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Arts & Culture

Landmark Theatres Not Renewing Lease At Ken Cinema

Robert Berkun opened the Ken Cinema in 1946. The cinema was taken over by Landmark Theatres (then called Parallax Theatres)  in 1975.
Landmark Theatres
Robert Berkun opened the Ken Cinema in 1946. The cinema was taken over by Landmark Theatres (then called Parallax Theatres) in 1975.

Last day of operations set for March 22

Landmark Theatres Decides To Exit Ken Cinema

UPDATE: 11 a.m., Feb. 26, 2020:

Landmark Theatres will cease running the Ken Cinema next month.

I received a call earlier Wednesday morning from Bobby M. Israel, President of Legacy Commercial Management, which manages the Ken Cinema property. He told me by phone that they only heard a week ago that Landmark Theatres was not renewing its lease and since the news has broken they have received a flood of inquiries that they are sorting through and trying to figure out what will be best. When I asked if the members of the Berkun Trust (the owners of the building) were interested in keeping the Ken operating as a cinema, he said "hoping to."

More information about the future of the Ken may be available in the weeks to come.

ORIGINAL STORY:

Landmark Theatres will cease running the Ken Cinema next month.

In 2014 there was talk of Landmark Theatres closing the Ken Cinema but differences were resolved and the cinema remained opened. This month, however, Landmark Theatres said it would not be renewing its lease on the single-screen venue and designated March 22 as its final day of operations in the cinema. On Saturday, an announcement was made at the midnight movie that there would be no more midnight films at the cinema.

On Sunday, KPBS received an email from Landmark’s senior regional publicist, Chris Principio, with a statement from the Landmark Home office:

After long consideration and much effort, we regret that we are unable to continue operating the Ken Cinema. The company recognizes what a cherished asset the Ken has been to the neighboring community. The changing theatrical landscape and challenges to independent exhibition are the major contributing factors.

Landmark will continue to program many of the independent, specialized and foreign films that play the Ken at the Hillcrest Cinemas in San Diego. Landmark is appreciative of the years of our customer’s support and we look forward to continuing serving our audience at the Hillcrest Cinemas.
Landmark will be leaving the building as the tenant and operator of the Ken Cinema but the cinema itself will remain and could continue operating if a new tenant came in with the intent of running a movie theater.

Berkun Trust

Randi Kolendar-Hock along with her two brothers, Michael and Dennis, and two cousins, Beth and Barry Green, are part of the Berkun Trust that owns the building that the Ken Cinema is in. She confirmed by phone that Landmark is not renewing its lease on the Ken Cinema and that it will be out of the building by March 31. Kolendar-Hock was not free to say anything more until negotiations are finalized, but she did confirm that they are hoping to bring in new tenants to keep the building running as a cinema. She hopes to have more information later.

In an email she wrote, "The family wishes to thank our theatre neighbors for many years of support and patronage. My grandfather Bob Berkun was ahead of his time."

Robert Berkun's Ken Cinema business card proclaimed its dedication to showing foreign films.
Barry Green
Robert Berkun's Ken Cinema business card proclaimed its dedication to showing foreign films.

The cinema was brought to life by Robert Berkun in 1946 — after spending some time as a film extra according to his granddaughter — with the vision to showcase foreign films. He ran the theater until 1975 when Landmark Theatres (initially known as Parallax Theatres) took over operation of the cinema on Adams Avenue. The Ken has long been a beacon for San Diego cinephiles who wanted to see foreign and independent films.

The Ken Cinema keep its own little museum in the lobby by placing the retired, carbon arc 35mm in its lobby.
Luke Buckman
The Ken Cinema keep its own little museum in the lobby by placing the retired, carbon arc 35mm in its lobby.

The Ken is San Diego's last single-screen movie theater. Encinitas has the single screen La Paloma and Digital Gym Cinema on El Cajon Boulevard, is a single screen microcinema of only 46 seats. So the Ken Cinema with or without Landmark will always be a cinema landmark in San Diego.

Ken regular Jacob Denton shared a photo of his Midnight Movies at the Ken marquees.
Jacob Denton
Ken regular Jacob Denton shared a photo of his Midnight Movies at the Ken marquees.

Ken Cinema as a community theater

Landmark leaving marks an end of an era that has saddened many in the film community like Chris Ryall of IDW Publishing who lived a block away from the cinema for almost a decade.

