Stories of Stories: Why there’s a marquee on the CVS building

Katie Chang, General Life & Arts Reporter

When crossing Guadalupe on 24th, look closely.

A red and green marquee adorns the building on the northwest corner, flashing bright against the night. Students, emptying their pockets of the money they’ve saved for weeks, buzz with excitement as streetcars rattle by. The air smells of butter-slathered popcorn and brand new velvet seats.

The year is 1936, and Varsity Theater welcomes its first guests.

It will be 54 years before the theater becomes a symbol of The Drag’s transience, transforming into a Tower Records, bookstore, restaurant and finally, a CVS. As the neighborhood continues to make itself anew, the distinctively Art Deco building survives as one of the few physical reminders of the past.

Jim Nicar, founder of The UT History Corner, said The Varsity Theater prevailed against odds during the Great Depression.

“Opening a theater seems kind of chancy … when people can’t really afford to go see movies,” Nicar said. “I wonder what film tickets cost, as they might have been considered a luxury for students watching every penny.”

Despite the Depression, the Varsity thrived in its early years, Nicar said. Soon enough, it began to attract more than moviegoers, becoming a venue for fashion shows, town halls and Greek life socials. 

During the Civil Rights Movement, the theater, which at the time only admitted white patrons, made headlines as the site of one of the nation’s first stand-ins. According to a research article by Nicar, demonstrators would line up to ask if the theater was open to all Americans, drawing attention to segregation and slowing ticketing. The Varsity soon integrated, and within a year, most of The Drag had followed.

However, with the rise of VHS tapes in the 1970s, the theater faced difficulties attracting patrons. In the 1980s, it became a “dollar theater” — $1 admission to see previously released films — and the upper lever closed so that two films could show concurrently.

One of the last films screened at The Varsity was 1989’s “Dead Poets Society.” Nicar said the film’s popularity prompted it to run for almost six months, inspiring UT students to form their own Dead Poets Society. 

“It was very inspiring; people loved Robin Williams,” Nicar said. “People (were) wondering, ‘Hey, Professor, why aren’t you as good as this guy on the bill?“I saw (the movie) at least once, maybe twice …, we kept going to see it and it would be a full house.”

Alumnus Eric Chang, who attended UT during the theater’s last years and graduated in 1993, said he remembers watching “Casablanca” with his friend. 

“I think it was the first time I went to a theater like that …, (with) the red velvet seats and the old 1930s feel on the inside,” Chang said. “I don’t remember how big of a cavity there was, how empty it felt … But since it was a theater, it was so you get the feeling that it was being gutted out.”

Unable to keep up with rising rent and dwindling patrons, the theater closed in 1990. But as years have passed, the Varsity marquee, though not the original, still stands. 

“We were sad to see (the theater) go because it had been an institution on The Drag for so long,” Nicar said. “It was special to a lot of people. That’s why you still see the sign there. That’s why you still see ‘Varsity.’”