Varsity Theater

1710 Sherman Street, Evanston
Built 1926
Architect: J.E.O. Pridmore

The Varsity Theater, located at 1710 Sherman Street in downtown Evanston, opened in December 1926. With 2,500 seats, the Varsity became the university town’s largest motion picture theater. Its fanciful interior design, customer amenities, and highly trained staff helped distinguish the Varsity from earlier Evanston movie houses and to compete against rival movie palaces in Chicago’s Rogers Park and Uptown neighborhoods.

The main promoter behind the Varsity project was Clyde Elliott. Elliott had moved to Evanston in 1922, after working in Hollywood for many years. He quickly secured control of the town’s two largest movie theaters, the New Evanston (1560 Sherman, built 1911) and the Hoyburn (615 Davis, built 1914), and then formed the University Theater Company to finance construction of the Varsity. With the opening of the Varsity, Elliott discontinued the showing of motion pictures at the New Evanston, which thereafter featured only vaudeville and stock productions.

The Varsity’s architect was J.E.O. Pridmore, who designed the theater and its eye-catching auditorium to be as much an attraction for patrons as the films themselves. After passing through a spacious, richly carpeted lobby, visitors to the Varsity entered an auditorium meant to give them the feeling of being in the courtyard of a sixteenth-century French chateau. “On either side,” it was reported, “instead of the ornate and highly decorated walls that are predominant in the motion picture theaters of today, rise the outer walls of a beautiful castle, against a clear blue sky. Its massive stone work, relieved here and there by embrasures over which hang richly colored awnings held in place by ebony spears, its turrets and buttresses, gayly emblasoned windows, the irregular sky line relieved by the brilliant red tile roof extending out into the auditorium and its delicate balconies behind which one can almost imagine a lady of the old regime is seated, forms a perfect picture at once restful to the eye and pleasing to the senses.” To carry out the effect, Pridmore designed the proscenium arch to look like the courtyard’s arched gateway, with the stage itself appearing as a lowered drawbridge.

The Varsity was also an atmospheric theater, and was therefore equipped with all the necessary technology to give patrons the impression of sitting beneath a night sky while inside the darkened auditorium. “Overhead,” observed one newspaper account, “is a cerulean blue sky with twinkling stars, floating fleecy clouds, and a delicate crescent moon which sails slowly overhead during the performance, its rising and setting being so timed that it slowly fades from view behind the chateau just at the close of the performance, a distinctive innovation in theater decoration.” As a further enticement to would-be patrons of the Varsity, lounges furnished with deeply-cushioned chairs and divans were provided just off the main lobby. Such amenities were especially popular among the theater’s female patrons, many of whom used the lounges as a public place to gather, rest, and converse with one another.

The theater’s roster of employees included organist Leo Terry, whose picture-perfect, “Rooseveltian” smile and quick Irish wit were almost as famous as his organ-playing abilities. Terry came to the Varsity after having made his mark at the organ of the Capitol Theater on Chicago’s south side. Fifteen “carefully selected young men” served as ushers at the theater, ten of them full-time. Clad in militaristic uniforms and drilled incessantly in the methods of good customer service, their function in the theater was as much make patrons feel like royalty as to handle crowd control.

The first movies shown at the Varsity were “The Collegians” and “Man of the Forest.” Within a few years of its opening, the theater was absorbed into the expanding chain of Balaban and Katz theaters.

Although the Varsity has since been converted into retail stores, much of its exterior remains intact, including the theater’s facade and high-pitched roofline.

Sources: Evanston News-Index, 22 Dec 1926, 1; 24 Dec 1926, 1; Evanston Review, 23 Dec 1926, 31.