By Charles Mudede
The most loved movie theater in town reopens this week. The place was dead and dark for more than a year. During that time, we were left to imagine the ghosts that lazily haunted its huge and empty space. Ghosts in the balcony, ghosts passing the pillars, ghosts floating high above the sloping sea of seats. Before the place was closed on June 27, 2013, the theater had operated for more than 20 years, and it stood as a major cultural institution. One expected the theater would be around for as long as the pyramids. Then the unimaginable happened, at a time when Capitol Hill is going through rapid and often unsettling changes—the old and cheaper neighborhood is vanishing; a more expensive one is taking its place. But the closing had nothing to do with all of these new developments, at least on the surface. It was because the lease was up. The building's then-renter, Landmark Theatres, says it could not come to a lease agreement with the owner, Seattle Central College; for its part, Seattle Central says there was no negotiation, and that Landmark simply did not renew its lease.
All of our sad and happy memories were locked in that place until SIFF decided to become its new renter and struck an agreement with the owners. They raised $300,000, and a bunch of improvements were made (mostly technical upgrades—speakers, projectors, lighting, electrical). The concessions stand will serve beer and wine, but, sadly, it will not open to the street and sell coffee to pedestrians and those waiting at the busy bus stop, like in the old days.
"The great thing about this theater is it has ambience," says Carl Spence, the artistic director of SIFF. He is giving me a quick tour of the place. It looks much the same. Two young men are sweeping popcorn bags, popcorn, and seeds from under the seats. This is the mess from the screening of Lynn Shelton's film
Laggies, which opened SIFF's recent Women in Cinema festival. "The theater has a history, a connection to Seattle. It was first a place for the Masons. When they became less active, it became a cinema. For many years, [SIFF] had our offices here. I got my start here. I began doing freelance marketing and some programming in this building."
When I ask why Landmark left the Egyptian in the first place, he explains: "It's not easy to make money from a single-screen theater. Particularly one that's this big. It has 600 seats. You are supposed break it up into many small screens. That's how you make money." Are they worried about not making money? "We are a nonprofit, and we have other revenue streams and the help of donors. So we have different priorities. Yes, there is risk involved in this project, but if you think about it, there aren't that many movie theaters on Capitol Hill. There used to be more in the past."
Before leaving the theater, Carl explains, "All the mirrors in the lobby have been removed." I'm reminded about how some group or culture in old Europe believed that the removal of mirrors in a haunted house helped a ghost move from this world to the next.
By Trent Moorman
I didn't know anyone in this city, it was the cold concrete of winter, and the sun was setting at like 4 in the afternoon. I found myself inside the Egyptian three or four nights a week. It was my first Seattle friend. I'm so glad it's staying around. When they showed Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's The City of Lost Children, I went seven nights in a row. After the third night, I think they stopped making me pay.
I always liked the midnight movies, and I'm glad they're getting that going again—they're doing horror films Fridays and Saturdays through Halloween.
Speaking of horror: They used to have a urinal trough in the men's bathroom right by the door. So you'd be peeing, and when someone opened the door to come in, whoever was outside could see you peeing. I never really had a problem with it, but I know some people did. I figured they arranged it like that on purpose; they knew that when the door opened, there'd be a sight line to the guys urinating at the trough. I mean, I tried to angle away, so as not to frighten anyone standing in the lobby, but if you angled away you couldn't hit the trough so well. There were also stage-fright issues, but after 20 or 30 times, you got used to it.
Like a lot of old Seattle, that trough is gone—replaced by urinals with dividers.
Oh yeah, and speaking of dicks: They showed a 3-D porn from the '70s one time. The 3-D wasn't so good, but the movie was. If I remember correctly, the opening scene is a guy in a helicopter flying around. He spots a naked woman on a mountain, lands the helicopter, and gets out, and they have sex. I don't think they speak. There were maybe 10 people in the theater when I went. At some point, somebody in one of the back rows started giving somebody a blowjob. They weren't hiding it. Everybody there took off their 3-D glasses and watched. When the guy came, he screamed, "Yeeeeeeesss," but it was like he was in pain. And everyone clapped.
By Sarah Galvin
On several occasions I've had distinctly cinematic experiences at the Egyptian. By "cinematic," I mean mythological, aesthetically striking, and weird.
The weirdest was probably a date I had there when I was 22. I was with a girl I'd met as a teenager. We went to shows and parties in squats, drank stolen wine, and made out in my mom's minivan. We laughed constantly together—laughed so hard we couldn't breathe. She was the sort of person who would decide at a party to get in a car with someone who was passing through town and go to another state. She sometimes didn't return for months. One night, we went to see Alfred Hitchcock's
Rear Window at the Egyptian. It was a midnighter—the auditorium was half full and people were excited and drunk. The balcony was closed, but we stepped over the velvet rope and did exaggerated cartoon sneaky walks up the stairs. We spent the first half of the movie making out like we were trying to sand down each other's facial features. We stopped briefly when we noticed a manager watching, but the manager just smiled and disappeared.
