The Varsity Theater, Weakley County, TN
The Ruffin Amusement Company started operation of a theater in the City of Martin September 14, 1931. The theater was located in the Ryan Building. The location of this theater grew to be unsatisfactory and was moved to the Parker Building was the location of the Capitol Theater. Theater-goers of Martin expressed their desire for a much better equipped theater and more comfortable surroundings in motion picture entertainment for the people of Martin and surrounding territory. When this desire was manifested, the Ruffin Amusement Company started immediately on plans to give the theater-goers the type of theater they desired, and purchased another location in Martin in October of 1945. Plans were drawn and completed before the end of the year for a deluxe theater, to be known as the Varsity Theater, located at 217-219 Lindell Street, but the plans for this theater had to be held up because of building restrictions. The company made two separate applications; however, each time they were denied permission to build. When the Ruffin Amusement Company was in a position to proceed with the project of its new Deluxe Varsity Theater, the location on Lindell Street was restricted to limit and confine the type of structure and architectural design which was in the original plans. Therefore, another location on Oxford Street was purchased for the sole purpose of being in a position to carry out the original design and equipping the Varsity Theater so that the people of Martin and surrounding territory could be given a theater comparable to none.[i] Ruffin Amusement Company, Covington, Tennessee purchased the property from Mrs. Alleen Smith Dalton on November 17, 1947.[ii]
Architecturally, the crowning structure of Martin, without question, was the new Varsity Theater, the new house of entertainment just off Lindell Street on Oxford. Whatever else was lacking in Martin to make it a “little city of good living,” no one could sincerely gripe the lack of entertainment, if he could be entertained by the products of Hollywood. With two factories whose employees, along with the Junior College people who came strangers, over whose heads time hung heavily until they got acquainted with the friendly people of Martin, the new theater filled a definite need. From a business standpoint, it was significant that the Ruffin Amusement Company demonstrated its faith in our community with such a large investment. It seemed that the business survey behind such an outlay served as a criterion for other business growth and lended encouragement to our growing town. The Weakley County Press congratulated the Ruffin Amusement Company and felt highly complimented that it should choose our fair city to construct such an elaborate house of entertainment as the Varsity Theater, demonstrating its faith in the future of our progressive community.[iii]
The theater in itself might well be termed a dream come true, as plans for its construction were first made way back in 1941-42, but actual construction was restricted until after the war and until the finest materials could be obtained.[iv] Speight and Hibbs, the architects for the New Varsity Theater were among the leading exponents of architecture in the South, specializing in theaters, having built and remodeled more than 150 magnificent structures in the past 10 years. C. W. Speight, the senior member of the firm, whose headquarters were in Clarksville, was the man responsible for the ultra-modern motif used in the streamlined design of the New Varsity, both in the building and decorations from the sidewalk to back stage. Mr. Speight was recognized by his colleagues as one of the most capable of his profession. His knowledge of the requirements of such an undertaking was thorough, his first consideration being for the safety of the public as such a building must have had nothing but the finest materials that money could buy, and be of sufficient strength to withstand any eventuality. The building is constructed absolutely fire-proof. Mr. Speight’s second consideration was the comfort and convenience of the theater patrons – such as the seating arrangement, unobstructed vision, acoustics, elimination of eye strain by indirect lighting, a cooling and heating system providing adequate ventilation at all times, men’s and ladies’ lounge facilities and many other things which one will find in the South’s finest Theater.[v]
When the wooden obstruction shielding the view of the Varsity Theater, came down a few minutes before the grand opening 6 p.m. Thursday night, August 18, 1949, countless hundreds of movie fans were privileged to see for the first time a theater, aptly referred to as “The South’s Finest”. Newest and most elaborate of the Ruffin Amusement Co.,’s circuit, the Varsity honored not only Martin and the entire area, but paid homage to the University of Tennessee Junior College, by its name which is a popular name for University, and by the colors of the university – orange and white – which emblazon the name “Varsity” across the blue porcelain front of the building. Though there were many features of the theater which were worthy of note, it was perhaps best to allow the patrons to see for themselves the many advantages that went into making Martin’s Varsity truly “The South’s Finest.” The theater seated over 1,000 persons comfortably and had an air-conditioning unit that was capable of reducing temperature in the building to near freezing. “It’s A Great Feeling” starring Dennis Morgan, Doris Day, and Jack Carson was the feature attraction on the screen for the opening night.[vi]
The grand opening was a complete success as a capacity crowd of thrilled movie goers paid their compliments at the first showing. Audience reaction to the new building and its all-modern facilities was at an all-time high for Martin as proved by the long waiting line over a block long which waited for almost an hour at the ticket office for the doors to open.[vii] While modern in most aspects, the Varsity Theater did not challenge prevailing notions of race relations in the South. The layout of the Varsity Theater provided a reminder of segregation in the South, as well. The plain entrance, leading up a staircase to the west portion of the balcony, was historically used by the African-American patrons of the Varsity Theater. Halfway up this staircase, the landing opens up to a water fountain and bathrooms that were used for African-Americans only.
