Grand Illusion Cinema building for sale in Seattle’s University District

The building housing the Grand Illusion Cinema, an independently owned single-screen arthouse that’s been occupying a University District corner for more than 50 years, is for sale. This was the second announcement this week regarding the fate of a longtime Seattle movie theater, following Thursday’s news of the imminent closure of the Regal Meridian 16 downtown.

The owners are asking for $2.8 million for the structure that includes the movie theater, a Venezuelan restaurant and an electronics repair store, according to a promotional flyer from real estate company Kidder Mathews. The flyer suggests that the site could hold a 65-foot-high, 31-unit apartment building.

The news was first reported by the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.

Brian Alter, longtime manager of the nonprofit Grand Illusion, said he and the rest of the all-volunteer staff (about 30 in total) just learned of the sale listing this week. “I think it will likely be demolished,” he said of the building, noting in a Friday telephone interview that it’s an old and unremarkable structure.

He said that he’s about to sign a two-year lease, which should give the staff time to make plans to relocate the theater. “What we pay for rent is very affordable for what we are — a little tiny movie theater. I hope we can find some place that works for the type of space that we need.”

Those conversations will begin soon; for now, it’s business as usual at the cozy 70-seat theater, which began life as The Movie House in 1970 and has been open continuously ever since, showing an assortment of cult favorites, independent films and classics (most notably, its popular annual holiday screenings of “It’s a Wonderful Life”).

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Though the Grand Illusion, like all local cinemas, suffered through a long pandemic closure in 2020-21, Alter said ticket sales have bounced back nicely. Business is “pretty good, as good as it’s ever been,” he said. Though he had planned to retire from day-to-day work at the cinema this year (he’s been manager for 12 or 13 years, and a volunteer there since 2003), he’s ready to join the other volunteers in finding the theater a new home.

“When I first came to watch a movie here 20 years ago, I was like, this is a really cool, unique place,” he said. “All of us kind of feel the same way. We’ve got a good bunch of volunteers who are really dedicated, and I think between everybody, putting our brains together, hopefully we’ll be able to find a new spot and move it and just continue.”


This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.

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