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Arts & Culture

Saying Good-Bye To The Ken Cinema

Landmark Theatres had scheduled five days of classic films for its final days at the Ken Cinema but the social distancing mandated to fight the coronavirus has forced Landmark to close all its cinemas for the time being so no final screening at the Ken.
Luke Buckman
Landmark Theatres had scheduled five days of classic films for its final days at the Ken Cinema but the social distancing mandated to fight the coronavirus has forced Landmark to close all its cinemas for the time being so no final screening at the Ken.

Landmark Theatres exits the Ken and marks the end of an era

With California Gov. Gavin Newsom issuing a statewide order to shelter in place Thursday night to help combat the spread of COVID-19, the closing of the Ken Cinema as a Landmark Theatre may seem trivial. But for San Diego cinephiles, it marks the end of an era.

Landmark exits the Ken

Landmark’s plan for exiting the Ken Cinema was to have a final five days of classic films that would allow patrons a sense of closure. Just last month Landmark revealed it would not be renewing its lease on San Diego’s last single-screen movie house. Landmark has held that lease since 1975 when the theater chain took the cinema over from its original owner Robert Berkun.


Paul Serwitz, president and CEO of Landmark Theaters, said, “We take no joy in walking away from theaters, especially theaters that have communal, community or historical significance. I think as you know, Landmark's DNA is built around small neighborhood, historically significant theaters. We still operate a couple dozen, give or take a couple, historical theaters all around the country. We love those theaters but there have been a couple that were a drain on trying to be a profitable company.”

The Ken was one of those profit drains.

“From an operating cash flow perspective, profit and loss, it has been a losing theater for the majority of the past seven years,” Serwitz added. “We identified a few theaters that had been consistent losing propositions over the past five to seven years in conjunction with expiring leases in a couple of cases we just felt like it was in the company's best interest from a profitability and survival perspective to walk away from those if we didn't feel like we could turn them around.”

Serwitz was hoping to give a nice send off to the theater with “Casablanca” being the final film scheduled to screen as “a kind of swan song.” Since Landmark is obligated to be out of the venue by the end of the month and with the coronavirus looking to keep all theaters closed for at least weeks to come there will be no opportunity for patrons to say goodbye to an era.

“It was literally only three days ago that we had to make the decision to shut down the circuit,” Serwitz said. “That was Monday afternoon. So everything has happened at breakneck pace. Much like the progression of the COVID situation in general. The timing is such that we're just not in a position to go back and try to renegotiate our exit with them or change what we've already put in play when we're literally closed at the moment.”

Inside the single screen Ken Cinema.
Susan Tidey
Inside the single screen Ken Cinema.

In times of uncertainty and anxiety, as many experienced during the Great Depression, movies and art flourished and provided escape. But the coronavirus is taking away our ability to have those kinds of communal experiences and diversion.

“That's one of the interesting things about this whole coronavirus event, because there is a long history of the movie theater business actually flourishing during downturns, economic downturns, disasters that are more limited in their scope because it's always been one of the most economical forms of entertainment and leisure outside the home, and that whole component of escapism," Serwitz said. "So this is really one of the first times where a national or global event is occurring that has squashed even movie-going. Because of the nature of the mess we're in. So it's really uncharted waters. But you're right, you're right. It's the movies have always been an escape for people when things are tough. Whether it's economic downturns or. You know, even recent disasters like 9/11 or the housing crunch, the economic crunch in '08, you know, the movies kind of hung in there. During those times but not this one.”

Ken memories

Since there will be no gathering of cinephiles at the Ken Cinema on Sunday, I tried to gather some memories from former employees and patrons, and from people on Facebook to create a kind of scrapbook.

I’ll start with a few brief memories of my own. I remember bringing my nine-year-old son to see Bruce Campbell introduce “Bubba Ho-Tep” at the Ken. Landmark was also going to screen “Evil Dead 2” later that night at midnight and I was going to take my son to see that as well because he liked Campbell from seeing him on “Hercules” and “Xena.” Before the film I had a moment to visit with Campbell in the projection booth and he was kind enough to chat with my son and explain to him that he’d love “Evil Dead 2” and there was nothing to be afraid of because it was “splatstick, splatter gore and slapstick comedy. You’ll be fine kid.” And he was and he has loved Campbell’s work ever since.

