Sweet Varsity, I hardly knew ye by uncdiversions
June 28, 2009, 6:59 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

<strong>Varsity Theater, 1953 to 2009</strong>

With the closing Thursday of the Varsity Theater, eighty years of Chapel Hill history is coming to an untimely and tragic end. It’s hard not to feel like a helpless passer-by at the death of a president, or the execution of a martyr.  It’s obvious something serious is happening, but it’s difficult to comprehend how serious it is.

To put it another way, the Varsity’s closing will be a landmark date in the lives of many students. Years down the road, when our kids and grandkids ask us questions like, “Where were you when UNC won its sixth national championship?” and “Where were you when America elected its first black president?” there will be another question that will probably never make it to their lips, but damn well should. “Where were you when the Varsity went dark?”

Please don’t think I’m being melodramatic. I know the world isn’t coming to an end. But part of Chapel Hill’s world is. Eighty years is a long time to serve a community. To put it in perspective, think about how old Michael Jackson was when he kicked it. 50? The Varsity was old enough to be his father. Maybe it wasn’t as famous, but it was infinitely more venerable than any pop star. The Varsity was our grand old man about town, and now he’s gone to his grave.

I admit that this is a little personal for me. I review movies for the Daily Tar Heel, and some of the best movies I’ve seen in that job have been at the Varsity. I know its touch, its ambiance. And I know it can’t be replaced.

And then it just gets downright familial. My parents went on their first date at the Varsity 35 years ago. I asked my dad what they had seen. He stalled for a moment, in the throes of either reminiscence or failing memory, and then he recalled, “It was some crazy French movie about a financial scheme that destroyed the world economy. I can’t even remember the name.” How Varsity is that? And how appropriately coincidental: art from the past mirroring life in the present, which explains the tragedy before us.

That tragedy is the fact that the Varsity is closing because it isn’t making enough money. It hasn’t been making enough for a few years now, and with the economic recession its future looked too bleak. Owner Bruce Stone is cutting his loses by closing shop, but he’s keeping his other art-house theater, the Chelsea, open for now. That’s cold consolation for me: the Chelsea is an ugly little runt of a theater in a shopping center far off campus and it doesn’t have anything like the history of the deceased Varsity. But it’s got free parking, and that’s enough to bring in the kind of business needed to stay alive. The parking nightmare that is Franklin Street is a different story. Thanks a lot, Town of Chapel Hill, for your wonderful urban planning.

No, there’s no silver lining to this tragedy, no pick-me-up or hope of life after death. All it is is a sad story with a bittersweet moral. The story is that the Varsity, a defining experience for generations of Carolina students and a priceless cultural resource, has been senselessly lost. The moral is that we need better parking in downtown Chapel Hill.

For all the movies I’ve seen at that theater, I hadn’t yet exhausted the possibilities of the dark spaces between my seat and the luminescent screen of living pictures. That’s where one explores a true movie house. The Varsity was such a place, and now I’ll never know everything it had. Farewell sweet Varsity, I hardly knew ye.

– By Diversions Staff Writer Jonathan Pattishall


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