Washington

Olympia homeowner makes movie magic out of a 3,000-square-foot basement

Homeowner David Williams (pictured) and former MGM and Paramount studios set designer Thomas Polidori offer their thoughts during a July 10 tour of the basement they turned into a replica London street from the 1930s.
Homeowner David Williams (pictured) and former MGM and Paramount studios set designer Thomas Polidori offer their thoughts during a July 10 tour of the basement they turned into a replica London street from the 1930s. sbloom@theolympian.com

When David Williams was a kid sneaking into movie theaters for lack of money, he vowed to his buddies that one day he’d have his own theater. Now a successful businessman, he does — a period art deco cinema in his 3,000-square-foot Olympia basement complete with 187-inch screen, electric recliner seats and a 16-foot neon marquee.

Oh, and a replica 1930s London street to go with it.

“It’s something I wanted to do all my life,” Williams says. “That’s part of my dreams come true right there.”

For Thomas Polidori, the former Hollywood set decorator Williams hired to design the whole thing, it’s another kind of dream: every artistic and special-effect technique mastered over an entire career, all in one place.

Polidori Street

No, it’s not actually called Polidori Street — but it should be. Because while it might have been Williams’ dream — and spending power — to convert his basement into a one-block London street complete with real cobblestones and faux shop windows, actually creating it took the artistic nous of Polidori, a painter who spent the first part of his career creating sets for Paramount and Disney. For films and shows like “Catch 22,” “Paint Your Wagon” and “The Brady Bunch” Polidori learned old-school techniques like finishing plywood to look like mahogany, copper or marble. He’s also a master at realism and trompe l’oeil painting. So when Williams was looking for a designer for his basement dream, Polidori — now based in Olympia — was the obvious choice.

“I was lucky,” Williams says wryly. “There’s not a whole lot of Hollywood set designers in Olympia. What are the odds?”

So the two went to work — with breathtaking results.

 
The cinema ticket “window” features a demure navy-suited girl painted life-size behind a glass window where a vintage dollar bill rests on a chrome counter. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

Whether you take the stairs or the one-floor elevator down from Williams’ home, you step out into the same magical world. To your left is a wall, painted with the illusion of a long London street at twilight. To your right are shop windows extending around a corner. In front of you is a cinema ticket “window,” with a demure navy-suited girl painted life-size behind a glass window where a vintage dollar bill rests on a chrome counter. Under your feet are actual cobblestones, imported from France, and in between them are a couple of extremely realistic manholes, bought from a New York artist who makes them for movies. (They’re lighter than real ones so actors can push them up.) Even the lighting feels real — a dim glow that could come from gas lamps.

Walk along the street a few steps, and the fun begins. To the left, under an enormous neon marquee in an art deco font, is the foyer to Williams’ theater. To the right, making use of a small space between the stairs and the elevator, is the dangerous part of town: a rope-and-pulley hanging over sacks on an antique hand truck, a mural ad for Levis (painted by Polidori) fading against real bricks (some new, some vintage, all sourced by Williams), rusty pipes (PVC, aged and patina-ed by Polidori), a coal furnace grate, a vintage bicycle, an R-rated movie poster with a sultry blonde bombshell (Ebay), a “bordello” door (aged with craquelure) with red light above it and a vintage knocker of a woman’s bare leg. Like most of the basement doors, it hides a storeroom.

It’s something I wanted to do all my life. That’s part of my dreams come true right there.”

David Williams, homeowner

Pass by the brick archways and you’ll get to the more reputable part of Williams’ street. Here Polidori has constructed two bay windows filled with faux store displays: a women’s clothing store and a barbershop.

For Polidori, matching items of the same period (shoes, lingerie, handbags) was the kind of challenge he learned back in his film set days — and he found the solution in Centralia, Chehalis and Olympia antique stores.

“I wanted to find as much as a possible locally,” the artist says. “There’s a lot there.”

 
Making use of a small space between the stairs and the elevator, is the dangerous part of town: a rope-and-pulley hanging over sacks on an antique hand truck, a mural ad for Levis fading against real bricks, rusty pipes, a coal furnace grate, a vintage bicycle and more. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

He even researched the cost of barber services in 1930, placing a printed list in the window between the brushes and hair oil that offers haircuts for 40 cents, shaves for 30 cents and — yes, really — X-ray treatments for $1. Behind the dark wood frames, murals show customers inside.

Past the shops and round a slight corner, you hit the end of the street: a red London phone box (a replica Williams scored for quarter-price online) with black hand-piece phone inside, a replica lamppost and another trompe l’oeil: this time a fake stone wall painted by Polidori to give the illusion of depth and an ongoing street. There’s even a life-size fake rat.

