Downtown Evanston plans to investigate prospects for turning the vacant second floor of the former Varsity Theater building into a performing arts space.

The Varsity Theatre building at 1710 Sherman Ave.

The downtown marketing group’s executive director, Carolyn Dellutri, told aldermen last week that the group plans to form a task force that will bring in experts in theater redevelopment — including an architect, a programmer and a fundraiser — to research the feasibility of the project.

The Varsity, built as a movie house in the 1920s, was Evanston’s largest single-screen theater until it closed in the 1980s. Its first floor was then converted into retail shops.

Bringing the building back to life as a downtown arts space has been a dream of some residents for decades.

Dellutri says adding more performing and visual arts spaces downtown was one of the goals the group identified at focus group sessions in March.

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Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Revive Varsity ? Only with private funds

    Why are there so many people with [false] memories of the ‘old days?’

     Even by 1973 the Varsity was in pretty bad shape.  Do these same people have the same memories of the Coronet ? of the theater [Majestic?] where the Rotary is now [a much nicer theater].  Why all these desires to rebuild relics of the past.   If a business can find an economic use for the space, fine, but no public money should go to these projects built on false memories of people who would probably like to live in the 19th century if given a choice.

    The idea of a performance studio ?  With our budget we can’t even afford arts in the schools and what are probably public funds to the Noyes Center.  We face a 21st century budget and needs, not an 18th century "in my day" mind set.

    1. “Performing Arts Center”: A Cliche Cliche

      The idea of turning old downtown theaters into "performing arts centers" is a tired cliche that’s morphed into a big joke of an idea.

      I’m really surprised that the idea keeps resurfacing in a supposedly sophisticated town like Evanston.

      That idea was proposed for the  Coronet Theater at Main St. years ago. Never happened.

      Same for when they were going to build the Century Theaters complex. Never happened.

      The same idea was proposed for the Granada Theater, the Evanston Theaters, and The Uptown theater. Never happened.

      An architect recently proposed an Evanston lakefront performing arts center and marina complex. Well, maybe a marina, but don’t people realize that NU already has a performing arts space (Pick-Staiger) less than a 1/2 mile to the north of the proposed location?

      1. Future home to an Evanston Film Festival?

        I agree with the comments that Evanston does not need another performing arts space. No one has mentioned the huge success of SPACE – a music venue/upscape pizzeria.  SPACE could be used as a model –  but using the Varsity for its orginal purpose thereby giving the Evanston Film Festival (not sure their official name) a home and a year-round venue for films that are not mainstream.  The Music Box Theater in Chicago is the closest venue – "CineArts" on Maple is a disappointment.  Combine it with a bistro serving locally grown food and I think you’d have a big following.  According to an article in yesterday’s Tribune, the film industry has not suffered from the internet or the recession like the music industry because people like to go out to the movies, enjoying a community space.

  2. Looking at possibilities can’t hurt

    The other theater on sherman was the valencia.  i think it would be very nice, in an ideal world, to revive the varsity as a performing arts venue, and not because of its old pedigree, but because it is unused space, in an already existing building, in a great location in the middle of downtown.  doing something with the varsity building is a fond hope apparently of the current owner, and figured strongly in the suggestions by citizens in the planning charrette held during the development of the new downtown plan.  that block of sherman was to be designated a "traditional block", and the preservation commission was involved in identifying several such blocks in downtown.

    it is unfortunate that a computational error caused the failure of an earier feasiblity grant application. 

    looking at the possibilities now can’t hurt, as long as we understand that the city has no money for such a venture at this time, and that any forward movement would have to be by private developers. however, there are several grant programs available through the national trust for historic preservation that have been used in other communities to restore old theaters.  the one in joliet is a prime example.  and you only have to go a few blocks south to see the wonderful adalptive reuse that has been done with the (landmark) first congregational church at raymond park.  it is now a perfect venue for the music institute of chicago.

    something on the order of the harris theater in millenium park might be a consideration.  the various groups that use the harris share in its expenses, and do some of the fundraising, kind of an arts coop.

    and john f:  the desire to reuse the varsity is not because some folks want to live in the 19th century, or to turn evanston into a museum of an earlier day; it’s because a) the greenest building is the one that already exists, b)  it has architectural and historic interest, c) building a new performing arts center is prohibitively expensive, and d) there is no place in downtown evanston to build one.

    although done in earlier more flush decades, the revitalization of the shubert, chicago and the other old theaters on theater row in chicago has been very successful, after some lean years as they got going.

  3. Backward looking development

    The central problem with the plan to re-build the Varsity (of which there are many subordinate problems) is that it’s a backward looking development.  Nostalgia does not equal a good idea.  Nostalgia can only serve to give context to or reinforce the merits of an idea as it relates to the past.

    The original theater perished because of, one, a shifting entertainment marketplace leading to low revenue, two, high overhead and, three, lack of parking.  Have those issues gone away since the Varsity closed down?  Another commenter mentioned that the competition, Pick Staiger, is a 1/2 mile away.  These are serious obstacles to overcome.

    It’s clear that Evanston needs development.  Evanston is not going to attract new residents nor collect sufficient sales tax revenues without some serious new business development (think: Bill Gates returning home to Redmond, Washington to start Microsoft.)  This is true for any City to prosper and thrive.  Successful development needs to be forward looking, creative, robust and ought not retrace the failed steps of the past.  If you don’t have the ability to develop a plan with these attributes then you might as well make a brew pub.

    Next topic: Evanston Needs a Brew Pub

    You’re welcome.

    1. Varsity Theater now eyed for performing arts center

      "Varsity Theater now eyed for performing arts center"…that was the headline of the story in the Evanston Review of February 18, 1999.

      "A planned performing arts center in the Church Street Plaza has been rejected as too expensive, and arts planners have received a 90-day extension to explore other options.

      Cleo Alexander, a member of the Public Art Committee, told the Human Services Committee Monday that planners have turned their attention to the Varsity Theater building on Sherman Avenue in downtown Evanston." 


      Well, they have had their 90-extension, plus another 4000 days.   I just don’t see this performing arts center working out.

      A brewpub?  Maybe.  Or they could keep the whole ‘theatre’ atmosphere of the building.  Let’s make it a Dinner Theater.   No…that’s not unique enough for Evanston.   How about ‘Breakfast Theater’…imagine watching ‘A Chorus Line’ or ‘Cats’ while eating a short stack of pancakes, with four flavors of syrup and an endless pot of coffee.  Only in Evanston.

    2. ‘Performing arts’ space is stupid

      Agreed that a "performing arts" space is stupid.  Arlington Heights is a good place to look at where the city used TIF money to enhance a developer to build a "performing arts center."

      Long story short: the guy built it and tried to operate it as a for-profit enterprise and it failed miserably.  The City of AH was faced with a vacant facility and had to convince some non-profit to run it.  I’m not sure what sort of public money is involved these days, but the fare produced up there is similiar to what you would find on a third-rate cruise ship (minus the drinks!).

      On the failure of the Varsity, I disagree with the reasons given for its demise.  The  main reason it failed during the 80s was because of competition with the Old Orchard multiplex and–most importantly–the fact that Downtown Evanston had lost much of its vitality.  The Varsity and Jim’s Char-Broil were about the only things happening on that stretch of Sherman.

      We do have more vitality now and parking capacity is certainly not a problem–parking in downtown is voluminous thanks to the TIF-financed garages.

      I do agree that a brew pub would be nice–but it has to also be a soccer bar.

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