Things we love about Tacoma: The Grand Cinema

There’s no place like home

Housed in the historic Merlino Art Center—next to Kickstand Café, a tai chi studio, and the mind-bending Two Vaults art gallery—the Grand Cinema feels right at home with its eclectic neighbors.

The 10-year-old movie theater specializes in independent, offbeat films you won’t find at your local multiplex. It’s a popular stop on Puget Sound’s Saturday-night student shuttle and a mecca for Tacoma film fanatics, recently hosting the First Annual Tacoma Film Festival, featuring local and emerging filmmakers.

Inside the Grand, the décor is pleasant, tidy, and no-frills, with a humble concessions stand behind the ticket counter. “We want it to be small and comfortable,” says Mary Holste, the Grand’s interim managing director, “a non-intimidating place where people meet.”

Contributing to that community feel are a variety of events, including the Grand’s annual Academy Awards party and the 72-Hour Film Competition, in which locals write, shoot, and edit films over a weekend, then roll the results. The Grand also hosts film discussions after Saturday matinees and offers courses on the art of moviemaking. “We want people to learn how to view film,” Holste says, “not just come see a movie and go home.”

A big hit among Puget Sound students has been the Grand’s Late-Night Series, featuring a cult classic shown once a month on Saturdays starting at 11:47 p.m. Recent screenings have included Friday the 13th, Office Space, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

A nonprofit, the Grand boasts more than 700 members who pay a yearly fee and receive movie discounts, a quarterly newsletter, and other benefits. It relies on a staff of around 200 volunteers—ranging from teenagers to folks in their mid-80s—to take tickets, work the concessions stand, and help run the theater. Many of the volunteers are Puget Sound students or otherwise affiliated with the school. (Professor of Foreign Languages and Literature Michel Rocchi is president of the Grand’s board of directors.)

Looking ahead, the Grand is hiring an executive director to run and market the theater and assist the board with strategic planning. On the agenda is a capital campaign to secure a permanent location—a topic of ongoing debate. (“It’s an old building,” Holste says of Merlino.) But, as the saying goes, home is where you make it.

— Andy Boynton