The basement cinema

Williams’ street, though, is just the scene-setter for the basement’s showcase: a replica art deco cinema. The flashy red, blue and green neon marquee advertises “Cooper Point Cinema,” a local nod and made by Olympia’s Capitol Sign. Bottle lights flash in sequence around the bottom. A 1930s gumball machine entices you into a luxe foyer with cushiony black leather seats (reupholstered by Polidori from cheap modern furniture) underneath a replica chandelier on angular layered ceiling trim. Silver art deco sconces give a refined elegance on the deep maroon walls, a real 1930s slot machine with bright turquoise Empire-line trim is ready to play.

“It’s fully functional — pays off 76 percent,” says Williams, who sells his guests eight quarters for a dollar to play.

This job pulled every element of special effect, murals and painting that I’ve done in my career.”

Thomas Polidori, artist and designer

Etched glass frames the concession booth, which “sells” modern candy and popcorn from an antique cash register for 5 cents apiece. Vintage movie posters and movie star photos pulled by Williams from the internet give some glamour on the walls.

But again, it’s Polidori’s talents that make this room shine. Having designed the whole space architecturally, he’s added elements like brushed shell designs on the plaster ceiling, dimensional molding, fluted deco cabinets and his own design of carpet to complete the illusion that you’ve stepped into another time. He’s even had the Olympia Brewing Co. electricity logo cast onto metal plates over the doors to the projection room — a logo he spotted walking down Olympia’s Fourth Avenue and redrew by hand for the basement project.

 
Homeowner David Williams (left) along with former MGM and Paramount studios' set designer Thomas Polidori offer their thoughts during a tour of the replica London street from the 1930s, including an Art Deco theater, faux storefronts, cobblestones, manholes and neon signs. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

Inside the theater the illusion continues. Actual leather cinema seats line the back row, while four modern electric recliners occupy the front. A Deco nymph statue holds a glowing red vase aloft, while brass sconces emphasize column molding on the walls. And then Williams dims the lights, and contemporary technology floods the 13-foot screen and throbbing surround-sound.

“The experience in here is better than any (commercial) theater,” says Polidori, as light from the screen glints off more hand-painted brushwork on the ceiling.

Details, details

Making your basement feel like a Harry Potter set rather than a basement obviously takes time, money and vision. Williams and Polidori estimate two years on this project, and more money than Williams, who owns an international online spa company, has kept track of — although individual costs ($1,500 for the manholes, $35,000 for the neon marquee, $250,000 for the theater electronics) hint at the overall picture. For the vision, Williams was inspired not just by his childhood dream, but by a love of London and the art deco design aesthetic, and by the idea of a make-believe world.

But actually making that world believable also takes an attention to detail that both owner and artist have in spades.

10,000 Bricks (from Chicago) and cobblestones (from France) make up the London street in David Williams’ basement

From Williams, it’s the capacity to spend hours trolling online to find vintage and replica items, from the triangular green exit signs in the theater to posters for movies he remembers from his childhood. It’s imagining a door frame made with old planking he noticed his bricklayers using — and asked to buy. It’s commissioning the multi-megabyte photograph printed onto a plastic wrap to make the elevator door look like a European castle, or the little brass raven that hides the call button in its beak. It’s printing out a replica vintage phone directory for the red phone box or a tiny sign warning vandals off the gumball machine.

For Polidori, it’s the eye for making the lamppost taller, the grates smaller and wall murals planned so that everything’s the right scale for a street. It’s spotting iron catwalk grates on a boat that were perfect for hiding basement duct work, or the commitment to painting fake cracks in fake plaster over brickwork to look like a real wall. It’s the carefully patinated Roman medallions over the shop windows, the picture molding on the ceiling, the marbleized surfaces.

 
Homeowner David Williams stands in the scaled down replica of an actual period commercial movie house that in reality is a state-of-the-art theater featuring digital access to most any film. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

“This job pulled every element of special effect, murals and painting that I’ve done in my career,” says Polidori. “Then it challenged me even further to design the space. It’s the biggest single residential project I’ve done. … To have that opportunity — it’s not everyday, especially in my hometown.”

And even though his work is down in a basement where only Williams, his wife Debbie and their guests will see, it’s satisfying for another reason: It’s permanent. Old movie sets were painted on plywood, then tossed once filming was done. And now, most effects are done digitally.

Williams now has his own movie theater with its very own street — and the satisfaction of surprising guests.

“I don’t tell them what’s there before they walk downstairs,” he says with a slight grin. “They can’t believe it.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Want your own magic?

Artist Thomas Polidori takes commissions: portraits from photos, wall murals, trompe l’oeil or, as in David Williams’ basement, entire replica streets.

Find him at thomaspolidori.com.

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