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Rants And Raves: The Ken Cinema

Celebrating A Cinema Landmark

Above: The Ken marquee has been used for birth announcements and wedding proposals among other things.

The Ken Cinema and I go back a long way, maybe not all the way back to when it was built but it has provided a host of good memories.

NOTE: Since this story was published, the Ken Cinema has retracted its claim that the theater was built in 1912 and was celebrating a century of existence.

If you love movies and live in San Diego, then you know the Ken Cinema. The only other San Diego theaters that stir such vivid memories are The Unicorn (La Jolla) and the Cinema Leo (Pacific Beach).

When I was growing up, The Ken was a repertory house showing a different double bill every night. I remember being jealous of people who lived nearby and could simply walk to the theater each night instead of turning on the TV to watch a show. What bliss, I thought. I have so many wonderful memories from this theater. My sister won a SPAM tossing contest once (but she has become a vegetarian and the thought of catching one of those slimy chunks of processed meat now disturbs her). I have "de-virginized" people at screenings of "Rocky Horror" and "The Room" and seen the expressions of shock and horror turn to glee. I introduced my young son to the Marx Brothers here and when Groucho broke the fourth wall and turned to the audience for a witty comment, my son grabbed my arm and said, "He's talking to me." I remember being asked to program a double bill and being able to show Polanski's "Macbeth" and Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet." I also remember the projectionist telling me a story about the print for "Macbeth." Years ago he had gotten a print that was in terrible shape -- badly spliced, torn sprockets, scratched -- and he had included a note to the distributor that said "Burn this f-cker." The print he showed for my double bill contained his note.

I love the Ken's midnight movies in particular. It's at midnight that the most rabid fans come out and when the theater is most fun. People come in costumes, they know the films backwards and forwards, and there's a sense of a real community of fans. Sure the Ken has some eccentricities. The air conditioning used to go out now and again, and the women's bathroom stall door will open when you sit because there is zero -- and I mean ZERO -- leg room in the first stall. But you put up with these small annoyances because the films are great and the people are fun.

I hadn't realized the Ken was a full century old so it was fun to visit the theater and talk to the staff about the history they were uncovering. Here's a backstage tour of the Ken.

Evening Edition

Above: KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando gets a tour of the Ken Cinema on its 100th birthday.

The Ken Theater was built in 1912 [revised date is more likely to be in the 1930 or 40s] in the then new community of Kensington in San Diego. That was also the year the American film industry began taking baby steps with films like DW Griffiths' "The Musketeers of Pig Alley." But as with many theaters back then, it wasn't fully committed to the movies says the Ken Cinema's current manager John Luis.

"Behind the screen here there is an actual stage, and a lot of movie theaters, they'd use stages for vaudeville between the reels."

Luis says The Ken was built about the same time as the Spreckels Theater downtown but for a very different crowd.

"This was built as sort of a ‘boonies’ theatre, and it was competing against the downtown theatres. Downtown at that time was about 10 cents a film and here it was cheap, a bargain at 5 cents."

And you might see something like Griffiths' pioneering 1916 film "Intolerance." Landmark Theaters took over the Ken in 1975. It also took over a lot of history and memories says Ken Cinema assistant manager Sophia Verbiscar.

"We have posters, boxes and boxes of posters I don’t even know how far they go back. We have so many mystery reels of just film, we don’t know what’s on them... I don’t think a week goes by that someone doesn’t come in here re-living memories from the place."

Guy Hanford is co-owner of Kensington Video, right next door to the Ken.

"The Ken Cinema, wow, that's interesting, I came out here when I was in the 8th grade and my parents bought this building here, which was a gift shop at the time. And next door was the theater of course, Bob Berkun was the owner and he asked me one night, 'Hey, how would you like to work at the theater,' and I said sure. And what it involved was cleaning the theater up every night and changing the marquee on Thursday nights and so I got a dollar and a nickel a night and I'm not sure I got anything extra for changing the marquee."

Verbiscar says, "There was actually this woman I think who worked here, probably in the 50s and 60s when Bob was the owner... she told me that he used to have a mirror right at the end of the booth stairs, that he could watch from the booth what they were doing at the stand."

You can find very tangible history in the lobby with this classic carbon arc projector that was retired in 2006.

The carbon arc projector in the lobby of the Ken Cinema.
Enlarge this image

Above: The carbon arc projector in the lobby of the Ken Cinema.

"What distinguishes this from the modern projector," says Luis, "is there’s a lead element, it's basically a giant pencil and when you run high current electricity through this, it creates an arc gap and that spark is what creates the light for the film. And what’s also unique about these or the detriment of these is that they only last for about 20 minutes cause this element will burn down over time and hence that’s why we have 20 minute reels... So now we are going into our booth. Okay so these are all the fire doors that existed back in 1912. Nitrate film was very flammable so if in fact there was a fire there was a fuse here that burned and these would slam down and shut so that fire wouldn't go outside of the booth. It would protect people in the audience, of course the projectionist would have to scramble out of the booth. We have 35mm projection right here. This is our digital projector, and this is our platter system."

The recent platter technology means a projectionist takes the individual 20 minute reels and splices them together on an editing bench to create one giant reel to place on a platter and to run through a single projector.

"So all the film would rest on this turntable," Luis explains, "and as you play the film it will go through the projector and then back out onto this top platter. So you have the film exiting one platter and then entering the next platter. [he demonstrates how the projector works and 'Rocky Horror' begins to play] We’re very well known as a midnight movie theatre. So, for example we’ve always had Rocky Horror Picture Show for some time. "

As well as a sing-a-long "Sound of Music."

Hanford recalls, "It was so great because you had the bouncing ball and you had all the words. And then you had all these people, sometimes guys with full beards and biker outfits during their regular day wearing nun's habits coming in there singing, it was fantastic and the place was packed."

"So, were fully interactive and we do a lot of crazy things here," says Luis.

Like the Spam tossing contest.

The Ken also has some other unique features says Luis: "We have a viewing window here. This was used for when patrons wanted to have a smoke but couldn’t smoke inside the theatre... Okay, as you can see this is our crying room. So, mothers, caregivers with their babies could go into this room, watch the movie in this soundproof room, which also had a speaker. You don't see these features in today's modern multiplexes."

And the Ken has the tiniest women's bathroom. But these are all aspects that longtime patrons have come to love. And folks like Guy Hanford hope the theater remains in the community for years to come.

"If you are not going here to the theater at the Ken you are missing one of the rare archival places that you have here in the community."

The Ken kicks off a ten-week 100th Anniversary Film Series with "Intolerance" this weekend.

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