The Mercy family’s movie legacy starts out a little like a film script itself.
As the story goes, on June 16, 1912, Frederick Mercy Sr. hopped a bus in Seattle that was destined for the east side of the Cascades. He had heard a theater was for sale in Yakima. Originally a hat maker from New Jersey, Frederick Sr. had traveled west looking to get into the film business. Once in Yakima, he disembarked at the Greyhound station downtown, then started walking west on Yakima Avenue, in pursuit of his dream.
Frederick Sr. never did find the fellow he was looking for. Incredibly, a different gentleman found him first, and sold Frederick Sr. his first theater. It was on Yakima Avenue, and he called it the Majestic.
Since those early days, many theaters have been built, bought and sold, and many generations of Mercys have made their mark on the family business. According to Steve Mercy, Yakima Theatres’ vice president and Frederick Sr.’s great-grandson, the family business once likely owned or leased every theater in Eastern Washington except for those in Spokane.
It was Frederick Sr. who built the Capitol Theatre — a vaudeville theater in the style of the famed producer Alexander Pantages. Steve says the Capitol Theatre was the largest west of the Mississippi at the time of its construction.
Owning or leasing that many venues guaranteed a circuit for quality traveling road shows, says Kathi Mercy, 62, Yakima Theatres’ president and Steve’s mother. Kathi is the widow of Mike Mercy, Frederick Sr.’s grandson, who died along with their son Mickey in a plane crash 15 years ago.
Kathi says each generation has provided its share of innovation to the local movie business — and its share of a struggle with the ideas of the generation before it. It was her late husband who wanted to build Yakima’s first multiple screen movie house. Although commonplace now, Steve says at the time the concept was rare.
“And, of course, the fight was on,” quipped Kathi, referring to the clash of ideas between Mike and his father, Frederick Mercy Jr. Nonetheless, the “Mercy Twin” was built in Union Gap in 1972.
That innovation is no less today. Steve, who’s 27 and a member of Mercy’s fourth generation, is blazing a trail toward Yakima and Yakima Theatres’ first dinner theater. Orion Cinema and Mickey’s Pub is set to open by the end of this year, although an official date has not been determined.
Responding to changing tastes in the movie and entertainment industries, the move toward this type of theater was a natural, say the Mercys. For years movie houses were built with more and more screens, but nowadays most are renovating existing spaces and focusing on amenities that give the movie-goer more of a “VIP” experience.
“That’s what theaters are trying to adapt to,” he says, “because people are more willing to stay home and watch it on their TV.”
One of the first things folks will notice at the new dinner theater is there are two ways to dine: you don’t have to go to a movie to go to Mickey’s Pub. The dining part of the building has a large seating area, cushy booths and bar that’s warmed by a double-sided gas fireplace. It also includes a balcony that Steve hopes will be used by live bands eventually.
“This is a dinner theater, Yakima style,” says Kathi. The menu will include burgers, sandwiches and sliders — food that patrons can eat easily in a darkened theater. “I call it gourmet pub food,” she says. They aim to keep food sources as local as possible and have hired Matt Mitzel, previously of Bert’s Pub, to head up the kitchen. Mitzel is planning specialty dishes, too, like a reuben macaroni and cheese.
The full bar will include wine and seasonal beers, in keeping with an Irish feel.
Food and beverage prices haven’t been determined yet, but Steve says they’ll be in keeping with area averages. Movie tickets will be $12 each, $14 if the movie is 3D. Responding to a common complaint about noise from kids in movie theaters, they are making both the restaurant and the theater open only to adults 21 and over.
The Orion includes three screens. Each theater is furnished with cushioned seats that have a small arm for food and drinks. In each arm is a button that can be used to call a server. What the Mercys don’t know yet is how long food service will be available in the theater during each showing. They’re going to play that by ear, listening to feedback from patrons. Right now they think food service might be available during the first 20 minutes of each show.
Kathi says public feedback so far has been positive. “Everyone we run into is so excited,” she says. “We totally underestimate the number of people who want to have a beer with their movie.”
“It’s going to be a lot of trial and error,” says Steve. But there’s one thing he’s sure of. “You can’t beat being in a movie theater.”