Before the present age of online streaming services, or even the days of VHS and DVD video rental stores, foreign cinema and “art” film fans, were largely out of luck.
Those wanting to see the latest foreign films usually had to depend on the nearest college foreign film festival to satisfy their unusual movie cravings.
During most of the 1980s, however, Baton Rouge was an interesting exception. Just outside the gates of campus, the Varsity Theatre fueled the passions of hundreds of local moviegoers for nearly a decade.
The Varsity first opened its doors in 1937, one of several Northgate businesses that saw much support and patronage from area residents.
Having played many roles over the years, The Varsity has moved from its original function as a feature film theatre, to a soft porn theatre in the 1970s, to its current life as a concert venue.
But one of its most colorful and locally cherished versions was its time as an art and foreign film theatre in the 1980s.
Many Baton Rougeans can remember Bill and Alice Irving, the couple who managed the Varsity during this period. Over the years, Vietnam veteran Bill— an expert projectionist— brought an extensive list of classic movies, contemporary art films and documentaries to the theatre.
Films like Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” Abel Gance’s silent classic “Napoleon,” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious,” were typical offerings. Some patrons came for nostalgia, others for cutting-edge art cinema.
Bill and his wife loved running the theatre. He worked upstairs in the projection booth, with Alice spending most days downstairs running the concession counter and talking with the people who walked in.
The Irvings formed relationships with everyone involved in their business, from the projector supplier to the ticket office cashiers they hired.
“It was like a family there,” Alice said. “We were like family. Everything that Bill could do to keep movies going [at the Varsity,] he would do. It was his love, his life. Movies were his life.”
This period brought in many people who still remember The Varsity as it was then and cherish their memories from the time they spent there. One such patron was David Foil, notable film critic for the Baton Rouge Advocate.
“Bill Irving was a good man, in my book,” Foil recalled. “He liked running a movie theatre. He would get prints of interesting films in advance and screen them for me, so I could have a review in print the day the film opened. I loved those guys for what they did at the Varsity in the 1980s.”
Many other Baton Rouge film buffs also praised the 1980s Varsity.
“My mom and I saw ‘Gone with The Wind’ there in the early ‘80s,” Christy Orona said. “It’s the only time I’ve ever seen it on the big screen.”
Guests went to the Varsity for other purposes as well.
“My friend and I used to celebrate our birthdays there together,” Donna Foust said. “We did see some foreign films, but I recall the John Waters films more vividly. It was usually just a quiet spot to spend an afternoon.”
Patron Jeff Smith said his favorite Varsity memory was a James Bond film festival.
“At that time, there were no DVDs, a comparatively limited selection of VHS tapes, [no] streaming movie channels, so it was a real trip down memory lane for me to see complete, unedited, commercial-free films I hadn’t seen and was a fan of [decades] ago as an adolescent.”
But like the movies it screened, the Varsity of the 1980s eventually came to an end. The advent of VHS tape rentals drove many Varsity moviegoers from the theater to the comfort of their living room couch.
Sadly, Bill and Alice had to close the doors in 1988. With the number of patrons dwindling, there simply was not enough revenue coming in to pay the rent.
But despite the gloom of the Varsity’s demise, that time in the theater’s long life has not been forgotten. The theatre and the folks who ran it are still fondly celebrated in the testaments of the people who dropped in to see a good movie and pass a good time.
“That was very hard for me and for Bill,” Alice said of the theater’s closing. “We shared a lot of tears when we closed it. But it had been a good time. It was a good time in history. When people could sit down and enjoy a movie and just let the cares of the world go by them.”
But, this wasn’t the end for the Varsity. Reopening in 1990 as a live music concert venue, it soon found a new purpose satisfying the entertainment needs of area college students. The theatre has thrived in this new role and remains a popular modern concert hall.