Grand Illusions

Though the Grand Illusion is rooted in the consciousness as the locus of Seattle independent and revival film exhibition, it's not hard to remember when the U-District's quaintest moviehouse was a bit of a sinking ship. The Northwest Film Forum took possession of the space in 1997, infusing the 95-seat theater with a jolt of enthusiasm and energy that has carried it through the last six years. This jolt was necessary because by '97, former owner Paul Doyle had had enough.

After 24 years of running the beautiful space, Doyle had seen the audience for boutique cinema wander over to the Landmark Theatres chain--whose competitive booking policies made it increasingly difficult for the Grand Illusion to program new works--and wane. Despite some excellent booking, and a seemingly indefatigable will to stay afloat, Doyle had lost the energy to continue trying to bleed nickels out of Seattle moviegoers. By the end of Doyle's tenure, the Grand Illusion was reduced to showing second-run indie films that had worn out their welcomes at Landmark houses. The theater couldn't even afford to advertise. People thought it had gone out of business, which it hadn't, though it was finally about to. Doyle was fond of joking that he wouldn't give the place away to his worst enemy. Then the NW Film Forum swooped in and turned things around almost immediately. Though the struggle to keep the doors open continued (and continues), the Grand Illusion had been invested with an energy that could maintain an abiding excitement even through lean times.

I'd often wondered what had become of Paul Doyle, whom I spent a few pleasantly depressing weeks working for in 1995. Then, two weeks ago, I was surprised to learn that he was about to open a brand-new independent theater, in Columbia City, of all places. Between now and then, he ran two other repertory houses, the Grand in Tacoma and the Pickford in Bellingham, both of which met similar fates. Now he's back with more good intentions, including a nonprofit organization called Friends of Rainier Cinema, and a newly signed lease on the old Masonic Ark Lodge building on Rainier Avenue South. The plan is to show movies upstairs while hosting a crafts mall and cafe as downstairs sub-tenants. Doyle hopes to open doors on his community theater by late fall.

Clearly inspired by the success of NWFF's institutional model, and by the efforts of outfits like the Columbia City Revitalization Committee to make South Seattle a more artful community ("It's Fremont 20 years ago," Doyle tells me), Doyle's decision to try, try again seems like the kind of action that keeps our town vital. But the project's whimsical nature--Doyle got the idea to rent the space when he drove by the building--and the track record of soul-killing failure for most independent film exhibition in Seattle makes one wonder why the hell he bothers.

"Well," Doyle sighs, "it is my first love."