Paul Doyle was out of the movie business when he came to Columbia City for a meeting a couple years ago. Charmed by the blossoming historic neighborhood, the Grand Illusion founder and then Web content provider stopped for coffee. "As we were leaving, just out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a 'for lease' sign on an interesting building," he recalls. He didn't stop to look at it then, but the building stayed in his head, and two weeks later he drove back to take another look.
He was right about the "for lease" sign, and the building it hung on was a beauty—a former Masonic lodge with picture windows, classical woodwork, and, most notably, both an auditorium and a lobby. It was a perfect place for a movie theater, which Doyle realized could be created "without knocking down a single wall." Still, he didn't have the money to start another one, and he put the idea aside. Eventually, though, he hooked up with neighborhood figures eager for a South End cinema, who helped raise funds for rent and provided investment in the transformation.
Doyle unveiled the results of the COLUMBIA CITY CINEMA's renovation in May, and they were magical. In the auditorium, beneath a geometric frieze and between bas-relief Ionic columns that line the walls, Doyle added burgundy curtains and soft-hued globe lights. Wood paneling went in beneath the columns. On the floor, he put twinkling aisle lights, which give way to maple-colored risers and wine-dark seats matching the curtains. Outside the doors, in the spacious, parquet-floored lobby overlooking the Rainier Valley, he splashed the walls with red, opened them up to art displays, hung chandeliers, and filled the room with comfy couches.
There's a drawing-room quality to the lobby that makes Doyle and his patrons think of the Harvard Exit, while the classical grandeur of the auditorium calls to mind the Egyptian. But it's as if those cinemas had been created anew, with everything still polished and plush and waiting to be broken in. It all seems like a delicious luxury in a low-key if revitalizing neighborhood that hasn't seen a movie theater in some 40 years.
Whether the crowds will come to this off-the-beaten-path singleplex is another question. Doyle admits that the traffic for his opening movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was slow (although he got hold of a print weeks late). And on the weeknight I brought my kids to see Shrek 2, there were just a couple other families in attendance. But Doyle says the weekends were different. One Saturday, 500 people showed up for Shrek 2.
He has a strategy. "What we're doing is showing popular first-run movies that will bring a lot of people here and let the neighborhood know that we're here." And he says, as if answering his own doubts, "it's working." Walking down Rainier Avenue toward the cinema as a matinee of Spider-Man 2 comes to a close with a decent crowd having turned up for a Tuesday afternoon, Doyle quips, "I'm starting to feel like a genius." 4816 Rainier Ave. S., 206-721-3156.
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