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Lights, camera, action: The Varsity Theatre showcases unique events

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Strolling down East Franklin Street, it might feel like you’re stepping back in time. Nestled between the local restaurants and UNC merchandise shops gleams the retro marquee of the Varsity Theatre.

Originally named the Carolina Theatre, the venue opened in 1927 as a single-theater, seating about 500 movie-watchers. Its name later changed to the Village Theatre in the 1940s and the Varsity Theatre in 1952.

The venue’s current owner, Paul Shareshian, said it would show popular films in its early days and, prior to him purchasing it in 2009, artistic independent films. It was when he took over that the space started to be more than your typical movie theater. Rather than just a film space, Shareshian added a stage for live performances. 

While one theater continues to be a traditional viewing room, the other — with the added stage — is equipped with a lighting and sound system, along with a silver screen fit for live performances. Every year, it hosts student theater productions, a cappella groups and other community events.

“The events that you could come there for, one has nothing to do with the other,” Shareshian said. “Even on the same day, we could run events that are back-to-back that are really polar opposites in some ways.”

In October, for example, audiences could see a blockbuster film, a stand-up comedy show and a performance of the cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” all in the same day, he said

“Rocky Horror” has been a way to celebrate Halloween at the Varsity since 1978. Currently, UNC student-led theatre group, Pauper Players, directs and produces the production. It features a shadow cast performance with queer themes and chaotic fun, Madi Ugan, a UNC senior who has directed the show for the past three years, said

Ugan said students lined up on campus to purchase tickets as early as 10:30 a.m. last year. It was the longest line they had seen for the event, selling almost 500 tickets across four performances at the historic venue.

“To know that we’re performing for an audience in a venue in the same place that other UNC students and alumni have performed in the past,” Ugan said. “I just think that’s so cool, honestly.”

To Shareshian, the crowds for “Rocky Horror” are just one example of his focus on community for the Varsity. While a unique venue, he said what makes the space special are the people that come in for a shared reason — the theater simply provides them a space. For example, the Varsity Theatre also hosts UNC-Duke watch parties, with many seats being filled by the time the game starts, Shareshian said

In 2015, the Varsity had to turn to the community for support through “Go Digital or Go Dark,” a fundraiser to help the venue maintain its first purpose — screening movies. Prior to the fundraiser, Shareshian had been showing blockbuster hits six to eight weeks after their initial release at the Varsity. It was a chance to see a movie that some might have missed the original hype for, but still on the big screen and at a discounted price.

However, film distributers began using different technology with new formats for movies. The Varsity did not have the updated technology and needed to purchase a $50,000 digital projector — thus, the fundraiser was formed. The Varsity's fundraiser was successful, surpassing its original goal. The switch to digital prompted the Varsity to become a first-run theater, playing blockbusters as soon as they came out, while still keeping prices low for the area.

In walking distance from campus, the Varsity is like a movie theater right in a student’s backyard. Sara Schaecher graduated from UNC in May and is a Chapel Hill native who’s been going to the Varsity nearly all her life. She said that the theater’s proximity to campus fits the spontaneity of college. Schaecher said you might run into friends on campus and want to see something together right away, but seeing a movie at another theater involves getting a group of people together, coordinating rides and tends to be a bigger deal. 

"I'm thinking I'm going to be spending a ton of money and be sitting so far apart from the person next to me because these armrests are going to be so ginormous and full of pillows, or everything,” she said.

The Varsity, though, she describes as a communal experience. The seats are usually filled with fellow students, and though she might not know each personally, they’re there with the same goal in mind: to watch a film together. 

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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