by Kris Kendall
“When are you going to start offering beer and wine at Ark Lodge Cinemas?”
That’s the most common question that patrons ask Ark Lodge proprietor David McRae.
His answer reveals one of many factors that motivate McRae to keep his independent movie house going: “The day we start serving alcohol at Ark Lodge is the day [South Seattle] has one less business where high school kids can get a job.”
Besides, with the Ark Lodge standing in the main business corridor of Columbia City, cinema patrons are not without a bounty of bars and restaurants within easy walking distance where adults can get their drink on before or after a movie.
McRae’s comment about providing jobs to teens and young adults demonstrates the community spirit that fuels him. Sure there’s his love of film: McRae literally grew up in a movie theater. His family lived above the Redmond cinema his parents operated decades ago.
“It’s so rare for neighborhoods these days to have an amenity like a movie theater one can walk to if they live nearby,” said McRae.
McRae signed the lease on the old Masonic hall in October 2012, seizing the empty space that briefly housed Columbia City Cinema in the early 2000s. By December of that year, Ark Lodge Cinema was up and running with just two screens and a showing of “The Hobbit.”
Five years on—with two additional screens—and Ark Lodge is a vital part of Columbia City’s economy. Thanks to the cinema’s location far from competing theaters, McRae is able to book first-run movies at the Ark, with most opening the day they enter wide release at the nearest multi-plex.
However, the challenges of running an independent movie theater are much like those faced by any small business owner.
“It’s like you have a three-legged horse,” said McRae. Those three legs must support rent, payroll, taxes, and the expense of getting films booked. “I’ll never skip payroll,” he said. Which means his three-legged horse isn’t landing on one of those other requirements regularly, forcing McRae into the difficult position many of us are familiar with: Carefully managing bill payment in a way that keeps the lights on.
“My goal is to get a four-legged horse,” McRae joked with a whiff of gallows humor.
Helping McRae reach that goal is Clinton McClung, whose theatrical events company Cinebago joined forces with the Ark Lodge earlier this year. McClung began by reviving the theater’s Dark Lodge screenings. Previously the Dark Lodge shows were a once-a-month special event screening of a classic horror, science-fiction, or cult movie. Under McClung’s guidance, they’re now more frequent.
“We’ve been doing some really fun screenings,” said McClung. He chose Ark Lodge as the venue to premiere a restored version of the b-grade 1970s action film “Scorchy!”—which was filmed in Seattle. More recently, Dark Lodge screened “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” a bonkers horror oddity with a cult following.
Patrons can still see big-budget Hollywood fare too, as Ark Lodge will celebrate its fifth anniversary by showing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” in December. And because this is the 21st century, you can already buy tickets for it.
That’s where the future of Ark Lodge Cinema lies—getting people in the door, whether it’s their first time seeing a movie there, or the 100th time.
Seattle’s independently owned, and independently programmed, cinemas are disappearing. Yet Ark Lodge stands against that trend. McRae said that in January, they will start a series of revival screenings of classic films from decades past, giving South Seattle residents a chance to see history-making movies on the big screen.
Plus, when you spend your money at the Ark, you’re keeping that cash right here in South Seattle, in a theater owned by a longtime resident, and operated by people who are learning valuable life skills and creating a resume to take into the workforce.
Who knew this was about so much more than going to the movies?
Kris Kendall lives in Rainier Beach and loves seeing movies on the big screen.
Featured image by Alex Garland