If you look up in the lobby lounge at Central Cinema, you’ll get a sweet little hit of history. Light fixtures made from glass milk bottles dangle over the tables; a tribute, co-owner Kate Spitzer said, to the building’s roots. Originally built in the late 1920s as an auto dealership (you can still see the garage door), the business quickly failed with the start of the Depression and became Joe’s Dairy, a bottling plant, Spitzer said. The milk’s long gone, but the high ceilings, brick walls and faintly industrial feel of the space remains; it’s a building full of stories.
So it’s appropriate that this building, just a popcorn kernel’s throw from the busy intersection of 23rd and Union, is now in the storytelling business. Since 2005 — a lifetime in this quickly changing neighborhood — Kate and her husband Kevin Spitzer have operated Central Cinema at 1411 21st Ave., a cozy single-screen theater where you can order a burger and a beer (or whatever else you like; there’s a full bar) and enjoy a quirky selection of movies: classics, family films (all ages are welcome), cult favorites.
On a recent Tuesday evening, a crowd of maybe 40 (about one-third capacity) enjoyed a screening of “The Princess Bride”; mostly young couples and groups of friends, including one festive birthday gathering. One guest sported a sparkly bandanna/eye mask combo, like the one worn by Westley (in his Dread Pirate Roberts disguise) in the movie. It was a small audience, but the room nonetheless filled with laughter. Gathering for a movie, once an everyday occurrence, now still feels like a miraculous pleasure.
It hasn’t always been laughter for Central Cinema, particularly during a pandemic that left the theater shuttered for 18 months and the Spitzers wondering if they’d ever be able to reopen.
The cinema is the very definition of a family business: The Spitzers, in fact, live just down the street. Kevin runs Central Cinema full time; during the pandemic closure, he upgraded the sound system and tinkered with the dimensions of the screen to better frame the movies. Kate, an architect, works for the City of Seattle as a project manager, but helps out with the cinema’s human resources, menu development and catering (they’re hoping to expand their rental business for private events). Seventeen staffers, most of them part-time, are on the payroll.
The journey began in the late ‘90s, when Kevin, a metal artist, began renting part of the old building as a workshop. It was “pretty much a big open space,” said Kate, and eventually the couple started thinking about another use for it: the kind of movie theater/pub that they’d visited in Portland, but hadn’t seen in Seattle. After much remodeling of the space (an enjoyable challenge for an architect/artist duo) and back-and-forth with the state liquor board (not so enjoyable), Central Cinema opened to the public in the summer of 2005. Their first movie, Kevin remembered, was Wong Kar-wai’s “Chunking Express.”
Business grew slowly, with seasonal swings throughout the year; sometimes, in the less-busy summer months, it was a struggle to make rent. The Spitzers are quick to credit their “really great” landlords with Central Cinema’s longevity: “They supported us early on, with deferring rent when we were having slow periods,” Kate said, remembering that at one point they had to refinance their house to catch up with back rent. But the theater slowly became a haven for movie-loving regulars, and the years went by … until March 2020, when the doors closed for what would prove to be a very long time.
“At first we thought it would be until the fall,” said Kevin. “The state was predicting the shutdown would be six to eight weeks. I was skeptical. I thought, it’s going to be September before this is over. Little did I know, it was September of another year.”
During the closure, the Spitzers tried to keep some of their staff employed as long as possible, with fix-it and cleaning projects. A Paycheck Protection Program loan helped for a while, but before long they had to go into “hibernation lockdown,” unplugging the computers and awaiting better days.
Thanks to the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, they were able to reopen last fall, hiring back nearly all of their original employees. The federal grant, said Kevin, was a lifesaver for businesses like theirs: “All the places that had to shut down for a long, long time, they would have gone belly up, and there would be no more ballet or band spaces or galleries or museums.” With the money, the Spitzers were able to catch up on a year of back rent, and to establish a new business model: one in which employee wages were raised and tipping was abolished.
“It’s not fair for the front of the house to make a ton more money than the back of the house,” said Kate, explaining the change. “They’re all experienced, they’re all valuable, they all contribute and so we kind of went through this process before we reopened, with our staff coming back, we thought we’d like to pay everyone closer to the same.” Prices went up about 20%, the tip line was removed from the credit-card receipts, and all employees are now paid in the range of $24-$29 per hour, depending on experience.
The new system, said Kevin, is “immensely easier,” and there’s been an unexpected side effect: Employees are happier now to take on different roles — say, a server who needs to sub as a ticket host — as there’s no longer a wide income gap between the tipped and nontipped. And everyone appreciates that at the end of the night, there are no longer “an endless number of slips to process.”
As business slowly makes its way to pre-pandemic levels (it isn’t close yet), the Spitzers are hoping to do some neighborhood outreach this spring, reaching out to the residents of the new apartment buildings, letting them know of a nice place for dinner and a movie. They’re happy to see that some of the new development has commercial space for small local businesses like theirs; more people bustling through the district means more people discovering Central Cinema. “We still struggle,” said Kate, “with people actually knowing we’re here.”
Coming to the cinema in May: “Clueless,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” the regular monthly screening of the cult classic “The Room,” and many more movies that you can’t see on a big screen anywhere else — complete with food and drink and friends. This old building, luckily, still has many more stories to tell.