Shareshian.

The Varsity will show recently released and classic movies, with all tickets costing just $3. With reasonably priced concessions and a low ticket price, the Varsity will provide a great place for families and students. In addition to regular movie showings, the theater will be available for rental for children’s birthday parties, private screenings, lectures and corporate functions.

The Shareshians are working hard to complete the renovations and are planning for a late November opening. “We see downtown Chapel Hill as an exciting destination,” says Susan Shareshian. “And we are thrilled to bring back the Varsity as another great place that’s part of the Chapel Hill experience. We have heard from so many people who are excited that the Varsity is reopening. And while everyone has a different favorite memory – the popcorn was delicious, the theater is in the heart of downtown, people saw their favorite classic movies there – all of the memories are positive.” With the Shareshians’ renovation of the movie house, all of the positive qualities that have always been associated with the Varsity will remain…and will be enhanced, for an even better experience.

More information is available on the theater’s website at as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

Wow! Welcome back Varsity! I’ll be sure to be there opening night.

More later…

Statement From The Stones – The Varsity Theater Owners That Is

Just a quick note that the Varsity theater owners (Bruce and Mary Jo Stone) have released a statement about the theater’s closing. Independent Weekly writer David Fellerath, who has diligently followed the story since the beginning, blogged about it with links to the written statements themselves:

Statement From Owners Of Varsity Theater (Yes, It’s Closing Tonight) – Indy Week Blogs Jun 25 2009, 1:20 PM

If you live in the Triangle area you just may consider heading out to pay your respects. Neither THE HANGOVER or THE BROTHERS BLOOM are masterpieces, but they would still constitute a fine evening at a grand old theater.

The Varsity is dead! Long live the Varsity! (Such a cliché I know, but I just couldn’t help it.)

At least there’s still the Chelsea Theater (Check their site for listings, directions, etc.). Sigh.

More later…

It’s Confirmed: The Varsity Theater Is Closing

“I love the smell of popcorn in the evening. It smells like…Varsity!” – Me from one of my first shifts ever at the theater in 2004

After weeks of speculation and much community commentary, the Varsity Theater, built in 1927, located in downtown Chapel Hill, N.C. is closing. The last night will be Thursday, June 25th with THE HANGOVER (7:15/9:30 PM) and THE BROTHERS BLOOM (7:00/9:20). As I’ve blogged before I’ve worked there since 2004, but I’ve gone to the theater since the ’70’s having seen many crucial films from my youth there (STAR WARS, THE JERK, AIRPLANE!, etc.) so this is very sad for me personally. For many folks in the area it will be a blow, maybe not a devastating one, but one that will grow as the idea of a Franklin Street without any movie screens has yet to sink in.

David Fellerath’s blog post (“Varsity Theater To Go Dark Friday, June 26” – Film Beat, June 23rd) that broke the story reported:

“Owner Bruce Stone wouldn’t directly confirm the theater’s closing, but when asked if the fact that the Indy had not been provided with movie listings for the Varsity meant there would be no movies there, he replied, ‘That would be a correct inference.'”

So there it is. Stone has still yet to make an official announcement but we all know the gig is up. Maybe, just maybe, with much hope a developer or future buyer will take on the place. Such a beautiful old iconic theater shouldn’t end up like so many others across the country – old boarded up shells of former glory. The Varsity Theater was so much more than an old art house – it was a beloved institution that really tied the town together, as The Dude might say.

Farewell, sweet Varsity.

More later…

Classic Films On The Big Screen In The Triangle Area

Prenote: This post is extremely localized about theaters in my area that show old movies so it might not appeal to some of my readers. However, I think it’s possible that out-of-towners will find some interest and may be inspired to comment about revival showings at theaters near them.

The summer season is overflowing with movie choices, but many in the Triangle may not know that there is a welcome antidote to the mind numbing “event movies” arriving weekly at the multiplexes. Favorite films from years past, both classic and cult, are being shown at a number of theaters and venues in the area alongside current releases. These screenings give moviegoers a chance to see on the big screen films they’ve loved before on television or DVD, or heard about but never seen, in all their 35 millimeter glory. Plus, they’re typically not as expensive as first run films.

