The return of the fat guy in the back row

I watch a lot of movies, but haven't been to a movie theater for years. COVID is a worry, but the theaters keep me away, more than the disease.

At any multiplex, the floors are always sticky, and they drizzle yellowy petroleum product onto the popcorn instead of butter. There's a pre-recorded quiz show on screen before the lights dim, then dozens of commercials before the previews, and every preview looks as much a mistake as whatever movie you're about to watch. When the show finally begins the crowd never stops talking. Babies will cry, cell phones will glow or ring, and pizza and burgers will be delivered to stink up the place.

That's what going to the movies has become, and that's why I stopped. With streaming and occasional DVDs, the movies come to me. 

♦ ♦ ♦

A couple of years ago, I moved back to Seattle, where I grew up. There are still a handful of non-chain cinemas here, but between COVID and the cost of movie tickets and the comfort of my recliner, I hadn't been back to a cinema... until a few nights ago. 

The price was right — $3.

The place was right — the Grand Illusion, one of my favorite local indy theaters, where in the '70s, '80s, and early '90s I'd been a regular in the back row.

And the movie was right — it was some 1980s gang-and-dance mess that was being screened for laughs.

The description from the Grand Illusion's calendar quoted a review that said, "Knights of the City can be compared to a cross between West Side Story (1961), Beat Street (1984) and The Warriors (1979). There are gangs, and they do gang-y things, but they will throw down some breakdancing moves at the drop of a hat! At any moment, a dance could break out."

They had me at $3.

Grand Illusion Cinema

Planning my ride, I allowed plenty of time for something to go wrong on transit, but nothing went wrong. The #60 bus took me to Capitol Hill, light rail brought me to the University District, and I walked to the theater.

It was 45 minutes before showtime, so I paid tuna homage, a concept that needs explaining:

The U District was heaven for movie buffs in the late 1980s. In addition to the Grand Illusion, we had the Neptune and University Twin Cinemas showing classic old movies, and the Metro and Varsity theaters showing current art-house releases. Then as now, there was nothing in my life except movies, so I moved into a boarding house in the neighborhood, where all those theaters would be within easy walking distance.

On my first day at the new place, before I'd even finished unpacking, I walked to the Grand Illusion for a matinee screening of The Grand Illusion (1937), the movie the theater was named for.

With no need to circle around looking for a parking space, I got there about 45 minutes early that day too. With time to kill and a belly to fill, I ordered a tuna sub from the mom & pop sandwich shop at street level, under the theater. 

That sandwich was nuts, literally. The tuna salad had pecans mixed in, and celery bits and some other odd tricks. It was not a tuna sammich like I'd make for myself, but it was very good, and after that I usually got a tuna sub from that sandwich shop before seeing whatever was playing at the Grand Illusion.

The sandwich shop, of course, is gone. It's still the same building, though, and in the space where the sandwich shop used to be, there's now Mr Lu's Burgers & Seafood.

I walked in, and Mr Lu himself took my order: fish'n'chips and a strawberry shake. He made small talk about the weather (too hot), but my noncommittal replies were deemed insufficient, so he asked what I was up to. I told him I was going to see a movie in the theater upstairs.

"Excellent!" he said. "Thank you for supporting a small business!" Not sure whether he meant the theater or the restaurant, and I didn't ask, because by then he was complaining about the building's rent. That's why there's no doubt he was the owner — an employee would've complained about Mr Lu, not about the rent.

I sat down, Mr Lu brought me my shake, and a few minutes later came the fish'n'chips. I'd thought I was splurging — fish, chips, and shake came to $26 — but it didn't feel like a waste of money because the food was terrific, piping hot, and the portions were huge! Order fish'n'chips at most places, you get two pieces of fish and too many fries, but Mr Lu's gave me four pieces of fish, each the size of my open palm. And the tartar sauce was great, too.

And with that, Mr Lu's became my new tuna — the place I'll eat before seeing whatever's playing at the Grand Illusion. When I'd finished I napkinned my face, tipped big and hollered thanks, then walked around the corner and up the stairs.

