The Varsity Theater: A case study of the one-screen locally-owned movie theater business in Iowa

Foghani, Mohammad Sadegh
Major Professor
Amy Bix
Committee Member
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This research in general discusses the history of the Des Moines Varsity Theater in the larger context of the movie theater business in that central Iowa area. In particular, it focuses on the history of the Varsity's film screening, since film selection is a major factor with regard to the survival or demise of a locally-owned theater. The Des Moines Varsity Theater represents an excellent illustration of the larger history of the movie-theater business, showing how that economic and social enterprise has changed, since the days of the first animated feature film in 1937, through the emergence of drive-in theaters during the mid-1950s, until today. The Varsity serves as a case study of the historical shifts and tensions between multiplexes and small theaters, and between corporately-owned chain theaters and locally-owned theaters. The Varsity's history shows how the owners of a small one-screen movie theater managed to survive the competition, not only with other locally-owned single or multi-screen theaters, but also against corporate-owned megaplexes in the city, even as the bigger movie industry underwent huge changes. The Varsity also reflects the history of how the movie business faced challenges in the second half of the twentieth-century with the development of television and other entertainment options, such as home video, the internet and DVDs.

Furthermore, since part of what has defined the Varsity's recent identity as a smaller locally-owned theater has been its focus on showing foreign and independent films, its long history also serves as the case study of non-Hollywood screening in the Des Moines area that expands on other historians' accounts of foreign film and independent movie viewing in U.S. theaters. Indeed, the evolution of the Varsity's film program and moviegoers together represents and reflects the character of Des Moines's (niche) market for unusual films.