"I brought two different friends to see the 'Blade Runner' movie so we could all argue about which cut was the best," Ryall recalled. "We saw Bong Joon-Ho's, 'The Host' here. And we were able to then sit and talk about that across the street, having a drink and just sort of replaying the movie. And that's all part of the feel of it was you could not only see the film and get back in your car and drive away, but you would stay in the neighborhood and you would then go to the bar, you would go across the street to grab a bite and sort of decompress and talk about what you saw. It was just all of that, that just makes you feel the experience much more than just watching a thing which you can't do any number of places. So it was more of just like immerse yourself in the love of film amongst everybody around."

If the Ken had a personality, Ryall said, "It's kind of like your older film geek friend who knows everything about the industry and the films of the past. And they could spotlight new movies and independent films and all of that but if you needed to know anything or be exposed to things that you wouldn't otherwise see on the big screen, this was the place to come. They made great choices for their midnight shows. They showed really interesting indie films, a lot of documentaries and the Oscar-nominated shorts. So it was just a film fanatics sort of paradise, just a local temple you’d love to come worship whenever you could."

Luke Buckman recalls seeing more than 250 films at the Ken Cinema and took this photo of the iconic Ken monthly calendars that used to be printed and eagerly awaited.
Luke Buckman
Luke Buckman recalls seeing more than 250 films at the Ken Cinema and took this photo of the iconic Ken monthly calendars that used to be printed and eagerly awaited.

Former Ken house manager reacts to closure

For the bulk of the 1980s, Stephen Russell was the Ken's house manager for Landmark. He now serves as executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation.

"I started working there back when there was still a unique double feature every night with the occasional 2- or 3-day run," Russell said. "And as I was there, of course, video began to poach on that. Kensington Video (which has since closed) was a perfect example right next door. They saw the demand for foreign language films and for art films, independent films, and they stocked a lot of those. But what was really remarkable to me, and I still talk about it in this way, is that it was every night you had a movie, you had a community that came together and for one night it might be an Indian village. Another night it might be a queer village. Another night, a Jewish village. But the Ken Cinema was for that community, the village for the evening and that was magic. And that's what we're losing more than anything else with Ken is a common bond, a bonfire that brings us together where the unintended casual acquaintances can become friends and you see people maybe you haven't seen in years that have been brought together. So it's heartbreaking to see something like that go away."

The auditorium of the vintage single screen Ken Cinema.
Luke Buckman
The auditorium of the vintage single screen Ken Cinema.

Why this time it is likely to close as a Landmark Theatre

In 2014, there was an 11th-hour deal that kept Landmark on as operator of the Ken. That is not likely to happen this time. Then Landmark president Ted Mundorff seemed to have a soft spot and nostalgia for the Ken that allowed him to be swayed by the outflow of community support back in 2014. But Mundorff left Landmark late last year after the company had changed hands from Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner to the Cohen Media Group. Paul Serwitz, formerly of the Regal Entertainment Group, is now president and COO of Landmark, which has shown signs of shutting down the non-major Landmark theaters such as the single screen Ken Cinema.

Landmark recently did major renovations into its Hillcrest Cinemas multiplex, which it said it will continue to run. Hillcrest Cinemas is now far more upscale with luxury seating in its smaller cinemas, beer and wine at its snack bar, and bathrooms where your knees don't push open the door (one of the "charming" things about the Ken). Hillcrest Cinemas is also a great venue for foreign and independent films but it feels more corporate and impersonal than what the Ken offered.

Russell described the Ken as "artistic, it was that friend that you accept, even though they're a little bit shaggy, a little bit odd, maybe not always comfortable to be with. But that a person brings something so special to your life that you overlook any of the flaws. But in this day and age where people can sit in their own comfort chairs and get anything on demand, there may not be a place for that funky artistic friend that the Ken Cinema was."

The Ken Cinema has provided so many with great memories whether it was watching "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at midnight, waiting for the monthly Ken calendar to come out, catching one of the clever marquees, or just sitting in the dark watching a film with friends. Landmark is exiting as the operators of the Ken Cinema but this might open the doors to a new chapter in the Ken’s cinematic life. Here's hoping.

(NOTE: There will be another web story later this week collecting people's memories of the Ken.)

Landmark Theatres Not Renewing Lease At Ken Cinema
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.