The Grand Illusion is on the building's second floor, and it predates the Americans with Disabilities Act, so there's no elevator. In younger years I flew up those stairs two steps at a time, but now I walk slowly, hoisting myself on the rail, step, pause, step... I was mildly winded by the time I reached the theater at the top.

Very few, very slight changes have been made to the Grand Illusion. They may have added more steps. The posters in the lobby have been one-by-one replaced, and now celebrate special screenings held a year or two ago, instead of decades ago. And thanks to COVID, there are air purifiers in the auditorium.

Masked up of course, I sat in the same back-row seat where I'd always sat, in the same seat I'd always preferred. There's been no remodeling. Same chairs, with the same velour padding. Same wood-paneled ceiling. Same velvet curtains covering the walls. Same slightly musty smell. Same too-slight slope of the seating, so people's heads in front of you tend to block the bottom of the screen, like Mystery Science Theater.

It was eerie, almost like the theater is a time machine. It was exactly like being at the Grand Illusion half a life ago, before I moved to California, before living and writing Pathetic Life, before falling in love.

Even the other patrons seemed the same — the couples holding hands, friends talking and laughing. There's the fat lesbian couple. There's the quiet Asian guy who comes alone. There are the pretty college girls, a whole row of them. There's the gay couple, the black couple, and the gay black couple. 

A staffer walked to the front of the room to briefly introduce the film, same as the old days, and of course, she mentioned the problems at Scarecrow Video and asked everyone to donate if they could.

Then the lights dimmed, the crowd hushed without shushing, the movie began, and I remembered that the magic of going to the movies is going, as much or maybe more than the movie itself.

♦ ♦ ♦

Knights of the City (1986) is a very silly film that doesn't know it's silly. Written by and starring Leon Isaac Kennedy as 'Troy', it's about a gang of street toughs who are also a rock'n'rap band.

Troy and his toadies are soon arrested for rumbling with a rival gang. Tossed into a jail cell, they start rapping and breakdancing, and guess what? There's a record company executive in the next cell, jailed for drunk driving, who offers Troy's gang a recording contract.

You might've seen Leon Isaac Kennedy in supporting roles in movies and on TV, but he's never made much of an impression, and (sorry if you're reading this Leon, but) he's immediately forgettable here. The script he's written has sterling lines like, "A leader without a gang is like a leader without I don't know what."

The movie is stolen by the actor playing the gang's mildly-psychotic second-in-command, and it wasn't until I got home and IMDB'd him that it clicked; the sidekick is Nicholas Campbell, who later played the coroner on DaVinci's Inquest, a police procedural that had some serious heart.

The actress playing the Troy's romantic interest didn't look familiar, and doesn't rise above the material like Campbell does, but she's Janine Turner in her first role. You might remember her from Northern Exposure, but on that show she never looked as dolled up and gorgeous as she does here.

In a clever money-saving move, the movie's dance choreographer, Jeff Kutash, plays the band's choreographer, coaching their steps on screen. Also in the cast are the Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow, and Smokey Robinson as the emcee at a rock'n'roll talent show. 

A bad cop named McGruder keeps popping up and causing trouble, and everyone in the gang always calls him by name, which becomes funny — McGruder this, McGruder that, "Hey, McGruder, stop kicking that guy."

The film was produced by mobster (now motivational speaker) Michael Franzese, and directed by Dominic Orlando, who mostly made music videos for Michael Crawford, Céline Dion, Patti LaBelle, etc.

Knights of the City is a bad movie, but good fun. It has boring parts, and at home I would've been tempted to fast-forward. In a theater you have to sit there and take it, but with this flick it's not long until something nutty happens, or there's dopey dialogue, or a dance or a song. 

Here's the movie, if you're curious, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it for watching at home. What makes it fun is seeing it with an appreciative crowd, at an excellent theater, with hot buttered popcorn.

Kudos to the Grand Illusion for still being there, and I'll be there, too, soon.


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