Something was strange, though. My date became increasingly nervous. I also noticed she didn't smell the way she usually did. It wasn't that she smelled bad—it was like some crucial element of her smell was missing, the one that made the rest of the world go dark when I pulled her into corners at parties. Before the movie was even over, she wanted to leave. I asked, though I could tell she'd say no, if she wanted to come over, and she answered that she needed to go to the hospital. She claimed a piercing she gave herself had become badly infected. I walked her to Swedish and sat in the waiting room with her until a nurse came. She said she would call me the next day, but she never did. I found out months later she'd found out that night she was pregnant.
Other weird things have happened to me at the Egyptian, too—like the time Mink Stole was doing autographs there during SIFF, and my friends and I spent about 20 minutes working up the courage to ask her to sign our boobs. I drank some gin and was on my way through the line, Sharpie in hand, when she signed her last autograph and left. A Mink Stole boob autograph is still a dream of mine.
My most recent trip to the Egyptian was for a midnight screening of The Room, considered one of the worst movies ever made (think Showgirls-level awful). The best thing about it is that its writer, director, and star obviously did not intend it to be awful, but now bills it as a comedy, proudly attending screenings and conducting Q&As. I was drunk at Linda's when I was invited to see it, 20 minutes before showtime, and knew nothing about its plot, its cult following, or the rituals that have developed around screenings. Walking into that theater was surreal. The show was nearly sold out, and crowds of people in ill-fitting suits wandered the auditorium throwing footballs. Upon entry I was handed a bundle of plastic spoons. A framed picture of a spoon reappeared for no reason throughout the film, and every time this happened, there was a shower of plastic spoons from every direction. Afterward, I found part of a spoon in my sock.
I also saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch on its opening night at the Egyptian. I was still in high school, and went with three high-school friends. We were obsessed with glam rock, especially Bowie, the movie Velvet Goldmine, and of course The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We were probably all at least somewhat gay, but so young it mostly manifested itself as overdetermined excitement about wigs. We'd been anticipating Hedwig for months in a way that bordered on Beatlemania, or at least an effete Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Somebody's mom was kind enough to escort us to the R-rated (holy shit, nudity! Hand jobs!) movie and leave as soon as we got our tickets. Everyone there seemed as excited as us. When the lights went down, everyone cheered, not politely—like us, the rest of the audience just COULDN'T HANDLE IT. The movie was everything we hoped it would be, which in retrospect should not have been possible. The best part—the Egyptian staff dispensed foam wigs to everyone in the audience, just like in the movie! Eeeeeeeeeee!!! I left the theater giddy and sweaty and thinking, "Maybe I could start a band, too," which I soon did. They're showing Hedwig again at midnight on October 10, and Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight on Halloween.
By Emily Nokes
What years did you work at the Egyptian Theatre?
I don't really remember, I was partying a lot during that period.
What were your duties there? Did you have to wear a uniform?
Box office and concessions. It only had one screen, so you would just work 15 minutes, then wait two hours or so for a movie to finish, then repeat. We had to wear a uniform shirt with a name tag—we kept them all in the back. I was really bummed that I was wearing my coworker's name tag when I got a positive secret-shopper review, and I didn't get my cool credit for upselling popcorn because I was too lazy to make sure I had the right name tag on.
What were the best parts of working at the Egyptian Theatre?
Reading and doing nothing for hours in "Cafe Cairo," the concession room. You were obviously not supposed to, but some coworkers were crazy about buying booze at the liquor store and mixing it in with their Dr. Peppers or whatever to pass the time at night...
What were the worst parts?
Completely destroying my work ethic. And also that place is super haunted for sure.
Did you ever encounter a celebrity?
Yes, actually, the actress who played the main character in Teen Witch came in to host the midnight movie. That was cool because Teen Witch is the greatest movie ever made.
Is it true that you could bring in any container, like a garbage bag, and fill it up with popcorn? For free?
Yeah, Cafe Cairo was real strict about counting down every single candy bar and popcorn bag literally every night, so you had to find creative ways to give out/carry out popcorn. Luxurious garbage bags were the best for quantity and style.
What was the deal with that little window that opened onto the street and sold coffee and stuff?
This sassy guy owned and ran it independently of the Egyptian, and drank rum and mochas at his leisure.
I heard parties may have occasionally happened at the Egyptian after-hours?
Yeah, it's pretty irresistible to coop up three increasingly drunk kids in a theater till midnight and not expect that to escalate.
What's the best and worst movie that played there?
Most of the midnight movies were amazing. March of the Penguins was the worst crowd-wise.
How do you feel about the reopening of the Egyptian Theatre next week?
Stoked!! I love the Egyptian and was bummed they were gonna close it.
Any other gossip you would like to share?
Yeah, that place is haunted.
This article has been updated since its original publication.