Celebrating San Diego Opera at Landmark's Ken Cinema

I also recall helping to set up a fundraiser for San Diego Opera at the Ken and they showed “A Night at the Opera.” Nicolas Reveles arranged for the San Diego Opera chorus to come inside and sing the Anvil Chorus that is also sung in the film. That’s a perfect example of the unique kind of things that would happen at that cinema. There were also SPAM throwing contests at Monty Python films, midnight screenings, and classic film weeks. I also remember back to the days when it was a different double bill every night. I got my first introduction to Hong Kong cinema on the big screen there at a mini-film festival that was programmed. And of course I can’t forget the world’s smallest bathrooms where when you sat down your legs would knock the door open so you’d have to sort of sit side-saddle.

So many good memories but I hope March 22 only marks the end of an era and not the end of the Ken as a cinema. The Berkun Trust that owns the building is seeking new tenants willing to keep it operating as a cinema. But in our current uncertain times with public gatherings, the very heart and soul of what a cinema is all about, banned the future of the Ken may be less certain.

Former Ken Cinema employee Dan Whitworth saved this newspaper clipping about protests in from of the theater for Jean-Luc Godard's "Hail Mary."
Dan Whitworth
Former Ken Cinema employee Dan Whitworth saved this newspaper clipping about protests in from of the theater for Jean-Luc Godard's "Hail Mary."

Former Ken employees share memories

Stephen Russell, Ken Cinema house manager (1983-1989), city manager for Landmark Theatres (1989-1996)

When asked to describe the personality of the Ken Cinema, Russell said: “So 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 they bring 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 cinema was.”

Russell’s favorite personal memory: “I very vividly in my mind remember a film called ‘Gaude,’ it was about Antoni Gaude, the architect from Barcelona. And the imagery I saw of the Sagrada Familia in that movie haunted me in a beautiful way for all my life. And it wasn't until just this past December, this Christmas, I finally got to visit there. And I realized it's been a 30-year dream. And when I saw that facade again, the nativity facade, it made me cry. And it just connected me back to that moment 30 some years ago where I first saw that film. So it's very real. And that is the best thing about film is it's not just that it tells us stories, it can take us places and they can take you places that no other medium can do.”

Russell also remembers the employees: “The Ken had its series of folks who worked there largely so they could have access to free movies, since we had a lot of artistic folks, some who were art students barely getting by. We paid them barely above minimum wage back then, which I think was $3.35 when I first started. But they did it for the benefits and for the love of the people who were there, for the love of the movies. Michael Proft was a single father and he raised a son, Alex, literally in the booth. He would bundle him up there every night. He was just a little kid. I think he couldn't have been more than two and he would sleep, he had a little a little nook in the projection booth that he set aside where Alex would sleep on a mat. And at the end of the night, he would bundle him up, put a strap on the back of his vesper and trundle home. But Alex was a regular feature there. He was one of the kindest, gentlest young men imaginable.”

Alex Proft grew up in the projection booth where his father Michael Proft was a projectionist.
Landmark Theatres
Alex Proft grew up in the projection booth where his father Michael Proft was a projectionist.

Alex Proft, Ken Employee and grew up in Ken Cinema projection booth

"I grew up in the projection booth there, toys and books stashed wherever they would fit on film racks and projectors. I watched many of the movies from a small porthole window, films like 'Alien,' 'Hope and Glory,' 'Santa Sangre,' 'Rocky Horror Picture Show,' 'Blue Velvet,' you know kids stuff. Also 'Akira' and 'Laputa,' 'Totoro,' 'Castle of Cagliostro.' What a treat! Later in life the Ken was my first job. I was pretty terrible at it. Growing up my dad would paint, read, and do other various craft projects even cook on a little hot plate. Most of our friends worked at the Ken and my dad met my mom there. Heck I may have been conceived there. I got to don the SPAM costume and throw SPAM at the customers during the annual Monty Python SPAM toss. See if this sounds weird I currently work at a theater in northern California as a manager where I met my wife and when nobody is looking I paint plastic models. Also all my friends up here I met at the theater."

Darlene Strong, Ken Cinema employee

“My first job was at the Ken theater. This was during late 1960s, early '70s. Mr. Berkun was the proprietor and he ruled with an iron hand. We had to open and close the doors certain way. If you didn't he would come running down the stairs and complain. But I really liked him. We showed Japanese movies when I worked there. Sometimes there was only two people in the whole theater. He would get so mad. I was in charge of tearing the tickets at the door. I remember I had to say, ‘Smoking on the side sections only please.’ I could say that one in my sleep I said it so often. They also had a crying room where parents could take their babies and watch the movie without disturbing other people. I made a $1.35 an hour. I will always remember it has a great experience. Sorry to see it go.”

