By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
In the Admiral Theater‘s long and storied history, the curtain is about to fall on another episode.
This one has spanned almost a decade, including the latest incidence of West Seattle’s moviehouse being brought back from the brink. You might subtitle it “Return of the First-Runs,” though that’s just part of the story.
What’s happening is that next week will bring the departure of The Admiral’s longtime manager Dinah Brein. She says simply, “It’s time.” Her brother, Jeff Brein, is co-proprietor of Far Away Entertainment, an independent regional chain of community movie theaters including The Admiral, and Dinah’s been working for him since 2004, four years before she came to The Admiral, originally doing public-relations work for his PR firm on Bainbridge Island.
After Dinah and her husband Larry McClellan bought a house in West Seattle in 2006, that started to become a somewhat onerous commute. When her brother took over The Admiral, an opportunity arose for her to work much closer to home.
But at first, she wasn’t running the theater.
Keep in mind, it was at the time second-run, two-auditorium theater, sorely in need of work, and her challenge was to focus on promotion and special events, to keep The Admiral a vital part of the community. More than 15 years had elapsed since the theater – saved by a community campaign – reopened in 1992 after a three-year shutdown.
Music was part of what Dinah brought – something she’s very familiar with, with roots as a successful songwriter in entertainment-focused cities including Nashville – but special film events were, too. In 2008, the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival had screenings at The Admiral. That’s also the year the Crow’s Nest Lounge debuted – our report detailed a long list of planned special events, from a concert headlined by The Admiral District’s own Brent Amaker (with The Rodeo) to a celebration of West Seattle-rooted movie star Frances Farmer.
(The Crow’s Nest, in fact, overlooking The Admiral’s lobby from its second level, is where we sat down for this interview.)
Eventually, Dinah wound up in charge of the entire Admiral operation. And that led to some new skills – in leading a team that kept it running despite the challenge of aging equipment.
“I had never before built a film,” she recalls. The term refers to prepping a film for projection – and it really was film, before The Admiral went digital – here’s a WSB photo from 2014:
Sometimes, a film would burn – while being screened. As second-run, film-projecting theaters like The Admiral (was) became fewer and far between, there was nothing they could do but try to keep going.
And – present more special events.
(WSB photo, 2009)
Even the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) had screenings at The Admiral.
But Dinah’s favorite remains: “The wedding.” The March 2009 extravaganza was part film screening, part live event. As part of a contest, John and Melodie, whose on-and-off love story spanned 40 years, got married onstage before a screening of “Mamma Mia“:
(WSB photo, 2009)
Dinah fondly recalls securing donations from a variety of local businesses to make it a wedding package to remember. The bride and groom weren’t even from West Seattle – but “although nobody knew anybody … they said this was the most magical thing, to be surrounded by such love and support.”
The Admiral itself, as a city landmark with a history going back a century (to its opening as the Portola in 1919), has been surrounded by love and support too. But the road to renovation wasn’t an easy one. The “waiting game” for a new lease, in order to pave the way for the transformation, was particularly tough. The breakthrough came almost three years ago. During that “waiting game,” Dinah said, she wondered sometimes why she was staying – maybe out of loyalty to her brother, but also, “people SO wanted this thing to work.” It was all so close to not working – in summer 2014, they were in danger of no longer receiving movies to show, because they were still using film projection, and most theaters weren’t. While it was something of a cliffhanger at the time, Dinah also recalls working “to be creative enough to keep it open.”
That creativity stretched into the renovation work, “when it was decided to stay open while doing one (auditorium) at a time.” With little storage space, they had to find somewhere to store chairs – in boxes in one auditorium where “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” was being shown a year ago, leading one patron to loudly berate the staff for “trash all over the theater.”
“I said, ‘these are our boxes of our new (seats),” Dinah recalled. And while the patron continued his rant, she said, other patrons were yelling at him, asking him to respect the fact that “they’re keeping this theater open!”
Meantime, while the renovations were much-publicized, she says, some people are still showing up surprised to see the changes, and “brand-new everything.”
Her parting words weren’t all memories. She also spoke of gratitude for the staff. Tony Phan has been chosen to succeed her as manager. She has warm words for him and so many who have worked there – “without them, this theater wouldn’t have stayed open” – workers she declares have “busted their butts.”
And this episode of the Admiral’s transformation saga isn’t over. Restoration of the historic sea-themed mural is pending the results of a fundraising campaign led by the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, which has been a partner going back well before Dinah’s time, though her near-decade has included memorable events like the June 2016 “Group Hug”:
(June 2016 photo by Jean Sherrard, courtesy Southwest Seattle Historical Society; click here to see full-size version on SWSHS website)
The “Group Hug” was one of more than a few events during Dinah’s tenure that were orchestrated by then-SWSHS executive director Clay Eals, who was also deeply involved in the 1980s/1990s effort to save the theater. She refers to him as her “guardian angel”; in addition to one-of-a-kind music and film events from the Pete Seeger celebration to the “Legends of the Road” screening, he also was right there by her side – literally – during The Admiral’s “Grand Reopening” party this past March:
And now, Dinah’s near-decade at the historic moviehouse will become another chapter of its history. So what’s next for her?
A somewhat slower schedule, for starters. On the day we talked, she had started with toast at 7 am – then nothing to eat until some cake at 5 pm (an employee brought leftover birthday cake from a party), right when we arrived for the interview. In her initial weeks and months post-Admiral, she’ll be getting some rest and taking care of personal business: “I’m going to do some serious decompression” and figure out what’s next. “I miss music more than anything – I’ll be able to go back to LA, Nashville, and do some writing.” Maybe voiceovers, too – if you’ve ever met Dinah, you know she has a versatile voice that could easily span a wide range of personalities.
She also loves animals and can envision volunteer work; in her Nashville days, she was part of a task force that helped overhaul a troubled shelter. And a few years down the line, she foresees some travel with her husband.
But first, the last week of work – she expects next Thursday (January 4th) to be her last day – and final reflections. She says she realized the mission at The Admiral was not just to entertain, but also “to create a welcoming space … I hope I get remembered for that.”
P.S. Since our interview, Dinah has shared a detailed farewell and list of acknowledgments here.