Varsity Theater, 1308 University Avenue Southeast, Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Varsity Theater

Marquee Rendering
Current State
Address: 1308 University Avenue SE
Neighborhood/s: Dinkytown, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Hennepin County, Minnesota
State/province: Minnesota
Country: United States
Year built: 1919
Primary Style: Art Deco/Art Moderne
Major Alterations: Altered
Historic Function: Theater/concert hall
Current Function: Theater/concert hall
Architect or source of design: Liebenberg and Kaplan
First Owner: Nat and Sol Fisher
Notes: Jack Liebenberg

Dinkytown Minneapolis Hennepin

Varsity Theater, 1308 University Avenue Southeast, Minneapolis, Minnesota
(44.9800083° N, 93.2378221° WLatitude: 44°58′48.03″N
Longitude: 93°14′16.16″W


As a longstanding icon of the Dinkytown neighborhood, the Varsity Theater (previously known as the University Theater) has stood the test of time as one of relatively few Modern Art-Deco theaters still standing in the Midwest. The building itself has a straightforward rectangular plan with its long axis running perpendicular to its 4th street facade and is sandwiched between an alley and an adjacent building. Seeing that its sides are relatively inaccessible to the public, the whole of the building’s spirit is encompassed in its elaborate and colorful signage (see photos) affixed to its equally lively facade consisting of undulating sandstone tiles, glass block and its iconic marquee.

The Varsity Theater is one of many theaters in the Midwest that were built or renovated by Liebenberg and Kaplan from the 1930s to the 1950s. Prior to its Art Deco renovation and expansion in 1938, the Varsity Theater opened as a small live performance vaudeville theater in 1915. It's auditorium was extremely small, so notably small that patrons called it "The Dinky" which later lead to the area's popular namesake; Dinkytown. However, with the rise in popularity of motion picture movies and the onset of the Great Depression, The Dinky had fallen into disrepair by the late 1930s (Varsity Theater: History). By breathing new life into a then outdated building type in its renovation in 1938-9, Liebenberg and Kaplan created a lasting gem of historical and cultural importance for the Dinkytown area which still continues to draw visitors to this day.



The Varsity and Liebenberg’s Midwest Art Deco Theaters

Even though the Varsity is a one of a kind piece of modern architecture, it does fit well within the architect’s greater body of work. Jack Liebenberg, a Minneapolis based architect and University of Minnesota graduate, made a name for himself in the Twin Cities and greater Midwest region by specializing in new theater construction, but also redesign of existing live performance theaters in the first half of the 1900s (Theatrical hands of Jack Liebenberg). Following World War II, Liebenberg and his business partner and brother-in-law Seeman Kaplan continued their practice, many times remodeling theaters they themselves had built years earlier. In their careers, Liebenberg and Kaplan built and/or remodeled over 200 different theaters around Minnesota and its neighboring states including the Uptown, Granada, Wayzata, Edina, Hollywood and Terrace Theater s.

Historic and Cultural Value

What many people don’t know about early movie theaters in rural United States, is just how important they were to the local community. In an age without television, and in communities without access to large news outlets, the theater became the place to get the latest news on what was happening around the country and around the world. The Art Deco style of the place itself also served to be culturally significant. As its original remodel in 1938 was completed, the US was still amidst the the Great Depression and would soon be feeling the affects of WWII. This made the whimsical, brightly colored and futuristic looking decor of the theater that much more of an escape. The year of its reopening as a motion picuture cinema (1939) also coincided with one of the biggest years in film history, do doubt helping The Varsity draw new patrons. Movies like Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, and Of Mice and Men debuted in 1939, all of which deal with some thematic aspect of the Great Depression and looming conflict growing in Europe. The Gone with the Wind and Of Mice and Men both deal with stranded souls searching prosperity and calm in a tumultuous time, while Wizard of Oz follows a similar thread, but with more escapist leanings. This just goes to show just how important the theater was to the American people at the time. For a relatively small fee, the movie goer of the late 30’s could take a trip beyond the everyday ordinary by just stepping under the marquee of the theater (including the Varsity's own iconic marquee) and into the world of the movies (Scherer). For someone that had never seen this style of building before, it must have been utterly fascinating, as its forms, colors, materials and textures were a total break from what they were used to seeing (Movie Revival).

Past and Current Use

  • 1915: Opened as University Theater, an extremely "dinky" live vaudeville theater which lended its nickname to Dinkytown itself.
  • 1938-1939: Renovation and expansion by Liebenberg and Kaplan into an Art Deco movie cinema under the ownership of Nat and Sol Fisher.
  • late 1980s: Closure of the Varsity with brief openings as a night club and commercial photography studio. In its conversion to a photography studio, the past owners gutted the auditorium of its seating, floor and wall coverings.
  • 2005-Present: In a somewhat cyclical turn of events, the Varsity Theater is now a live performance venue again with shows by local and nationally acclaimed artists. The theater is also available for private gatherings/events. While the only Art Deco detailing on the interior to last through its various renovations can be found in its restroom lounges (see historic photos), the exterior signage and facade serve to remind us of its colorful past and important place within the history of the Dinkytown area. (Citypages)

Memories and stories

Related Links

[Varsity Theater Webpage] [Northwest Architectural Archives Webpage]

Resources and Citations

Liebenberg and Kaplan papers (N 36), Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.

"Best Architectural Renovation of an Old Building". City Pages. 2005. [CityPages Website]

"Movie Revival: New Auditoriums for a Familiar Theater." Architecture Minnesota. 15.5 (1989): 34-35.

Scherer, Herbert. "Marquee on Main Street: Jack Liebenberg's Movie Theaters: 1928-1941." Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts. 1 (1986): 62-752.

"The Theatrical Hand of Jack Liebenberg." Architecture Minnesota. 10.6 (1984): 45-47.

"Varsity Theater: History." History. Web. 27 Oct. 2011. [[1]]


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