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The Grand Illusion Cinema

Seattle’s oldest running continuous theater

Original drawing by Emma Seymour

The Grand Illusion is easy to miss. The theater is tucked away off University Ave. (across from that one drive-through Jack in the Box), with a peculiar layout that’s only partially explained by the space’s former life as a dentist office. But finding this hidden gem is well worth a movie-lover’s time, because rooms that once held novocaine and tiny drills now host what may be the city's most impressive museum of cinema.

The Grand Illusion has recognized what few other film organizations have: If a theater wants to uphold the tradition of movies, showing old films is only half the battle. Equally important is preserving the varied, historic experiences found in viewing cinema.

The Grand Illusion recreates these viewing experiences with a level of enthusiasm only an all-volunteer staff could muster. From screening serialized showings of 1920s classics on 16mm film to throwing ’90s pizza-party-movie-marathons (pizza is delivered to attendees between movie one and two), the Grand Illusion recreates old-school movie-going experiences for its viewers – and expertly pairs them with a period-appropriate film.

Further underscoring their commitment to the historic experience of movies, the Grand Illusion is one of the few theaters in Seattle regularly showing films in 16mm, 32mm, VHS and digital formats. “Watching something on film is the movie equivalent to listening to an album on vinyl,” explains Trevor Brandt, lead programmer at the Grand Illusion. “A clean, digitized picture is beautiful, but with film you get to appreciate the small imperfections.” The picture on film is richer, warmer, more romantic, less processed. It’s a communion, and an art form (the projectionist has to swap out the reels every 20 minutes, without missing a beat). It’s old-school movie magic, like seeing the dust floating in the golden beam of the projector’s ray. Today, at larger theaters, projection rooms sit empty. Starting a digital film doesn’t even require pushing “Play”; the timing is automated.

The projectionist at the Grand Illusion, and every other employee, is unpaid. Each individual you meet at the Grand Illusion is a volunteer, there for nothing but the love of cinema (and, possibly, the 10 rotating popcorn toppings). Could we imagine a restaurant run by volunteers? Experts in their craft who want nothing more than to share it? You’d go three times a week.

That’s what you get at the Grand Illusion: passionate, studied film experts bringing you movies that are “visually unique, quirky, independent and fun.”

There’s no Illusion at all. What you see is what you get. Check it out for yourself.


Number of screens/seats:

1 screen, 70 seats.


Tossed in canola, spritzed with grapeseed oil (for that buttery feel). 10-flavor topping bar available to personalize your kernels (including nutritional yeast, garlic pepper, Old Bay, soy-sauce spray and more).


Parking’s a beast, but here are some tips from the experts:

  • Try parking on the Ave.! No, really; just stay north of 50th. Don’t bother south of 50th.

  • 15th St. (also north of 50th) usually has spots and is only a block from the Grand Illusion.

Signature showings:

  • Secret triple-feature pizza parties: $11 for three movies and dinner; what could be better?

  • VHS Über Alles: $3 admission for a screening with “a late-night community feel, showing movies only found on VHS.”

  • October horror bonanza: A month of the weird, the gruesome and the classically scary.

Fun fact:

One of Seattle’s home-grown rock stars is a lifetime member at the Grand Illusion. Email your best guess to SeattleButtsinSeats to win a year-long membership at the Grand Illusion!

Become a member:

The Grand Illusion survives on membership – consider buying one here and enjoy a year of $6 movies:

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