Built in 1926, The Carolina Theater in Durham has a great reputation for revival shows with their popular weekend series of horror movies: “Retrofantasma” and a summer series that this year includes double features of Robert De Niro (“Taxi Driver”, “The Untouchables”), Alfred Hitchcock (“Rear Window” and “Vertigo”, Steven Spielberg (“Jaws and “Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom”)and John Belushi (“Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers”) features. “Retrofantasma”, billed as “a joyful jolt of terror and nostalgia”, has a dedicated audience for a roster ranging from “Silent Night, Bloody Night” to the tongue in cheek “Clue”. They may be scratchy old prints for the most part, but there’s no denying the thrill of seeing famous film history writ large.

Located in North Raleigh, The Colony Theater caters to the cult crowd; the kids who grew up on Lucas and Spielberg but leaned towards Tarentino and Lynch as they matured. “Cool Classics @ The Colony” has showcased a multitude of films with fanatic followings such as “Purple Rain”, “Eraserhead”, “Pulp Fiction” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. After 3 successful years they are starting a new series: “Cinema Overdrive” which will feature far out and obscure oddities like “Death Race 2000” (starring the recently deceased David Carradine) and Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels”.

Colony Theater General Manager Denver Hill, a film buff and 35 MM film collector, said that the “Cool Classics” often “do a lot better than the usual films” as it’s been “slow for indie films lately.” Hill, who has worked for the theater since 2002, also remarked that he expected the June 16th and 17th showings of the late 90’s Coen Brothers cult classic “The Big Lebowski” to make more money than the current well reviewed Broadway documentary “Every Little Step.” “Lebowski”, is a repeat performance as Hill explains: “90% of the films have been customer requests.”

The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh offerings may be a bit more highbrow, but they are just as crowd pleasing. Over the fast few decades there have been many film festival of such icons as Woody Allen and such noted genres as “film noir”. It should be noted that they could benefit from having more than one screening in the winter when movies are shown in their auditorium; multiple times when I tried to attend showings they were sold out or only single seats remained. This is a non-issue in the summer season as they have outdoor screenings that can accommodate more people (of course, those can get rained out). This year the highlights will be a Watergate revisited weekend with “All The President’s Men” and “Frost/Nixon”, a tribute to Paul Newman with a showing of “The Sting”, and at the end of August a 70th anniversary showing of “Gone With The Wind” with an accompanying documentary “The Making Of A Legend.”

The Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, in their “Movies By Mooonlight” Summer series shows mostly movies from the last year (“Twilight”, “Kug Fu Panda”, “Iron Man”, etc.) but does offer a few older titles: “Moonstruck” and “Wait Until Dark” are showing this Summer. Be forewarned: Koka booth rarely shows 35 MM prints (the last one was 3 years ago: the legendary “The Creature From The Black Lagoon”) – the films are projected from a DVD. Still, it’s a beautiful venue and a fine evening be had with the right companion, lawn-chairs and beverages.

The Galaxy Theater in Cary often screens older films, in the last year they’ve presented an overlooked beautifully restored Charlie Chaplin film – “Monsieur Verdoux” as well as “Lawrence Of Arabia” and “Double Indemnity.” The theater, which is something of an art-house multiplex, has several popular series such as the “Undiscovered Gem Series”, the “Silver Screen Spring Series”, and like a number of local theaters, a “Kids Summer Movie Series” that runs on weekday mornings.

And for almost 20 years there’s been the Friday midnight showing of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” * at The Rialto. Via email, Ambassador Entertainment owner Bill Peeples said that “attendance is high and consistent” for the long running late show that has played “every Friday at midnight since December, 1989.” Peeples, who with the Rialto owns the Colony, Six Forks, and Mission Valley Theaters hosts “Cinema, Inc”, billed as Raleigh’s oldest and finest non-profit film society offering classic film presentations once a month on Sunday night.

