The last picture show in Larry McMurtry's novel—made far more famous thanks to Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 film—was a metaphor for the passing away of youth, and of a certain kind of small-town life.
Last Thursday in Chapel Hill, while billions around the world hovered over their Facebook updates and Twitter feeds that spat out endless variations of #RIPMJ, like a stock market ticker for the zeitgeist, an 82-year-old theater quietly played its last movies for the foreseeable future.
Earlier that day, the theater's owners had confirmed what had been long rumored (and reported by this paper), that showing movies at the Varsity was no longer a sustainable proposition. A town that used to have several movie theaters located downtown would now have none.
Although I spent most of my childhood in Asheville, I have my own old memories of the place. For example, I'm reasonably certain that I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Varsity while visiting Chapel Hill as an 11-year-old. So, last Thursday, I rode my motorcycle in from Durham to purchase a ticket for the last showing of the last movie, one not so fortuitously called The Hangover.
It would be nice to report that the last night at the Varsity was an emotional one: that a small fraction of the garments that was shredded over a soiled pop icon and a faded 1970s pinup was reserved for the passing from the scene of a vital part of our local culture. But there was nothing so dramatic about the end of this stage of the Varsity's life: just a lot of milling about and taking pictures in front of the marquee. Upstairs, old movie posters were given away. The theater's employees—past and present, on- and off-duty—gathered for pizzas supplied by the owners earlier in the evening.
I spoke to a couple of past and present employees of the theater and was struck by their loyalty to a job and a dying culture that has been devalued thanks to the fast-food atmosphere nurtured by suburban multiplexes. One made the interesting observation that while today's college kids are still apt to attend movies, most are drawn to the amenities themselves—the stadium seating and surround sound—rather than to the quality of the films.
I approached a couple exiting the theater after the early show. Charles Coble, a former administrator in the state university system has been seeing movies at the Varsity since 1961—"more than half the time the theater existed," he said with a rueful laugh. His companion, Debbie Andrews, was by comparison a newbie: She'd been coming since she was a UNC undergraduate in 1971.
"We were counting the number of surviving businesses [during the time we've lived here]," Andrews said. "There's the Carolina Coffee Shop, and Sutton's and the Varsity. And that's it."
The town's leaders, Coble suggested, lack vision. "Do they want a downtown of T-shirt shops and restaurants, or do they want a real city? The landlords are all about money, and they don't care if this is a real place. It's killing the town."
Coble told me his strongest memory of the Varsity was not associated with a movie but with Fidel Castro. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, he told me, he helped organize an anti-Castro (and pro-Kennedy) rally outside the Varsity in response to a pro-Cuba rally in Ann Arbor. Castro was burned in effigy, and when the demonstration threatened to spiral out of control, Coble asked the school's reigning basketball star, Larry Brown (now the Hall of Fame coach of the Charlotte Bobcats), to speak to the crowd and disperse the energy, which he did.
How did he manage to help organize such a rally without Twitter, Facebook or a victory over Duke? "Oh, I just spent a day making phone calls around campus," Coble said.
The Hangover turned out to be a mildly misogynistic celebration of man-boys discovering their testicles. It was also hilarious. There were about 40 of us in there, and most walked out slowly afterward, reluctant to leave. Outside the theater, the marquee had already been wiped clean.