The Grand Illusion Cinema, founded in the late 1960s, is the oldest independent movie theater in Seattle. The theater, which screens foreign films, documentaries, and classic movies, is now celebrating 11 years as a nonprofit organization.
The Grand Illusion is on the corner of Northeast 50th Street and The Ave, and it has become a favorite place in the U-District. The waiting area is clad with vintage movie posters, the volunteers enjoy discussing films with moviegoers, and the 70-seat theater provides an intimate setting for screening unique, interesting, and provocative films.
“I like how cozy the theater feels with fewer seats,” said UW freshman Kaylee Boeck. “[The] quirky design [makes it] much more unique.”
After graduating from the UW in 1968, Randy Findley converted a former dentist’s office into the theater, where he screened independent films he thought would interest UW students. Findley later founded the Seven Gables Theatre Chain, which became part of the Landmark Cinema Corporation. Unlike many of the smaller theaters in the area, the Grand Illusion has stayed open since it was founded more than 40 years ago.
In the 1990s, owner Paul Doyle was going to close the theater, but a group of volunteers decided to take it over. In 2004, the theater was purchased from the Northwest Film Forum, and it became a nonprofit.
“At that point, everyone involved in the operations of the cinema [was] a volunteer,” said Brian Alter, current manager and programmer of the theater. “And that’s the way it’s been since 2004.”
Alter began working at the Grand Illusion in 2003, selling snacks at the concession stand and helping with graphic design work for the theater.
“I’ve been way into movies for a long time,” he said. “I’d worked at film festivals, and I’d always wanted to be involved [with the Grand Illusion]. I wanted to put some time into it and contribute everything I could to it.”
Krishanu Ray, a UW alumnus and projectionist at the theater, first went to the Grand Illusion at the age of 13. He became a volunteer while he was a student at the UW in 2009, and said he has many fond memories of working at the theater.
“I’ve spent so many evenings in this projection booth,” Ray said. “It’s really one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve worked at a few movie theaters around town, but this is the only one I love.”
Since its beginning, the Grand Illusion has aimed to show abnormal films. The theater screens both volunteer suggestions and new releases from independent distributors whose movies are regularly liked by the staff. Sometimes these films are not shown anywhere else in Seattle, and Alter said he enjoys bringing these unique features to the Grand Illusion.
Last month the theater screened a documentary called “My Last Year with the Nuns,” in which narrator Matt Smith tells the story of growing up on Capitol Hill, attending Catholic school, and dealing with racial differences in the 1960s. The film was shown at the International Seattle Film Festival last year, and it allowed audiences to understand part of Seattle’s history from a more personal perspective.
In addition to new releases, the theater often screens classic movies on 35 mm film. Alter said these movies draw an audience that appreciates the use of film in today’s digital world.
Because the theater is entirely volunteer-run, the Grand Illusion can afford to screen films that may not make much money, Alter said.
“I feel like [other theaters] can’t take the same chances,” he said.
Alter especially enjoys organizing special events that allow audiences to delve deeper into the topics of a film. A few weeks ago, the Grand Illusion screened “It’s Gonna Blow: San Diego’s Music Underground,” a documentary about the music scene in San Diego from 1986-1996. Physics, a band featured in the film, played at the theater after the screening.
“Any time there’s some extra thing, an aspect that’s not just showing a movie, it’s always fun,” Alter said.
Upcoming screenings at the Grand Illusion include “Beloved Sisters,” a period drama set during the German Enlightenment. The film, which was submitted for consideration for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, will be shown March 13-19. “Revenge of the Mekons,” a documentary about the 1970s British punk rock band, will be shown March 12 and 15. A full schedule is available on the theater’s website.
The volunteers at the Grand Illusion show an incredible amount of appreciation for the theater and the films it screens.
“It’s very beautiful, it’s very small, it’s a little hidden,” Ray said. “It’s completely volunteer-run, so you know everyone is here because they want to be and because they love the cinema.”
And like Randy Findley was when he founded the theater in the 1960s, the volunteers aren’t afraid to take risks in order to share thought-provoking films with the community.
“A film can be something that we take a chance on, that maybe only 100 people will come to see that week,” Alter said. “But at least we showed it, and we did our part. That’s the mission of the theater.”
Reach contributing writer Katie Anastas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @katieanastas