Sophia Verbiscar, assistant manager (2011-2012), theatre manager (2012-2015), began working at Landmark in 2008

“To put simply, The Ken helped me become the woman I am today. It taught me how to be a strong leader, a 35mm and digital projectionist, to be inspired by cinema and bringing people together in a sacred place, which has led me to work for some of the largest festivals in the country, as well as run an independent single screen in PA. It also taught me to not stay complacent with a company that had no desire for innovation. The Ken has massive potential and I trust the residents of San Diego to carry the torch into it's new future. My favorite memory of The Ken was going to work everyday and opening it's doors for the neighborhood. Every day was a gift with that cinema, even the 100-year debacle.” (See story here.)

George Schmalz, publicity and marketing coordinator for San Diego (2002-2007)

“The Ken Cinema was an important part of my life while living in San Diego. I’m sorry to see it go. I'm hopeful its spirit will live on - either through a new tenant; or in San Diego’s other similar-minded venues - Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas, the Digital Gym, and Carmel Mountain’s Angelika Film Center.”

Dan Whitworth, projectionist, janitor, frequent marquee changer (on a very shaky ladder I hope they replaced!) (1984-1989)

“Working at the Ken in the mid-1980s was like being paid (very little) to go to film school. It was not unusual for employees to come in on their nights off to see a movie or two. At the peak of its repertory days, the Ken would show a different double feature every day of the week. One August night in 1984 we showed ‘Satyricon’ and ‘Roma’ as part of a weekly Fellini series. Despite the theater's notoriously painful seats and lack of reliable air conditioning, this series packed them in every time. On that sold-out night, the AC went out completely. Management shut off all the lights in the lobby and opened all the doors, front and back, to provide some meager ventilation. Several hundred Ken schedules were folded and pressed into duty as makeshift fans. ‘Satyricon’ unfolded like a fever dream of a film, which it is, its dreamlike qualities enhanced by the humid heat in the auditorium. People were willing to endure a certain amount of discomfort to get their fix of classic cinema -- and the Ken provided both! My favorite marquee was when I somehow managed to scare up enough letters for ‘Every Man For Himself And God Against All’ (the translation of the real German title for Herzog's ‘Kaspar Hauser’)."

One of Scott Shaw's flyers he created for The Ken Cinema.
Scott Shaw
One of Scott Shaw's flyers he created for The Ken Cinema.

Scott Shaw, artist

“How sad indeed. In the first half of the 1970s, I did tons of movie posters and promotional flyers for the Ken and the Strand. The theater didn't have the money nor the extended booking to rent the one-sheets along with the films, so they paid me $25 apiece to create my own goofy one-sheets for each film. Since I've always been a cinephile, I had no trouble coming up with gags. Each one was hand-drawn in markers and were 22 X 28. The lobbies of both theaters were festooned with them -- even the ceilings. I've got a few of them buried in my storage lockers.”

Former Kensington resident

Chris Ryall, IDW Publishing president and Kensington resident (2006-2015)

“So they did a screening of the Anvil documentary, ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil.’ And they actually had the band Anvil come play. So they showed the movie and then Lips, who is the singer and the guitarist showed up and set up just in front of the seats in front of the screen. And they played like a three or five song set and then hung out in the lobby afterwards. There was a big party for them and that happened to be the weekend that my wife and daughter were out of town somewhere. And in my head I was like, ‘They’re right there, I should invite the band back to the house. I’m sure they’d come party at the house it's literally a block walk.’ So like they'll probably be up for that, but they might put their foot through a wall. And if my wife comes home and I go, well, the hole in the wall is due to the band Anvil. I didn't want to get into explaining it, but that was one of the more notable events here because it was the film, it was the party, it was the band hanging out, it was just that's the kind of thing you can do in these neighborhood cinemas where you can sort of very specifically hit the audience in all kinds of different ways.

“The Ken was like part of the selling point to the neighborhood. You have dinner across the street at Ponce's Mexican restaurant and then you come over here and see a movie or you grab a coffee and you see a movie. It was just having the arts so close at hand in this area. You have a club where you could see bands play here. You can see movies there, the library. So you had books, you had music, you had film. And it was just all of that within 100 paces of each other. So it was just that kind of thing that we love to be able to immerse ourselves in the neighborhood feel of it all. And it gets you out talking to people. When you wait in line to see a midnight show, you really get talking really about their movie favorites and sort of the different fanaticism that everybody has. And it's it just builds the community because you're all having the shared love of something.”

