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An epic anniversary

The Grand Cinema turns 20

Photo courtesy Grand Cinema

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A trip to the movies can seem like a fairly impersonal experience in 2017. We book our tickets on Fandango, carefully boxing out other pretenders to our favorite throne, the center seat right behind the aisle so our upcharged, 3-D glasses (recycled for "the environment" - riiiiight) give us the mildest headache possible. We munch candy we'd never buy anywhere else, or popcorn churned out of an apparatus manned by apathetic, entry-level workers. Then it's one coming-attraction trailer after another, each less intellectually demanding than the last, followed by a glossy ad for concessions you've already purchased. The IMAX trailer reminds us we're watching the industry's state-of-the-art in subjugation by deafening. Finally, apparent hours later, the movie begins, and it's everything we hoped it would be:  Australian actors intoning the British-accented words of American superheroes before a greenscreen. It ends with a list of hundreds of Indonesians who sat at renderPRO workstations for months, missing their children's first steps while devotedly sculpting digital monsters, environments and star cruisers in Maya.

And we love it. Let's not kid ourselves:  That all-digital movie experience is doing blockbuster business (unlike, say, Blockbuster). Hollywood enjoyed a record year in 2016, cajoling $11.4 billion in ticket sales from our wallets. Yet industry insiders are worried, noting the year with the highest number of tickets sold globally, irrespective of cost, was 2002. The difference between those records lies in higher ticket prices overall, with profits increasing from large-screen, haptic and 3D upcharge sales. We're going to the movies less often, but we're spending more. Could it be the missing human element really does make a difference? Are more of us waiting a few months till we can catch a movie on Blu-ray in a less stressful environment than the AMC Googolplex 27?

That's not the kind of sensory overload you'll encounter at Tacoma's Grand Cinema. There you'll find four comfortable houses with screens that fill roughly the same arc of vision as the IMAX we goggle at from 40 rows away. All four auditoria now boast 5.1-channel, surround-stereo environments. The lobby's decorated with photos of devoted guests wearing their Grand T-shirts on vacations all over the world. People are calm here, respectful and cheerful. If you dug the indie coming-of-age story you just watched, they can recommend the Truffaut revival or Shinkai anime playing down the hall.

One of those aficionados is house manager Dan Long, the avuncular fellow who probably sold you a ticket on your last visit. He's seen a lot in his 10-plus years working at the Grand. We heard he'd been there longer than anyone. "It's kind of a tossup," he acknowledged, "between me and Lisa, the projectionist." The day we visited, he and Lisa were the only non-volunteer staff working, and that's important. It means the people tearing your ticket or scooping your popcorn are there because they love movies and the nonprofit Grand Cinema. "The neat thing about the Grand," he said, "is there's all kinds of exciting days. We do special event things. Last week we had a lobby full of Beatle nuts. It was like old-hippie day, and that's just a weekday. At Christmas season, we were showing five of the nine films nominated for Picture of the Year. We had all five nominated actresses. Christmas through February is big ... I think we've had a couple of marriage proposals. We had one where a couple got married on the East Coast; they had family there and family here. They filmed a video of the wedding there, and then came here and used our lower auditorium 'cause we can project video. We projected their wedding and they invited friends and family here. They had a wedding cake and a reception line for when people came out of the ‘wedding.'"

Long got interested in movies in his late teens, back when Tacoma had no venue for foreign or independent cinema. If he wanted to see a Bergman or Kurosawa film, he had to drive to Seattle. He went to work for Seven Gables and Landmark, chains of independent arthouses. "I've always been in the art-film end of the business," he said, "but I'm a movie lover. I can watch Star Wars (or) some esoteric documentary about building a dam in Botswana."

"There's still something about going to a movie versus watching it on your TV," Long mused. He noted the Grand tends to book exclusive engagements of prestigious art films before major chains. "A multiplex by and large is the domain of the teenager," he said. "Our audience is informed. We show smart movies for smart people ... You can still discover (cinema) and have wonderful little surprises here."

Surprising art makes life better, so help the Grand celebrate its milestone 20th anniversary in style this week. "If you wear your Grand T-shirt," Long said, "you get in free. We're doing extended memberships where you get an extra two months." Each movie-ticket stub represents a chance at special prizes. The 5:30 p.m. reception on the 18th offers free cake pops from Bon Appetina's, plus a photo booth and no-host bar.

Long says the heart of the Grand is its volunteers, who work for free movie tickets and the satisfaction of a fun job well-done. He reminisces about an elderly volunteer, now deceased: "He graduated in, like, 1938. And I said, ‘Oh, you must've been in World War II.' And this was a guy who was very quiet. He was just kinda ‘aw, shucks.' I said, ‘Can I ask you what you did?' 'Cause I'm a World War II nut. And he goes, ‘I was a B-17 pilot.' The Flying Fortress, built at Boeing up here - he flew 30 missions over Germany before they had fighter escorts like the Tuskegee Airmen accompanying them. Before D-Day, they were losing roughly 30-percent casualties. They wore those big leather-and-lambskin suits, 'cause they fly at 30,000 feet with open windows. It'd be subzero. Then (the engineers) retrofitted the bombers with electric suits. They were lightweight, with a cable you actually plugged in. Then you had a control you could turn up, and if you had to go to another (part of the plane) you'd quickly unplug it and run over. He said they were flying over heavy flak, and the plane gets hit:  Bang! The plane skidded sideways. He's going around - he's the pilot - checking in. ‘Everybody okay?' ‘Nobody's hurt, the plane's okay, we're fine.' They're going back, and everybody's getting cold. Pretty soon everybody's maxed out and like, ‘God, it's freezing in here!' The only thing that'd been hit was the control for their electric suits. So now they're flying at 30,000 feet in subzero temperatures with this thin jacket on! When they made it back, the first thing they did was stuff all those old suits in, in case that ever happened again."

Now there's a story that might make a pretty great movie.

The Grand Cinema's 20th Anniversary, 1-7 p.m., Tuesday, April 18, 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma, free with T-shirt, 253.593.4474

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