With the possible closing of the Varsity and Chelsea Theaters in Chapel Hill, one might wonder if more revival screenings might have changed their fate. This spring at the Chelsea, a retrospective of director Mark Rydell (including “On Golden Pond” and “The Rose”) drew respectable crowds so it shows that there is definitely an audience for vintage cinema in this area. If the historic Varsity and Chelsea theaters are to continue operation I hope they embrace the past as they look to the future.

Post note: For more information like show-times and directions and please click on the theater’s names in the article.

* I just blogged about seeing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for the first time – read the post here.

More Later…

My Last Night At The Varsity Theater & THE HANGOVER

As I reported before, The Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill, N.C. is in a period of transition. The owner, Bruce Stone, is still in negotiations and nobody knows whether it’ll remain open as it changes hands or if it will close unsold. This is all so timely as I will no longer be working at the theater. Since my move to Raleigh I’ve decided I no longer want to commute, so yesterday was my last night working my all-time favorite part-time job. We were opening 2 new movies – oddly enough both feature Mike Tyson – so I needed to change the marquee for the last time. Of course, it rained last evening (which seems to be a Thursday night tradition here) so I wasn’t feeling particularly sentimental as I climbed the ladder.

All evening I fielded questions about the fate of the theater. Stone joked last weekend that our official line to everybody was: “We’re confused.” So we’ve been saying that (or variations thereof). David Fellerath wrote this insightful article in this week’s Independent about not just the Varsity and its sister theater the Chelsea’s fate but about the bleak business and uncertain future of independent art houses these days:

The Unknown Futures Of Chapel Hill’s Varsity And Chelsea Theaters: The Moviegoer’s Lament
(Independent Weekly June 3rd, 2009)

Another Thursday night tradition is to have a late showing (not open to the public unless you know somebody) of the new movie that is opening the next day. I definitely wasn’t going to miss the late show my last night at the Varsity:

THE HANGOVER (Dir. Todd Phillips, 2009)

“A bachelor party movie where you never see the bachelor party” is how director Phillips, responsible for the likes of OLD SCHOOL and STARSKY & HUTCH, described this Las Vegas-set silliness to The New York Times. Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ed Helms play the overgrown child protagonists who wake to find themselves in way over their heads after a night of stag party debauchery. In their trashed hotel suite they find that the groom (Justin Bartha) is missing, Helms has a tooth missing, a Bengal tiger is in the bathroom, and there’s a baby in the closet. They remember nothing of what happened so you might expect more than a little of DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR? mixed with just a dash of THREE MEN AND A BABY and you wouldn’t be far off.

Galifianakis, in the Belushi/Jack Black role, has the funniest lines and frequently steals the movie from his co-stars. The one-liners come fast and furious but sadly there are a lot of stale comic stylizations like, for instance, a Tarentino slow-motion group walk towards the camera with “Who Let The Dogs Out” blaring on the soundtrack. As the events of the night before are revealed there are some tasty turns – Mike Tyson, playing himself, as the tiger’s owner and Heather Graham as a hooker that Helms finds he’s now married to have their charms but some other plot points and clichéd character bits fall flat.

As likable as the leads are, THE HANGOVER is only fitfully funny but I would still say it’s has enough genuine laughs in it to meet my comedy quota. It is a definite improvement over Phillips previous lowbrow fare as it shows he can handle natural feeling rhythms, timing, and tone. While another draft (or 2) on the screenplay probably wouldn’t have made this a comedy classic, it feels a tad undercooked so this is a pretty reserved recommendation. However, I suspect it may have a re-watchability factor and that some elements might rub me better sometime down the line. Maybe, like a real hangover, when the annoying pangs wear off I’ll be able to remember the best of the original buzz.

Okay! So that was my last night working at the Varsity. I’ll miss working on Franklin Street and downtown Chapel Hill in general. I would usually post recent pictures of the marquee on the sidebar on this blog and that’s something I’ll also miss. But don’t worry, this change won’t affect this blog much – I love
movies and will continue to see as many movies as possible and tell you what I think. I’ll also keep you updated on the respective fates of the Varsity and Chelsea Theaters…so please – stay tuned.

