Jubilee in Yakima: Mercy family celebrates 101 years with Orion Cinema & Mickey's Pub

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“We have designed cinema projects for several generations of the Mercy family, and Orion Cinema & Mickey’s Pub is a show-stopper,” TK Architects principal Jack Muffoletto told us back in January when Film Journal International was preparing its “Class of 2012” review. This November, serving up another helping of “Dinner at the Movies,” we now take a personal tour of the gorgeous three-screen dine-in theatre and inviting restaurant-pub.

Steve Mercy, VP of Yakima Theatres and the fourth-generation owner-operator with his mother Kathi, says this project is very much a labor of love—Mickey’s Pub is named in honor of his late brother—and about continuing family traditions. At the same time, Orion Cinema is also a sign of changing times for exhibition. True to their company name, the Mercys have been the local cinema operator in Yakima, Washington since 1912. (For historic highlights of the last 100 years, see our sidebar.) “We like to recycle names of old theatres that we used to own,” he explains before providing another example. “In 2005, our Majestic 10-plex was named after the first storefront theatre that my great-grandfather, Frederick Mercy Sr., bought in Yakima. And in 1993, our Yakima Cinema took inspiration from the original Yakima Theatre.”

Though honoring and celebrating tradition in general, the Mercys did not want the new venue to have any connection to the theatre that it actually replaced. Opened in 1976, the Uptown Plaza “was a dated four-plex with sloped floors,” Steve Mercy explains. “A lot of people did not like that theatre at all. They thought it was the ‘garbage theatre,’ which it really wasn’t. It was up-to-date in every way, it was just sloped… So we really didn’t want the new project to have anything to do with that old theatre. We wanted to have a fresh start.”

It also helped that downtown Yakima was going through an urban overhaul, getting a fresh start of its own, Muffoletto adds. “It was really quite nice what the city was doing…with new curbs and sidewalks, landscaping, light fixtures and street furnishings, but they hadn’t gotten to that location yet. The Mercys said to us, ‘They are coming our way and they will redo everything in front. So let’s put a brand new building here.’ They wanted to create something that changes completely the characteristics of what’s happening on that side of downtown.”

Nonetheless, as part of the process of revamping the Uptown Plaza, mother and son Mercy “did discuss full renovation and had our contractor look at the option. Yes,” Steve concurs,” we probably could’ve saved money, but only if all the variables would’ve worked out in our favor. If they didn’t, it could’ve turned out costing us more money. I was always for tearing down to the ground and building new because that way no one could say that we just polished the place up.” (In an interview with the local PBS television station, Kathi says Steve called that option “putting lipstick on a pig.”)

How did the Mercys decide to make polishing glasses and dishes the central part of their movie mix? Getting into food and beverage offerings “is something we’ve been talking about for multiple years,” Steve replies. “And, obviously, it’s becoming bigger and bigger in the theatre industry itself [as reported in Film Journal International since May 2007]. We felt it was a market that ultimately needed to be covered. The industry has been going towards—for lack of a better word—a VIP-type, more upscale moviegoing experience. At the same time, we knew that in Yakima we have a disenfranchised adult population. They just barely go to the movies anymore because they are tired of screaming babies and children making noise, people talking and teenagers on the phone. No matter how well we control it, you’re never going to catch it all. It upsets certain customers and they just don’t want to deal with it anymore. Now they love the fact that Orion Cinema is 21 and over only—with an all-adults audience that for the most part acts accordingly.”

Moving forward with the “dinner at the movies” option, he asserts, “We were confident that we had a large market to draw off. In addition, there is no concept like this on the entire eastern side of the state. I have met people who come as far as an hour and a half away to the Orion Theatre.” (On the western front, iPic Theaters operate in Redmond and FJI has profiled Cinetopia Mill Plain and at Vancouver Mall).

According to TK Architects’ Muffoletto, here’s what awaits the traveler. “The space was designed to allow customers to spill onto the street and engage with activity both inside and outside the convertible complex. We installed a NanaWall system of glass doors that open onto a large patio, in warm weather creating an outdoor room for patrons to enjoy. In the middle of that wall is a two-sided gas fireplace.” In terms of materials used, “timber is king in the Great Northwest,” he notes. “Our team incorporated exposed wood trusses on the high open ceilings and an intricate wood screen wall that is part of an illuminated street side signage system.”

