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‘Cinema is back,’ as is Seattle’s iconic Grand Illusion theater

Aug 21, 2021, 7:57 AM | Updated: Aug 23, 2021, 10:54 am
Grand Illusion Cinema...
Grand Illusion Cinema's auditorium. (Photo courtesy of Brian Alter)
(Photo courtesy of Brian Alter)

The Grand Illusion Cinema has finally released a breath held for 17 months. The theater, a mainstay of Seattle independent film culture, reopened Aug. 18 with a triumphant rerelease of Quoc Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers.

“Cinema is back,” Tran declared before the screening. “Cinema lives forever.”

“We’re so happy to be part of Grand Illusion’s return to opening,” Tran told MyNorthwest. “It’s been a tough year and yet we know people still crave that theater experience. Right now there’s a backlog of Hollywood films being released in the big box theaters, which makes it even more of a challenge for smaller independent movies to make a foothold. Theaters like Grand Illusion are keeping the spirit of independent film alive.”

The theater, nestled into the corner of Northeast 50th Street and University Way, dates back to 1970 when it was founded as The Movie House by Randy Finley, who also founded The Seven Gables. The former Seven Gables’ location in the University District closed in 2017, and would burn down in 2020.

The Movie House was eventually sold to Paul Doyle, who renamed it The Grand Illusion Cinema. By the mid-90s, the theater would again change hands when it was purchased by the nonprofit WigglyWorld, which would later become the production arm of Northwest Film Forum. In 2004, The Grand Illusion became its own nonprofit group as it is today.

“The Paper Tigers,” an endearing and well-choreographed Kung Fu comedy, was an apt selection with which to celebrate the reopening of this cornerstone of Seattle independent film. Tran’s passion project was bootstrapped via Kickstarter in large part by local, private investors. Much of the film was shot on location in Seattle, spotlighting locations such as the Dynasty Room restaurant, China Harbor restaurant, Tai Tung restaurant, Nisei Veterans Committee Memorial Hall, Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Japanese Cultural & Community Center of WA, and University Heights Center. Mak Fai Washington Kung Fu Club provided Kung Fu supplies.

Tran describes the film as a “love letter to Chinatown and Asian American communities across America.” Tran attended the screening himself, and after the film mentioned that it pays tribute to Bruce Lee’s history and impact on Seattle’s culture. The film riffs on Hong Kong’s beimo (unofficial fight) culture, which, in part, brought Lee and Chinese martial art movies into America’s popular culture awareness.

The Grand Illusion occupies a unique space in the fabric of Seattle film culture. It has a reputation for showcasing independent films that might otherwise not make it to Seattle’s big screens. Manager Brian Alter was charmed by it when he began volunteering in 2003.

“I moved to Seattle and came here to see Terrence Malick’s Badlands,” Alter told MyNorthwest. “I was like, this is a cool little theater. It’s quirky and charming. Once I found out that it was all volunteers, I figured I’d spend some time and start volunteering myself. And that was it. Now I’m a lifer.”

Alter was not phased when the COVID-19 pandemic closed the theater in March 2020. The overhead of maintaining the theater is low, and they were able to adapt most of their screenings to an online platform. This was a point of pride for the theater, as it allowed them to reach parts of the community that might not otherwise be able to attend physical screenings.

“At first it was kind of cool because some people can’t come to the movies,” Alter said. “We’re in this old building that isn’t wheelchair accessible or accessible for anyone who might have mobility issues. There are a lot of [accessibility] issues in here, which that made me think if you want to see a movie, we could stream it, and people who can’t make it here or who live elsewhere can still do it.”

Alter is confident the theater has reopened safely. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test within the last 48 hours are required for entry. The theater has installed air filters capable of removing airborne COVID, seating capacity has been reduced, and advanced tickets are now sold (credit cards were not accepted until this year).

“Hopefully that makes enough people feel safe to come back,” Alter said. “Until you do, you can always donate to the theater and become a member. We’re just easing back into reopening.”

The theater sells an annual $40 membership, which grants reduced admission for individual screenings.

The Grand Illusion Cinema is currently screening Neill Blomkamp’s (District 9, Elysium) thriller Demonic through Aug. 26.

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‘Cinema is back,’ as is Seattle’s iconic Grand Illusion theater