More later…

The End Of The Varsity Theater? Well, not just yet.

If you follow this blog with any frequency you know that I work part-time at the Varsity Theater in my hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Earlier this month the theater’s owner, Bruce Stone, told his employees that he would not be renewing the lease come June 1st. Since then many rumors have circulated throughout the Triangle area about the fate of the theater. All that was certain, at that time, was that he was negotiating with potential buyers and the Varsity’s last day would be Thursday, May 28th. Now though it looks like he will keep the theater open 1-3 weeks more in hopes of making a smooth transition with a new owner. Whether this happens remains to be seen and I, as well as my co-workers, have been trying to deal with the notion that the Varsity may close – with hope just temporarily but very possibly for good. Here’s some links to some local articles about the up-in-the-air situation:

Lights May Dim At Varsity Theater (The Herald Sun – May 26th, 2009)

Owner May Sell Iconic Theater (The Chapel Hill News – May 27th, 2009)

Varsity Theatre Set To Be Sold But Not Closed
(Daily Tar Heel – May 27th, 2009)

This is all frustrating and depressing for me and many folks as the theater has been a beloved institution since its birth in 1927. I grew up going to the Varsity. When I was seven years old I saw STAR WARS there in 1977 – a memory I’ve never forgotten and possibly why that movie keeps coming up on this blog. I attended many movies over the years as it changed hands from a one screen first run movie house to a bargain theater in the early 80’s then, after being closed for a bit, re-opened as a art house with 2 screens (the large theater was split in half in 1982). Stone, who founded the Chelsea Theater at Timberlyne Shopping Center roughly 20 years ago, bought the theater in 2000. I got a job at the Varsity in 2004 (the same year I started this blog) and have highly enjoyed working there – seeing many movies and forming many friendships.

Like I said before, I thought tomorrow night would be both my final night and the Varsity’s but it looks like we both will see a bit more of each other. I, of course, hope that the theater will continue but as so much on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill has changed it may be time to adjust to this major change. I’ll keep you posted with what happens as I hear it. If you live in the area you may consider coming to seeing what just could be the last double bill (pictured at the top of this post). It’s such a great old school theater with a great atmospheric vibe I know I won’t be alone in missing.

More later…

Working The FRIDAY THE 13TH Matinee On Valentine’s Day

Despite its reputation as an art theater, the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill, N.C. where I work part-time, has often shown big commercial movies. BATMAN BEGINS, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and even Will Farrell fare like TALLADEGA NIGHTS and SEMI-PRO have shown up on our screens among the indie and foreign films that usually dominate the roster. However it was still surprising that the owner decided to run the new FRIDAY THE 13TH remake alongside SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, which has been pulling audiences in since late last year.

I worked a short shift this afternoon and it went something like this:

2:18 P.M. Both films are well underway. There are only 8 people in the theater to see FRIDAY THE 13TH as opposed to the 62 that are here to see SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. Ouch! Of course our theater is not exactly representative of how well the film may actually be doing. It is playing at 2 multiplexes in the area and many who would go to a horror film wouldn’t usually go until after dark. After cleaning up a little I tell my co-workers I’m going to check out some of FRIDAY THE 13TH but I’ll probably be back really soon. I enter the theater…

2:36 P.M. I’m back in the lobby. When I walked in I saw one of the classic horror movie clichés – a group of teenagers sitting around a campfire telling scary stories. Well, only one story actually about a camp counselor named Jason whose mother infamously murdered many folks in these very woods back in the day. Within 5 minutes, a girl is topless and a geeky guy (Im not going to credit any of these actors – I seriously doubt any of them will come up again) is brutally killed while looking for weed in the woods. Mamas boy Jason is fiercely protective of the Crystal Lake marijuana crop, you understand? His first appearance to my eyes wasn’t scary or even startling and I left when he had the before mentioned topless girl tied up in a sleeping bag dangling from a rope above the now raging camp fire. I shrugged as I walked out wondering why more couples didn’t come to celebrate Valentine’s Day with Jason Voorhees.

