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The Town has ideas for Varsity Theatre, but do they have the owners' support?

varsity theatre

The Varsity Theatre is located on East Franklin Street. The historic movie theater has been a landmark of Chapel Hill for decades and now there is possibility that it will operate as a public performing arts space.

If the Town of Chapel Hill gets its way, you may soon see changes at the Varsity Theatre.

The Chapel Hill Town Councilvoted unanimously on Oct. 24 to develop a task force to further investigate the possibility of using the Varsity Theatre as a performing arts center.

Michael Parker, a member of the council, said the group will be investigating questions regarding the interest and potential impact on the community.

“Does the community need and want some kind of community performing arts space, and would having such a space downtown help downtown businesses?" he said. "Would it bring more people there to patronize all of the existing establishments? If the answer to those two questions is yes, then we will spend time looking at the best time to do it.”

If the transformation happens, the Varsity Theatre would remain a theater style venue but also have the option of serving as a performing arts space. 

Parker said the next steps would be to determine how a new performing arts space could be funded, owned and managed to make the space financially self-sustaining.  

“No decisions have been taken, but we feel that it would be at least possible that it could fit the needs of both our broader community in having a community performing arts space, as well as helping many of our downtown businesses,” Parker said.  

The Varsity Theatre has been a feature of Franklin Street for over 50 years. The Sorrell building, which houses the theater, was built in 1927. The theater was originally called the Carolina Theater, then the Village Theater before finally becoming the Varsity.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said the changes to the Varsity Theatre would aim to foster more artistic expression in Chapel Hill.

Hemminger said the PlayMakers Repertory Company expressed interest in using the splace, and members that previously partook in dramatic productions in Chapel Hill will be included in the task force.

In a newsletter, the Town said the owners of the theater have indicated the space may be up for sale in the near future.

Despite the buzz surrounding the project, the reality is more complicated.

The Varsity Theatre is privately owned, and the owners have contradicted the Town.

Paul and Susan Shareshian, owners of the Varsity Theatre, made a post on Facebook to dispel some of the rumors that have been circulating in the community. In the post, they wrote that neither the Varsity Theatre nor the Sorrell Building are for sale.

They said one of the fundamental reasons they reopened the Varsity was not only to show movies but to meet the need of the Chapel Hill community for an affordable venue that could be used for a variety of events.

The Shareshians said they are in agreement with the Town’s initiative to have a public performing arts space but think the theater already serves this purpose. Last week, the theater hosted UNC Pauper Players' production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the space has been used previously for documentary screenings, comedy shows and other interactive events. 

The owners of the theater urge the task force, which they have been invited to join, to consider other nearby establishments when considering a refresh of Franklin Street.

“As proud business owners and residents of Chapel Hill, it is in our best interest for the task force to be successful identifying, understanding and executing on a plan to revitalize the entire 100 block of East Franklin Street with the historical Varsity Theatre as its anchor to serve the community for another 100 years," the Shareshians said in the post.

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