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A rebirth for Varsity Theatre on Bailey Avenue

The lobby of the old Varsity Theatre sparkled like a 1920s flapper. A pair of Gatsby chandeliers. A coat of pink marble. A wealth of art deco mirrors.

The Bailey Avenue theater, built in 1923 as a movie house, will celebrate a grand reopening as a music venue and event space with a reception from 3 to 6 p.m. Friday. The Varsity once was home for bargain matinees, feature movies and film shorts starring Flash Gordon. Admission was a cool 12 cents in the 1950s.

Owning this slice of history was a dream come true for Ibrahim Cisse, a computer technologist who purchased the run-down structure six years ago for $135,000.

Cisse, president and founder of the Bailey Avenue Business Association, hopes his renovated theater will set the tone for a community revival.

“I set my goals. This is my vision,” said Cisse, pointing to a series of drawings depicting the renovations that are posted in his office at ABC Technology.

“I know I’m going to get there,” he said. “It’s going to take time. They don’t build like this anymore.”

It took Cisse and an army of volunteers five years to gut much of the interior of the run-down theater. Residents, block club leaders, University at Buffalo students and University District organizers helped to tear out 630 tattered seats.

“Everything out,” Cisse, an Ivory Coast native, said. “All the walls, the ceiling. We put new studs every two feet. New drywall, new plumbing and new concrete everywhere. Concrete was huge.”

Along the way there were a few surprises – an old movie ticket dispenser, vintage popcorn machine, two 35mm projectors, old film. But what really touched Cisse was a visit from a man in his 80s, a former Varsity employee.

“When I first bought it, he came to see me, and he brought his granddaughter,” Cisse said. “He wanted to take a picture with the popcorn machine. That was his first duty when he started work each day, to turn on the popcorn machine.”

The renovation debris filled 10 large dumpsters and represented the remains of at least five movie houses that occupied 3165 Bailey over the years. Included in the mix was a stint as an X-rated film house in the 1970s.

Mickey Vertino, a retired corrections officer, volunteered often. The president of the University Heights collaborative is a former landlord who owned 28 properties near UB’s South Campus.

“It’s great to see the results,” Vertino said. “It looked insurmountable, and then, here we are.”

When Cisse purchased the building, it was called the Uptown Theatre and had been out of business for several years.

Annie Cheatham, president of the University District Block Club Coalition, lived on Davidson Avenue for 33 years. She recalled the theater as far from appealing.

“There was a stigma surrounding the Uptown for years,” she said. “You just drove past it. You never stopped.”

Since August 2015, Cisse has spent $300,000 on renovations, nearly $60,000 on concrete. Cisse himself installed 42 security cameras throughout the theater.

“It’s not like a Shea’s Buffalo,” said Darren Cotton, director of community development and planning for the University District Community Development Association. “The Varsity has a very streamlined, restrained design.”

Cisse had no experience renovating commercial property.

“The only property I bought before was my own house,” he said. “But when I bought the theater, people called wanting to put shows in here. I said no. I wasn’t ready. Yes, I needed the money, but I wanted to do it right. So it’s been closed for over five years.”

Cisse’s excitement accelerated his speech and his gait. A smile covered his face. The opening on Friday can’t come soon enough. Soon it will be time to remove the paper on the lobby doors that face Bailey Avenue. He wants to have a house band, green room, dressing room. He plans valet parking. On Friday, he said, the All-Star Band will be playing.

“Actually, we have some bookings already,” Cisse said. “Spoken Word, gospel singers, Nickel City Opera. Before I even did the renovation, the opera director came to see about renting the house.”

The theater had been a symbol of the depressed district, where empty storefronts overtook the once-thriving avenue. Block clubs dissolved, and with them the quality of life was compromised.

In recent years, conditions have started to slowly improve with initiatives like Bailey Fights Blight, University Heights Tool Library, Healthy Corner Store and Grassroots Gardens Buffalo.

“He won’t be able to do it alone,” Cheatham, a 70-year-old mother of four, said of Cisse. “It will take everyone in the district to chip in. Hopefully, the Varsity will draw some positive patrons. People didn’t want to come around here because they were afraid.”

The Varsity isn’t the only new business on Bailey, said University District Councilman Rasheed N.C. Wyatt. He counted six new businesses on Bailey in the last nine months, including Fire Spot restaurant, 3300 Bailey; Streetgames shoe and clothing store, 2081 Bailey; and KoKos Fashions, 3389 Bailey.

Cisse also has noticed new storefronts opening on the avenue.

“This is the first time in my five years here that we have more businesses opening than closing,” he said.