Varsity Theater reborn

Ben Stark, Staff Writer

Dinkytown’s crown, the Varsity Theater, reopened on Feb. 9 featuring a locals-only set list including DJ Jake Rudh, Kiss the Tiger, Chris Koza and Dirt Train. The theater has been closed to the public since Dec. 2016 and has gone through many changes. With new owners and management, the venue is excited to bring live music back to 4th Street and reopen their award-winning bathrooms.
Earlier in 2016, the Varsity Theater lost popularity in the community when five women came out against the theater’s former owner, Jason McLean. McLean was accused of sexual abuse toward minors when he worked at the Children’s Theatre Company. Protests took place outside the Varsity in September of 2016. Both artists and concertgoers began to boycott the venue. The embattled owner eventually sold the theater and fled the courts. He is rumored to be in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Last July, the Varsity was purchased by Gaw Capital Partners (GCP), an investment firm based in Hong Kong. GCP paid $2.5 million for the property and made additional improvements, including a brand-new HVAC system. In addition to physical improvements, the Varsity also hired new management. Event staff are happy to be back at work. Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in the country, has promised to bring the venue back with live music from a variety of genres. The entire community is excited to put the theater’s recent past behind them.
With McLean out of the picture, business owners in Dinkytown’s Commercial Historic District have been patiently waiting for The Varsity to reopen. The theater has played an important role in the neighborhood since it was built in 1915, originally called the University Theater. Renovations in 1938 gave the theater its Art Deco style and present name. In the late 1980s, the theater was renovated into a photography studio. The venue has been hosting a variety of live shows since 2005. This Saturday, the Varsity will feature a performance by the band New Politics.
Unfortunately, the reopening of the Varsity has coincided with the departure of several other local businesses. In December, Espresso Royale gave their employees two weeks’ notice before they left their 14th Street location. Even more shockingly, Vescio’s Italian Restaurant will be closing in March after over 60 years of business. This week, businesses adjacent to the Varsity Theater were informed by their landlord that they had to vacate the property. There is no news on what will become of the three buildings.
Real estate investment companies are looking to build luxury student housing like that in Stadium Village where, just this week, a Dallas firm purchased a $69.4 million complex. I hope the reopening of The Varsity and the area’s 2015 historic designation will preserve the neighborhood’s character.

This article first appeared in the Friday, February 23, 2018, Edition of The Echo.