Ken Cinema patron Luke Buckman created photo memories for the films he saw at the theater. He counted seeing almost 250 films there.
Luke Buckman
Ken Cinema patron Luke Buckman created photo memories for the films he saw at the theater. He counted seeing almost 250 films there.

Memories gathered from Facebook

Luke Buckman: “Movies make the world a more empathetic and beautiful place, but the right theater can elevate the cinematic experience into something more, something truly magical. I've spent countless hours in The Ken's single screen auditorium, transfixed across waves of laughter, gasps of fright or awe, and just about every type of tear the eyes can muster, but each moment felt special thanks to this beacon of cinema and its wonderful crew. Also I was checking my film calendar today, and realized I've been to 247 screenings at The Ken, almost all of those are from the past five years.”

Chris Mowry: “I saw my top three movies there... ‘Jaws,’ ‘Godzilla/ゴジラ,’ and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ And other great ones like ‘The Seven Samurai,’ ‘House/Hausu,’ ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi,’ ‘Blade Runner’ (at least three “definitive” versions), ‘RHPS,’ ‘Zombie,’ ‘Anvil (with live band performance), and so many more. My schedule limits things, but there are so many options in L.A. for film. Such a shame that there may not be such a place in San Diego.”

Ingred Chamberlin: “San Diego’s musicians, artist and Freaks all hung out at the Ken, especially for their many, many, music films. When films like ‘Urgh! A Music War’ or ‘Dance Craze’ would play, people would treat it like a concert and dance in the area in front of the screen. Mojo Nixon performed live with his Sonic Love Jug before a showing once. In a town that doesn’t have a lot of space for alternative arts or the under-age, The Ken was where everyone could get together. There’s a nice post on the Che Underground blog with lots of comments along this vein."

Some of the Ken calendars that people used to eagerly wait for at the beginning of each month.
Luke Buckman
Some of the Ken calendars that people used to eagerly wait for at the beginning of each month.

Valerie Polichar: “’Rocky Horror’ showings in the '80s, with the DPs acting out the action in front of the screen. Smuggling in 6-packs of beer and soda in my capacious handbag. Seeing movies I couldn't see anywhere else, like ‘Liquid Sky.’ The treasure of taking home the monthly printed schedule and digging in, planning the next month's outings. My friend Larry laughing so hard at one movie that he fell out of his aisle seat and rolled all the way down to the front.”

Jacob Denton: “It's sad to see one of San Diego's last historic single-screen theaters finally close their doors. I've been going to the midnight showings for a few years now. It's my girlfriend and mine's weekly date night and it's hard saying goodbye to that tradition of ours. If the building's owners do keep it as a theater after Landmark leaves, I'm hoping whoever takes over has a deep appreciation for arthouse classics and international cinema.”

Kate Nelson: “No photos, but I remember skipping a late-afternoon class at SDSU for a double feature of ‘Charade’ and ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’Also, being cheered up by going to see ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ after a breakup. Love the Ken.”

Ion Moe: “Lots of memories: the Spam toss, seeing multi-mirrored scooters lined up outside during showings of ‘Quadrophenia,’ watching [Jacques] Tati and [Charlie] Chaplin films with my mom when I was a kid, seeing young people dance in front of the screen during a documentary on Ska music, being the only person in the audience while watching an obscure and horrible Hugh Grant movie.”

Kary Mauro: “Back in the early '80s the Ken was the only place my nerdy high school self could go to see old classics from the 1930s and '40s on a big screen. I would drive down from UC area with friends, park on a side street, and fell in love with Kensington while walking to the Ken. More than 30 years later, I finally got to buy a house in the neighborhood! I'll be so sad to see the theater close.”

Don Senda: “May 19, 2014: Members of the San Diego Opera perform the ‘Anvil Chorus’ from Giuseppe Verdi's ‘Il trovatore’ prior to the screening of the Marx Brothers' ‘A Night at the Opera’ as part of a fundraiser for said opera company. September 26, 2014: Special screening of ‘Last Days in Vietnam” with panel featuring Mark Sauer, KPBS Radio; Stuart Herrington, United States Army; Paul Jacobs, United States Navy (the latter two appear in the film).”