Another remarkable detail is the distinctive pattern on the brick façade that was replicated from the Capitol Theatre. Visible just down the street, Frederick Mercy Sr. had built the 1920 grand palace to bring vaudeville to Yakima. After the city acquired the building, it was destroyed by a fire but, three years later, completely rebuilt to its original Priteca/Heinsbergen glory for a 1978 reopening (more details here). “It’s a testament to the community and it just looks beautiful.” Walking up to the Capitol, Muffoletto “noticed this really interesting brick pattern. As an architect, I love to see something like this detailed. We used the very same pattern in the front of the Orion that Steve’s great-grandfather had chosen for his Capitol Theatre.”

Moving inside the Orion Cinema building, “the Mercys wanted this to be a pub and lounge first,” he says. “When you walk through the vestibule, you don’t even know that there is an auditorium behind the bar and two more tucked away over to your left. There is no in-your-face-type box office and no traditional concession stand, but ticketing is located past the bar. The VIP experience of in-theatre dining really comes as an added surprise. A full-scale bar and being able to host live performances was one of the key elements that we had to incorporate into the space.”

Muffoletto goes on to describe the design process: “Beginning with a stage in one corner, we tried multiple configurations, to figure out how to maximize the space and the experience. In the end, we developed the stage on the top of the bar surrounded by seating, which turned out to be a tremendous feature.”

Boothless design is not a feature, but helped in determining where to locate the stage. “It’s pretty traditional in terms of what we used to do for projection mezzanines,” he says. “Originally, the Mercys wanted a boothless design, which we incorporated. But with that, access to the equipment became a real issue. Serving only three screens, we designed a very efficient booth. We were able to gain substantial storage space upstairs above the entire kitchen and installed an electric dumbwaiter for easy access. Going with the mezzanine, in fact, also spurred the idea to place the stage above the bar.”

Of the 16,000 available square feet, “a bit over half to two-thirds is taken up by the auditoriums,” Muffoletto estimates. In addition to cinema seating for 268 across all three auditoriums, there is seating at the bar and lounge for some 140 people, and another 28 on the patio. Serving both the restaurant-pub and in-theatre, the sizeable kitchen, Steve Mercy tells us, was outfitted by the food and beverage experts of Proctor Companies. TK Architects’ in-house engineering department planned for mechanical, electrical and plumbing, working with Proctor to complete the design package.

Steve Mercy also counted on expert help for daily food and beverage operations. “We hired experienced kitchen and bar managers who in turn supervise bartenders, servers and kitchen staff specialists.” (Projection and ticketing are handled by a cinema manager.) Seat-side service is provided to the high-back rockers with movable center armrest and swivel tables that were manufactured by Irwin Seating. “If guests sit down at the bar first to eat and then decide to go see a movie, they can walk right in with their food and drinks. During the first hour of the show we also provide options to order from their seats inside, using the integrated buttons from PlexCall. It’s really up to the customers how they want to experience our offerings.”

Despite the expert support, or probably because of it, Mercy opted for a cautious approach when it came to food offerings. “We started with a limited menu of about half the items that we were targeting, and didn’t start rolling out our full menu until after about two months into operating the Orion Theatre and Mickey’s Pub.” Mercy gives credit to head chef Matt Mitzel for his work on the menu of what he calls “gourmet pub food” including burgers, sandwiches and sliders, salads, mac-and-cheese, personal pizzas and more. “We were watching how people responded to the different offerings and what they would want to eat during a movie. When we rolled out the full menu, we had a pretty good idea what worked and what wouldn’t, how messy it would be.” And indeed, “all but two items that we have at Mickey’s Pub are also available inside the auditoriums.”

Given various state and local regulations governing the “shady” business of serving beer or wine in the movie theatre dark, were any restrictions on alcoholic beverages enforced? Lighting was indeed the main concern of the liquor control board, Mercy confirms. “We have to maintain a minimum light level throughout the show.” While the wall sconces are off, down lighting from the ceiling assures compliance. “Since we planned this project as 21 and over from the beginning, and we check identification right at the door, it made it much easier…obtaining various licenses,” he acknowledges. “If we wanted to have underage children attending the movies, it would have been a lot more complicated.”

