The Chapel Hill News (North Carolina)
December 1, 2010 Wednesday
STATE AND REGIONAL NEWS
By Dave Hart, The Chapel Hill News, N.C.
Dec. 01–CHAPEL HILL — When Susan and Paul Shareshian bought and re-opened the Varsity Theatre last year, by their own admission they didn’t know much about running a movie theater.
In fact, they had never owned a business of any kind.
"I had done some catering and stuff a long time ago, but, no, we had never operated a movie theater or anything like that," Paul Shareshian said. "We read a lot. This whole thing has been a huge learning experience. And one thing we’ve learned is how true at least one thing we read was: ‘Know your audience.’"
They seem to have done that. The Shareshians bought the 80-year-old Varsity several months after sagging ticket sales prompted its previous owner to close it, leaving Franklin Street without a movie theater for the first time in almost a century.
The Shareshians renovated the Varsity and announced their intention to show classic films as well as second runs of recent releases, with all tickets just $3.
They re-opened the theater during Thanksgiving weekend of 2009, beginning with the beloved 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz."
Last Friday they marked the Varsity’s first anniversary back in business. The movie to mark to milestone: "The Wizard of Oz."
They intend to show the 1939 classic every Thanksgiving.
"What’s so great about showing movies like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or ‘Casablanca’ is that when you look around the theater you’re likely to see a retired couple sitting next to some college kids sitting next to a family," Shareshian said. "That’s a really nice feeling."
But the Varsity’s successful first year after re-opening isn’t just due to its screenings of classic movies or recent releases.
To a greater extent than they originally intended, the Shareshians have made the theater — which actually includes two theaters, one seating up to 230 and the other seating 138, plus an upstairs lobby and party room — a multi-purpose space.
They rent it out for birthday parties and wedding receptions. They show World Cup soccer and NFL football games on the big screen. They collaborate with local businesses, organizations and the university on events such as film festivals, lectures and fundraisers.
"We always planned to do that to some extent, but theater rentals, in our initial plan, were like the gravy," Shareshian said. "We wound up doing about 100 rentals in our first year, and we’re already booking out through next May. And, with a year behind us, now we’re getting repeat business. That has turned out to be a bigger part of what we do than we had expected. We’re small enough that we adapt to what people need. I feel like we’ve gotten into the groove now."
A few weeks ago, for example, the theater partnered with the UNC Center for the Study of the American South for a film screening and series of talks to mark the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird."
This week, in addition to its regular showings, the Varsity is showing two movies in association with the Ackland Art Museum’s series on the late artist Andy Warhol: a screening of the feature film "Basquiat" on Thursday and, on Saturday, Warhol’s famous but rarely seen "Empire" — eight hours of continuous, stationary footage of the Empire State Building.
Meg McGurk, assistant director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, said the Varsity’s flexibility and variety are keys to its viability.
"It’s difficult for a small theater to compete with the mega cineplexes, but the Varsity has succeeded by finding a way to appeal to a wide audience," she said. "They show a ton of classic movies, and they recognize that every generation has its own definition of ‘classic.’ Movies like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ are timeless, but for kids who grew up in the ’80s, they also show things like ‘Back to the Future.’
"The Varsity also has partnered with many, many local businesses and organizations, and their rental parties are fantastic. What young kid wouldn’t love to have a whole movie theater for a birthday party?"
Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of the Chapel Hill-Orange County Visitors Bureau, said the revived Varsity adds a spark to Franklin Street.
"There’s no question that it has added a vibrancy and another dimension to downtown," she said. "And they have been important in collaborative efforts downtown.
"The ‘Mockingbird’ project, for example, was so successful and so seamless with the Varsity, largely because they’re a small local operation and not a big box or corporate entity. That makes them easy to work with and brings an organic quality to it."
The Shareshians embark on their second season in the Varsity with hopes of continuing what they began in their first, and exploring still newer ways to use the theater space — for live comedy and music performances, for example.
"At the end of the day, the best payoff is to be able to look in the theater and see people enjoying themselves," Shareshian said. "That’s what it’s all about."
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