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Chapel Hill's Varsity Theatre prepares for its new lease on life

New owners set to reopen landmark Nov. 27 as second-run theater

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Click for larger image • A preview of the Varsity's lobby renovations - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

The classic films, the 35mm projectors and the same operators; the rug, the intricately painted raised wood panels; even the popcorn is going retro at the revived Varsity Theatre on Franklin Street.

"It's going to be pretty old-school olive oil popcorn—salt, butter, no powders or any of that junk," said Paul Shareshian, the new proprietor of Chapel Hill's landmark downtown movie house.

Promising an "old-style elegance," Paul and his wife, Susan, are bringing life back to the 82-year-old theater that many thought played its last picture show in July, when then-owner Bruce Stone closed the doors. Stone had long fought the difficulty of competing with Southpoint Cinemas, the irregular availability of strong specialty films to show and other issues—including scarce parking on Franklin Street—before calling it quits. (He continues to operate the Chelsea Theater at the Timberlyne Shopping Center.)

The Shareshians, who just got the keys on the first of this month and plan to open Thanksgiving weekend with The Wizard of Oz, understand Stone's frustrations but believe they can revitalize and reshape the Varsity into a viable business.

The plan is to show second-run and classic films and host children's birthday parties, private lectures and screenings whenever possible. They'll play 18 films a week (two shows a night Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. and four showings a day on weekends) for $3 a ticket.

They know they can't rival the big box theaters for the latest Hollywood movies, so why try?

"Digital projection is more like what a Southpoint does," Shareshian said, adding that he'll also have DVD and other media capabilities soon. "It's a different type of movie. We don't have the [number of] seats for that."

Instead they hope to offer patrons not only a film but a peerless experience.

"When you walk in it's going to be a change of atmosphere," Shareshian said, "We want to make it a destination part of downtown instead of just another business."

They've modeled the downstairs after a vintage maroon-and-gold serving tray with an ornate leaf design. Wood panels painted by four UNC art students will match a soon-to-be-delivered rug. Vintage Franklin Street prints will line the walls, and the Sharesians are in talks with Michael Brown, Chapel Hill's famous muralist, whom they hope will paint a silhouette of downtown for the upstairs walls.

They also think the price is right. Theaters like Timberlyne and Southpoint don't make much money from blockbuster ticket sales, which go largely to distributors. Their profits come from popcorn and drinks. Knowing this, the Varsity's new owners think they can attract the family-driven market with cheaper tickets and concessions.

"We can do all of that here for a lot less," Shareshian said, adding that food prices are yet to be set. "The whole thing for a family of four will be $20 or $25 instead of $65 or $70."

Events inside the Varsity won't be confined to what's on the marquee. Shareshian wants the two-screen theater to become a community space as well, promising that brides can rent space to show their wedding videos or that a group of seniors could come to watch classic films, among many other ideas.

"I see a whole lot of opportunity all over the place," he said.

Some will see a theater that just closed and wonder how it'll work, but just listening to Shareshian's enthusiasm is enough to momentarily wipe away any doubt. He speaks hurriedly, almost stumbling over his words as he details plans for the place, his arms sweeping, gesticulating his grand yet simple and subtle vision.

He was already looking for a franchise to own when the Varsity became vacant, and it seemed like the perfect fit. He makes the five-mile run from his Lake Hogan Farms home to downtown every morning, and he plans to ride his bike to work when things get up and running. He brings a passion for the place that only a local could.

He also has the optimism needed to make it work, calling downtown parking, which other business owners constantly lament, "more of an excuse than an issue."

The hope is that that passion will translate to moviegoers who want an authentic vintage experience. It all starts Nov. 27 with the classic Judy Garland tale, which Shareshian remembers being played on TV every turkey-day weekend when he was a child.

The holiday schedule includes a full slate of classic Christmas films, interspersed with second-run films like The Informant! and The Invention of Lying.

Having a movie theater downtown again marks not only a symbolic return but also a real chance for neighboring restaurants and business to capitalize on increased foot traffic.

"I certainly think it'll be a very positive step for downtown Chapel Hill," said Jim Norton, executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership.

Shareshian hopes to help his neighbors, too, by bringing back one half of the dinner-and-a-movie concept.

For him, though, it comes down to more than just showing films. It's about providing a quaint experience more reflective of 1927, when the theater opened and when each customer was given individual attention at the box office and concession stand. To him, that's what going retro is all about.

"At the end of the day, it's a movie. I get that," he said. "But my thing is really service to people."

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