‘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.

Local News

9-year-old boy shot by 8-year-old brother in Federal Way - Photo by South Sound News....
Colleen West, KIRO 7 News

Federal Way gun owner charged after 8-year-old shoots 9-year-old brother in head

Charges were filed against a Federal Way man accused of leaving a gun on his bed, where it was found by his two younger brothers, and one boy shot the other boy in the head.
16 hours ago
Photo from Everett PD...
MyNorthwest Staff

Man found dead in rolled over car after shooting in Everett

Everett Police are investigating after a man was shot and killed at a rollover collision Friday evening.
16 hours ago
KIRO Newsradio Newsdesk

Kent starts fundraising campaign for election recount

The hotly contested race for Washington's 3rd Congressional District has been called for Democrat Marie Glusenkamp Perez, but Republican Challenger Joe Kent hasn't given up -- and now he's pushing for a recount.
16 hours ago
Associated Press

Renton man gets 10 years in prison in drug trafficking case

A federal judge has sentenced a Renton, Washington man to 10 years in prison for his role in a violent drug distribution ring, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle.
16 hours ago
Local writer pushes for greater LGBTQ inclusion in comic books (Photo from KIRO 7)...
Gwen Baumgardner, KIRO 7 News

‘Anybody can be a hero’: Local writer’s comic books promote inclusivity, empower LGBTQ readers

For some, comic books are collectors’ items. For others, they are an escape through reading.
16 hours ago
KIRO 7 News Staff

11-year-old injured in suspected road rage shooting on I-5 near Tacoma Mall

The shooting, which took place on northbound I-5 south of 38th Street near the Tacoma Mall, was reported at about 2:20 p.m.
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.
‘Cinema is back,’ as is Seattle’s iconic Grand Illusion theater