The Varsity Theater was sold by Ruffin Amusement to Jaxson Drive In Theater, Inc. on March 15, 1977.[viii] It was closed in March of 1987 due to the owner’s illness. The Varsity reopened in 1992 according to this quotation from the Weakley County Press, “Memories of the smell of popcorn, sweaty palms on a first date and waiting for mom and dad to come pick you up can once again be experienced at the Varsity Theater in Martin. The theater has reopened after five years on March 22, 1992 by David Christian, new manager, bringing a touch of nostalgia back to the community. The amazing air conditioning unit had to be replaced since the March 1987 closing, but the warmth of the building remains. Though the opening rings in a new era for the theater, renovations have been limited. The Varsity still has the original screen, swag curtains, and house lights. Besides the air conditioning unit, some plumbing and painting, the main work was giving everything a bath. For the anniversary of the grand opening, Christian ran “It’s A Great Feeling” on August 18, 1992, a full 43 years after it first played at the Varsity. Ticket prices on opening night 1949 were: Adults, 40 cents; Children, 14 cents. The late Mr. Paul Lovell, a native of Martin, was the first house manager for the Varsity. There was, and still is, an apartment in the theater that the manager lived in.[ix] Daystar Ministries purchased the Varsity Theater building from Jaxon Drive-In Theater, Inc., a Tennessee Corporation on May 6, 1996.[x] The Varsity Theater was converted into the new home of Daystar Church. In 2004, the church moved to the vacant Martin Junior High School building on McCombs Street. And once again the historic theater stood empty.
For nearly 40 years, first dates, little league baseball teams and young and old fans of the cinema crammed its hallowed popcorn-smelling halls, eager to watch the most popular stars of the time grace the silver screen. It was a haven, a refuge and the bright and shining jewel of the town, but unfortunately, with the passing of time and age, all jewels lose their luster and in the late 1980s the Varsity, as a theater performed its final act and was closed. The building stood for years like an empty shell, still wafting out old memories of times past, and yet becoming somewhat of an eyesore. In the mid-1990s, however, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Varsity was reborn, but this time, instead of having show tunes ring from its projectors, it would have hymns resound from its sanctuary. The Varsity was transformed from a house of movies to a House of God and would remain so until its second closing six years later. Having died its second death, it appeared there wasn’t much chance of another rebirth. The building that had brought so much joy and happiness in the aftermath of war now needed a shot in the arm of hope itself.[xi] On October 21, 2004, Brian Wray Smith and wife, Candra J. Smith purchased the Varsity Theater[xii] renovating the interior into a physical therapy clinic and fitness center giving the historic theater a facelift and new life. The original stage, swag curtains, Art Deco house lights, crown molding, pilasters, terrazzo floors and elliptical lobby remain. The front lobby desk was rebuilt to follow where the old concession stand was originally. The floor was leveled in the main hall due to the five-foot slope, but otherwise the original look of the theater has been preserved. The Art Deco lights on the east and west walls and ceiling have been restored and once again shine red in the winter and blue in the summer to give the impressions of warmth and cool, respectively. The balcony remains and is now the cardio section of the fitness center. The upstairs shower rooms are where the old projection room was located. The original efficiency apartment and original cry room are now office space. Painting, plumbing and electrical renovations were also made to the building. The exterior brick, upper blue field and the name Varsity remain. Renovations to restore the marquee and neon lights are being planned for the near future. “Not many fitness and therapy clinics can claim to have such a storied past. By walking down its freshly painted halls and into its large and booming auditorium, weight equipment and treadmills now stand where folding seats and ushers once frequented, but the memories are still there – living within the walls. The Varsity has reawakened. With each new person passing through its doors, seeking training or rehabilitation, it has geared up for one more show.”[xiii]
The Varsity Theater is Martin’s most extraordinary example of Art Deco architecture, located within the Martin Historic District and one block in proximity to National Register listed buildings: The Martin Library, The Martin Post Office, and the University Street Historic District 225-248 University Street. The Varsity provides a major local landmark, important both as an architectural statement as well as a gathering place for the community for many decades. The theater retains all of its Art Deco elements, both on the exterior architecture, as well as in its interior design.
[i] Weakley County Press, Varsity Theater Section, August 19, 1949
[ii] Warranty Deed Filed for Rec. November 17, 1947 Book 109 Page 22
[iii] Weakley County Press, Friday, August 12, 1949
[iv] Weakley County Press, Friday, August 12, 1949
[v] Weakley County Press, Varsity Theater Section, August 19, 1949
[vi] Martin Mail and The County Times, Friday, August 19, 1949
[vii] Weakley County Press, Friday, August 12, 1949
[viii] Warranty Deed Filed for Rec. March 15, 1977 in Book 187 Page 303
[ix] Weakley County Press, March 22, 1992
[x] Warranty Deed Filed for Rec. May 8, 1996 in Book D348 Pages 426-428
[xi] Weakley County Press, February 1, 2005
[xii] Warranty Deed Filed for Rec. October 21, 2004 in Book D397 Page 134
[xiii] Weakley County Press, February 1, 2005