The Last Picture Show

 By any measure, it is a relic, and if walls could talk, moans and groans would dominate. If “kin” were called in to witness last rites, there’d be few. Most single-screen movie houses—with names like “Queen, Plaza, Bijou, Tivoli and Palace”—are long since gone.

And, without community action, Canyon’s Varsity Theater, a downtown landmark for more than 60 years, faces the same fate.

The face of another era

It’s remarkable, really, that this little first-run theater has made it this far in a high-tech world. Without its gutsy operator, Garry Cathey, the Varsity would have gone dark years ago. He’s a stubborn, do-everything kind of guy who runs projectors, sells tickets, dispenses concessions and intersperses “turn those cell phones off” instructions when needed.  There are many other chores  “as may be assigned by the manager,” and he’s the manager.

He’s given it “the old college try” in a town proud of its West Texas A&M University, world-class museum, “can do” attitude and progressive spirit. But, there are no corners left to cut, baling wire is rusted, and duct tape is near the end of the roll. “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer” – a melody that helped a nation “stay hitched” at the height of World War II – could be the Varsity’s theme song.

The thread of hope is thin indeed; prayers, however, remain strong.

A retiree with thirty years’ service at the Texas Department of Transportation, he can’t shake his “theatrical” pursuits. They started back in 1970 at a drive-in theater in nearby Amarillo.

Cathey saw Billy Jack—the first movie he worked—so many times that he knew the dialogue.

Theaters in Amarillo, his hometown, are state-of-the-art, multi-screen houses with all the bells and whistles. One of ‘em is just ten miles from Canyon.

“I should have bought the building when I leased the Varsity in ’94,” Cathey admits. “Rent hasn’t increased the whole time, but the building needs work, and Hollywood is ‘going digital.’ It won’t be long until there won’t be any current movies in film format available.”

At this point, the Varsity still has film on spools, and a digital conversion would cost upwards of $100,000.

With tickets priced at five dollars and three dollars – and concessions about half the price of most theaters – the operation no longer computes. Monthly lease payments require more than half the “take.”

Still, it has “chugged along,” sort of like the “little engine that could.”

The Varsity is “air cooled;” at least that’s what they called it when we kids flocked to theaters for double-features back in the 1940’s. In short, that’s “evaporative cooling.” (Another term is “swamp cooling,” accomplished with fans pushing air through straw panels moistened by recirculated water.)

This works in Canyon, where summer nights are typically pleasant upon daily sign-off of the sun. There are two giant coolers in the building, but one is out of commission.

The day I visited Canyon, Mirror, Mirror was opening. One side of the marquee was unlettered, however. “I ran out of ‘R’s,” Cathey said. He went on to explain the marquee’s  short thrust toward the street. “It used to extend farther, but a truck took it out after the street was widened.”

There’s a strong “Save the Varsity” sentiment. The university, governmental bodies and the chamber of commerce want the Varsity to remain open. It has editorial support of the Canyon News. There’s much appreciation for Cathey’s efforts to provide family-rated movies – the kind he says are favorites in Canyon.

He wants to stay in harness, providing nightly movies and multiple showings on weekends. If the entire community gets behind this project, the theater can become a precious jewel once more.

Down the street from the 320-seat theater is the remodeled Randall County Courthouse, and in the other direction is Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, “nut-shelled” in the literature as “covering 26,000 square miles and 500 million years.”

Much about the community warrants side trips from nearby I-40 and the old “Route 66.”

Plan on it! Listen to the courthouse chimes peeling “It’s Time to Shine.” And if the Varsity sparkles again because a community wants it to, there’ll be no reason to play “Taps.” How about “Happy Days are Here Again?”

Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Inquiries/comments: Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site:

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