Hi. I’m Walking Bob and I recently found myself strolling the streets of the city I called home during my developing years, Riverside, California. Not only did I retrace memories of my earlier days, I also realized connections between Riverside and Davis.
The first thing that caught my eye was a former movie theater that had been restored. The Fox had been the site of many world premier movies, including “Gone With the Wind,” because producers saw Riverside as just far enough from Hollywood to have a typical American audience, yet close enough that they could get the stars from Hollywood into town in an evening.
I worked at the Fox and it’s sister theaters, the Golden State Theater and Stage One Theater, in the early 1970’s as this photo of a skinnier me at The Golden State attests. I made $80 a week as assistant manager, but I got free movies and all the popcorn I could eat so who could ask for anything more?
The most famous film critic in Davis, Derrick Bang, has parallel memories of his time as assistant manager at the Varsity Theater. Derrick met his future wife, Gayna, while they both worked there in the late 1970’s and shares some of his memories in a well-documented DVD on The Varsity that you can buy at the Hattie Weber Museum. On the night that The Varsity closed as a movie theater in 1990, Derrick and Gayna had their photo taken behind the counter.
The original Varsity was located in the current home of the Sleep Center beginning in 1921. By 1949 that building was falling apart and the new Varsity was built in its present location, opening in September of 1950 with a movie called “The Eagle and The Hawk.”
Designed by William B. Davis, the man who designed the Sacramento Tower Theater a dozen years earlier, The Varsity was created in the classic “moderne” style. It has the distinction of being the first business in Davis with air conditioning or, as it was described in the ad for opening night,“Cooled by Refrigeration”. The video on The Varsity has some great conversations with people who worked at the old and new Varsity and those who remember when The Varsity was “date central” in Davis.
Davis isn’t close enough to Hollywood to get a lot of premieres, but The Varsity did get one special premiere. It turns out that Clint Eastwood’s dentist was located in Davis, so Clint came here regularly for his dental work. He got to know Sam DeMasi, the manager at The Varsity, and the very first film Clint ever directed, his 1971 film, “Play Misty for Me”, opened at The Varsity with Clint himself sitting in the theater to gauge the audience reaction.
Unfortunately by the 1980’s The Varsity was falling on hard times and soon after the new Holiday Cinema multiplex opened, The Varsity closed, prophetically showing “Flatliners” as its last feature.
Some wanted to tear down The Varsity to add more offices, but Mayor Dave Rosenberg and the City Council were determined that The Varsity would not face the fate of Sacramento’s famed Alhambra Theater, which was razed to make room for a grocery store. The City bought The Varsity and it was converted to a community theater and performing arts center where groups like the late great Lawsuit or the still-rising Jackie Greene, shown here, performed.
In 2005, the major occupant, the Davis Musical Theatre Company, moved on to their own Hoblit Performing Arts Center. The Varsity was then leased to Jon Fenske and Sinisa Novakovic and converted back into a cinema, reopening in 2006. More recently, The Varsity expanded to two screens so Davis residents have more opportunities to see the kinds of films they had to drive to The Crest or The Tower to see before. They are even bringing the opera to town.
I thought that a perfect ending to this story would be to bring together those two people who worked at The Varsity in the ’70’s, posed for a photo when it closed in the ’90’s and are still together and enjoying the movies at The Varsity in 2010. Here they are for their closing credits, Gayna Lamb-Bang and Derrick Bang.
That’s all, folks.