Devastation. Despair. Despondency. Sounds like the tagline for the latest big-budget disaster flick, but it’s actually a fairly understated description of the emotional bomb that hit Columbia City when the neighborhood’s independent movie theater closed in May 2011. “People still talk about it,” says Karla Esquivel, owner of Andaluz, a funky little boutique just up the street. “It was a big blow to the community.” 

As soon as the marquee above the Columbia City Cinema lit up for the first time in May 2004, the three-screen theater was a dependable foot-traffic generator. Moviegoers with a few extra bucks in their entertainment budget (remember, this is pre–Great Recession) would come early to the southeast Seattle burg for dinner at Tutta Bella and then stick around after the show to poke their heads into local shops. For the residents themselves the cinema was both a point of pride—it demonstrated to the rest of Seattle just how far Columbia City had come since its sketchy period in the ’80s and ’90s—and a fun, inexpensive entertainment option that brought people together on Friday and Saturday nights. “This neighborhood is kind of an urban village,” says Jerri Plumridge, a resident and the director of SEED Arts, a local nonprofit. “And the cinema was a gathering place. You’d walk there and run into your neighbors on the way.”

But neighborhood loyalty—not to mention $200,000 in loans from locals—ultimately couldn’t save the business. In 2010, city inspectors found that the building lacked required fire alarm and sprinkler systems, and the theater’s operator, Paul Doyle, opted to close the following year rather than try to raise enough cash for the upgrades. And there the building sat for months, its projectors gathering dust.

Enter David McRae. McRae’s lived nearby in Beacon Hill for two decades and is well aware of how desperately Columbia City loves its cinema. “People never stopped talking about whether it was going to come back,” he says. And he knows something about theater operation—his parents ran a handful around the Seattle area, including the Cine-Mond in Redmond—so last summer he started to look into leasing the space. The sprinkler system would set him back more than $80,000 (and then there was the $15,000 he’d have to sink into replacing copper wiring that a squatter had ripped off), but he took the leap last fall, announcing the theater would reopen this January, rechristened as the Ark Lodge Cinema.

“I don’t know how I can reciprocate the enthusiasm people have for this theater.”

McRae may have known the theater was popular, but even he admits now that he wasn’t prepared for what happened next. When word got out, thanks to a story in The Seattle Times, it spread through the neighborhood like a zombie plague. (“When I saw that story, I was like, Holy…” says Karla Esquivel. “I blasted it out to my whole Facebook page.”) And then McRae’s inbox started filling up with one email after another, from neighbors offering congratulations and help. He even got a call from Seattle deputy mayor Darryl Smith—he lives in the neighborhood—who guided McRae through the process to get a permit that would allow him to open in mid-December, weeks earlier than expected. “I don’t know how I can reciprocate the enthusiasm people have for this theater coming back,” McRae says. “I don’t want to disappoint them.” 

He planned to show The Hobbit for the grand opening, which Smith and Mayor McGinn were scheduled to attend. But there is a part of him that would have loved to screen The Smallest Show on Earth, a little-known Peter Sellers flick about an underfunded theater that succeeds in spite of itself. McRae smiles. “It’d be fitting, huh?”

 

Published: January 2013