Before closing, we need to address the complex—but not complicated—topic of technology. At the time of our interview, the Mercys had “just finished converting all of our screens, except for one film screen remaining,” with Barco projectors and Dolby servers. “The only reason is that we are still looking for an older projector to go with the equipment that we have already installed at that complex,” he explains. “We purchased the equipment ourselves and did not enter into any kind of VPF agreement.”

The same holds true for purchasing not one but two Dolby Atmos systems that were installed at Orion Cinema and The Majestic. “We’ve been a loyal Dolby customer for many, many years now, so we really wanted to do this. They were still beta-testing and we went through all the different stages with them.” Mercy describes the excitement of being an early adopter. “While the auditoriums were still under construction, we were able to go in and add the ceiling array and include all additional speakers,” he enthuses. Even though special accommodations for Dolby Atmos were not part of the original plan, their “short and fat” shape made an excellent match. Giving credit to “a blank canvas to start with,” Jack Muffoletto says, “We just have the most beautiful auditoriums. Their proportions are tremendous: They are very wide yet intimate, with VIP seats and we’ve got an incredible screen presence.”

After The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey became “our first official Dolby Atmos presentation, we had three different processors before we got the official, final version,” Mercy contends. “I think the sound is just amazing, though. It is all worth it, because Dolby Atmos brings out a whole new level of watching and enjoying a film in those auditoriums.”
It surely sounds like Steve Mercy is pleased with what the family and its dedicated partners have achieved. “Oh yeah, we are very happy with what we all did,” he confirms. Having served Yakima and its surrounding areas for 101 years, he also knows that this community is exactly what all the activities are about. “People come in and they just love the atmosphere, the homey and low-key feeling. When they walk in, they don’t even feel like they are in Yakima anymore, but in some big city somewhere else.”

101 Years of Yakima Theatres

This partial chronology of local theatres owned and/or operated by four generations of the Mercy family was provided by YakimaHerald.com (November 16, 2012).

June 15th, 1912: The Majestic, the Mercy family’s first theatre, is purchased, located between Second and Third streets on Yakima Avenue.
1915: Empire Theatre is purchased
1918: Liberty Theatre opens.
1920: The Capitol Theatre opens. The new Liberty Theatre on Yakima Avenue is built.
1926: The original Majestic is moved to the corner of First and Front Streets.
1927: Purchase of Liberty Theatre in Toppenish.
1930: Yakima Theatre is built on Second Street. (According to yakimamemory.org, it opened on August 12, 1931 “as the 27th theater that Frederick Mercy, Sr., opened, and the ninth show house in Yakima. According to an article in the Yakima Daily Republic, the new theater was supposed to have ‘acoustics designed especially to bring out the merits of the talkies.’ Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights was shown at the opening.”
1937: Purchase of Liberty Theater in Ellensburg.
1948: Tower Drive-In is built.
1966: Cascade Drive-In is built.
1972: Mercy Twin Theatre in Union Gap is constructed.
1976: Uptown Plaza is built, later to be demolished for the Orion Cinema.
1979: Cinema West on Nob Hill Boulevard opens.
1993: Yakima Cinema is built.
1996: Ninth house is added to Yakima Cinema.
1998: Tenth house is added to Yakima Cinema.
2005: The Majestic Theatre in Union Gap is built. (Sign is a reproduction of the original.)
December 2012: Orion Cinema & Mickey’s Pub opens.

What the Fans Say: Feedback from Orion Cinema’s Facebook Page

West Coast Commercial Realty: We recently had the chance to tour your new Orion Cinema & Mickey’s Pub and frankly, we were blown away. We’ve seen this concept in big cities and small, but we’ve never seen it done as well as this. This is a cool spot with a great menu. The theater blew us away and the pub made us stay. Congratulations to you, our friends, on your newest venture and thank you for investing in the downtown core!

Les Flue: Awesome time tonight. First time visiting. Great dinner in the pub followed by Oz. Screen was vivid and great. Audio was fantastic. Enjoyed the food in the theatre. Went away stuffed and had a great experience.