2:51 P.M. For some reason I decide I can stomach some more so I go back in…

3:06 P.M. I caught a bit that takes place in daylight. More partying teenagers are living it up at Crystal Lake campgrounds. After making machete meat of some really rednecky guy (how rednecky? We see literally licking a page from Hustler magazine) in an old dusty antique filled attic, Jason finds a beat up hockey mask. He dons it, checks himself out in the mirror (presumably thinking “hmm, I like it!”) and I was in awe of this historic detail of his origin story – uh, that is if you replace ‘in awe’ with ‘in complete indifference’. From there we go to a topless water-skiing sequence that ends in tragedy. Don’t they all?

3:16 P.M. Okay, only because I’m bored I go in for what I hope is my final round with the FRIDAY THE 13TH, uh, well it’s not really a remake so is it a re-boot? A re-imagining? Whatever it is I go on in again…

3:48 P.M. Whew! I actually watched the entire last act! The kids were in some house with the power cut off and Jason was offing them one by one (he seems to particularly enjoy impaling young scantily clad bodies on whatever’s handy – axes, deer antlers, long spikes and hooks, etc.). I loved when they called the police, only one car showed with only one cop and it seemed like less than a minute before he was impaled on something (most be some unwritten rule of horror movies – only send one cop). It was all exactly what I expected. Not one surprise or moment of original invention especially not the so non thriller ending. But then it makes no claims to be anything but an onslaught of breasts and blood so what I’m I complaining about? Okay I’m complaining about how what I saw was bone dry boring and bad by even schlocky slasher movie standards.

4:54 P.M. My shift is over. As I leave the theater I ask how many tickets sold for the 4:20 FRIDAY THE 13TH. One ticket sold. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE sold roughly the same as its earlier show (about 60 something). Obviously there’s little love for the new Jason incarnation but at least I figured out that it’s not a remake, reboot, or re-imagining. It’s a rehash rip-off.

The rest of my Valentine’s day has got to be better than this.

More later…


THE FOOT FIST WAY (Dir. Jody Hill, 2006)

I really wanted to like this low budget comedy. It was filmed in my home state (in Concord, NC), made by former North Carolina School of the Arts students and The Varsity where I work is the only theater in the whole state showing the movie. So for obvious reasons I was pulling for it despite the first wave of so-so reviews. Comedian Patton Oswalt (best known as the voice of the rat in RATATOUILLE), who has no connection to the film except that he’s a fan, wrote this response to Keith Phipps’ lukewarm review of the film at the Onion A.V. Club (Phipps rated the film a “C”) which was another factor that got my hopes up. I mean Oswalt, whose stand-up comedy I love, used words like “genius”, “unique comic vision” and called it “a brilliant little movie” so you can see why I was on board there too. The film being the first production of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay was less encouraging because Ferrell’s last few sports comedies have, well, sorta sucked so that doesn’t really have the pull it used to. Unfortunately this film about a strip-mall Martial Arts instructor (Danny McBride) has only about 3 or 4 laughs in it.

McBride plays Fred Simmons whose deluded ego, cheating wife, and connection to his students is supposed to engage and amuse us but he’s not a likable nor even unlikable enough of character to do anything but annoy. As his slutty wife, Mary Jane Bostic gives a pretty wooden performance (even during a sex scene!) but with such flimsy material I don’t think it really refects on her as an actress. Director Jody Hill fares a little better as a pretentious Tae Kwon Do master and writer Ben Best does a decent turn as coked-up asshole Chuck “The Truck” Wallace – a movie star who McBride worships. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE-style buzz is highly unlikely to be generated by this lackluster effort – any few random hours of Comedy Central will bring bigger laughs. Like I said I was wanting to root for this scrappy underdog film from my Southern state but I find it very hard to see the “brilliant little movie” in THE FOOT FIST WAY that Patton Oswalt promised so I can only offer this 2 paragraph “Meh” as my response. Maybe if I had some of what he was smoking when he watched it I’d feel differently.

More later…