Varsity looks to expand live music performances

By Gus Bode

After a long history as a movie theater, vacant building, drama theater and visual art gallery, The Varsity Center for the Arts has become another hub for live music in Carbondale.

“That’s what we’d hoped would happen, and we’re surprised it happened so quickly,” said David Coracy, treasurer for the Varsity.

The theater was originally built in the 1940s, said Roxanne Conley, director of development. She said the original building had one large screen with a balcony. In the ‘70s the one screen became three, with the balcony becoming a separate room and the large screen divided. Owner Tony Kerasotes closed the theater in 2002 and it sat empty for five years before being donated to the city of Carbondale, which in turn gave it to the Stage Company.


Conley said the Stage Company partnered with Carbondale Community Arts to create a permanent space for both organizations. The Stage Company uses the theater for performances and CCA uses it to display visual art.

Coracy said the nonprofit Varsity Center for the Arts Inc. was created in 2008 to manage the space. He said the smaller of the two ground-floor theaters is open, but the larger is awaiting renovation. He said the plan is to restore the building to its original 1940s state.

“It was a pretty magnificent place, and that’s what we’re shooting for,” he said.

Conley said they need to raise $2.5 million for the renovation plus another $2 million to create a permanent operations budget. She said they’re about a third of the way to meeting that goal.

“We’re going to keep going and going until we’re done,” she said.

While the theater started its second wind as a space for the Stage Company to perform, Coracy said the organization realized it could be used for more. He said it just so happened the theater, while designed to exhibit films, also had great acoustics for live music.

The Varsity is one of the venues for the Carbondale Rocks Festival from Friday through Sunday, and Coracy said he hopes it becomes a new home for live music in Carbondale.


Chad Shaffer, owner of the Practice Pad, said the Varsity offers an opportunity for Carbondale to bring larger, nationally touring acts to town. He said once the renovations are completed and the 1,200-seat main theater is open, it would be comparable to The Pageant in St. Louis.

Promoter Curtis Conley said there’s been great feedback from artists about the space. Jason Isbell, who performed there Sept. 1, said it will be his new home in Carbondale.

Conley said there have been only a handful of live music shows so far, but there are more to come and he hopes for about two shows a month. He said once the larger theater is open, they will be able to book higher-priced acts or charge less for the kind they’ve booked so far.

Coracy said the theater is already booking acts for the spring, and the theater is not seeking any particular mix of acts.

Conley said what sets the Varsity apart from other venues in Carbondale, particularly the bars, is that it admits all ages and shows start earlier, which means a lot of younger music fans can get a live experience they didn’t have access to before.

“It’s focused more on the music rather than the party,” he said. “It’s just a little different from most in Carbondale.”

Shaffer said the Varsity fits a niche in Carbondale and could offer an alternative to other venues farther away.

“I like seeing good shows and good music, but I don’t like driving all the way to St. Louis,” he said.

He said his experiences in the theater, with his band White Gold Centerfold and the Practice Pad’s Student Recital, have been positive.

“It’s a great place to play,” he said. “It sounds amazing in there.”

Eli Mileur can be reached at [email protected]

or 536-3311 ext. 266.