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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Landmark Theatres Not Renewing Lease At Ken Cinema

 February 26, 2020 at 10:17 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:01 The obituary writers have been poised before when it appeared the venerable Ken cinema in Kensington was closing down the last time was in 2014 but now it looks like it's really going to happen. Landmark theaters, which Lisa's San Diego is charming and last remaining single screen cinema says they will cease operations on March 22nd joining me is KPBS arts reporter Beth, Armando and Beth. Uh, how fast did this come about? Speaker 2: 00:28 Um, this has come about pretty quickly. The property management company said they only heard a week ago that landmark was not planning to renew their lease and are now scrambling a bit to see what can happen to the building. It's owned by the Birkin trust, which is three siblings and two cousins. They said once the news broke, they received a lot of inquiries about what's going to be happening and they are now sorting through them. So one of the, a, I just got off the phone actually with someone from the management company who said that they hope to have some information in two to three weeks about what the future for the Kensen mold will be. Speaker 1: 01:01 So it's still all up in the air, right? Speaker 2: 01:03 Correct. So to be clear, landmark is leaving as the tenant and operator of the Ken cinema, the Ken cinema itself that's in that building is not at this point closing like in the sense of the buildings being sold. Uh, so right now it's empty in the sense of it doesn't have a tenant. If they can bring someone in who is interested in keeping it running as a cinema, then we will still have the cannon, our neighborhood. Not sure what it's going to be in terms of programming, but it could still be running as a cinema. Speaker 1: 01:31 And for now they'll still be showing some films in between now and in the middle of March when Speaker 2: 01:37 they have not released everything that's on their schedule yet. They did announce over the weekend that there would be no more midnight movies, but they have programming that will supposedly run through March 22nd and I don't know if they're planning any sort of special farewell week of films Speaker 1: 01:51 and there's a rich history to this neighborhood theater. Walk us through some of that. Speaker 2: 01:55 Yeah. So it started in 1946 there was a rumor at one time that it was built in 1912 but that's not true. But in 1946, Robert Birkin decided to run this theater and he, back in the forties, he decided he wanted to make it a place for foreign and art house films. And that was really visionary at the time. And he ran that until 1975 when landmark theaters, which then I believe was known as parallax theaters took over and has run it continually since then. Speaker 1: 02:25 And all sorts of different shows and exotic things of, Speaker 2: 02:30 yeah, they, they're known for running Rocky horror picture show at midnight. They've had bands come in and play. They've uh, run film festivals. One of my favorite memories is there was this Russian guy who rented the theater Sunday mornings to bring Russian mainstream films to San Diego for the Russian community. So they've been open to all sorts of programming. Speaker 1: 02:49 And since the announcement, San Diego ads have been sharing all their memories of the Ken, can you relate? Some of those Speaker 2: 02:56 well are so like wrapped up in this cinema. And you know, I had one friend who has taken a photo of the marquee for every film he's seen and he has 250 photos of the marquee. You know, people have raised their kids there, the staff, a lot of times back in the, like the eighties and nineties people were there who were like film students and wanted, this was the only way you could watch movies before VHS is to see them on the big screen. So people were getting their film education there. Speaker 1: 03:23 And you talked to Steven Russell, house manager, the Canon. It's prime in the 80s. What memories did [inaudible] Speaker 2: 03:29 he shared a lot and I mean to him it was really a community place, a place where a film could bring people from Russian community or from the Jewish community. But one of the things he talked about was, uh, the unique marquee of the theater. Speaker 3: 03:42 I loved the, the marquee. We used to put up special marquees for special occasions. One of the more memorable ones was when divine passed away and we put up the marquee farewell divine at Jane's side meeting Jane Mansfield, of course. And we would do special marquees for all kinds of occasions and sometimes they only stayed up for the hour until someone photographed it for a birthday or a special event. But it was a, it was a way of communicating with the neighborhood that, that, uh, you know, it's a sweet bygone era kind of thing. Speaker 1: 04:13 Jane Mansfield course that's going to appeal to just the Ken type a tribe, a client clientele I should say. And you've spent a year sheriff time there and there's some quirky memories you may have. Speaker 2: 04:25 Oh, I've been there for so long. Uh, you know, I have a great memory of my son met Bruce Campbell in the projection booth because he was waiting to introduce Bubba Hotep and I was going to take him to see evil dead two at the midnight show. And he was a little wary because he, I think he was nine years old and, um, he asked Bruce Campbell about it and Bruce Campbell goes, Hey kid, don't worry about it. It's splat stick. It's splatter Gore and slapstick comedy and you'll be fine. And then you know, when the San Diego opera was in trouble, we had a fundraiser there and showed night at the opera and the landmark theaters let us come in there and do that. So there's so many memories wrapped up. Speaker 1: 05:03 Yeah, I saw him Bubba ho tub myself. Now given the popularity of online streaming services, you think that played a role in the Kenza closing or or the, the brink of it as we're talking about here? Speaker 2: 05:14 Well, I'm sure for landmark, you know, the changing landscape for film going is definitely a factor. People want to just stay home and watch movies in their home theaters and even getting them to the, the more, you know, luxurious landmark theaters like the Hillcrest is a little tough. So that definitely plays a role. But I think if you look to LA, there are theaters like the Egyptian and the Vista that have proven that if you curate your programming, if you kind of eventize your films, bring guests, have something going on that makes it worth coming out of your house to see you can be successful doing that. Speaker 1: 05:49 As you say, the Ken cinema has been saved in the past from closing and been brought to the brink as it were. Any idea whether a similar campaign might mounted here? Um, as Speaker 2: 05:58 I said, because the management has changed at landmark, I don't think that sort of 11th hour rescue is going to happen because I don't think there's any doubt in their mind that they want to cut their losses with the Ken and move on to something else. They have the Hillcrest here and they seem dedicated to that in 2017 they put in a lot of renovations. But like I said, the cinema remains as a building, as a facility and there seem to be a number of people interested in taking it over. And if you just look at my post on Facebook, there are so many people are going like, can we just crowd source this? Can't we get a grassroots organization? You know, can we get a group of film festivals to come in? So there's a lot of activity around what's going to happen to the Ken. Speaker 2: 06:43 Well, this is certainly something to watch as we go into in the weeks to come here with this deadline looming and see what, yes, I, I mean, it's a point where it's like landmark is exiting. It's the end of an era. It's really heartbreaking on a certain level. But on the other hand, this could be the opening of a door to something new where a new operator could come in with a little more passion for renovating the theater and curating the films more specifically to the audience. And hopefully the Ken will still be with us. Well, we'll certainly find out and we'll watch for your reporting and be speaking with Beth Huck Amando, who's the KPBS arts reporter. Thanks, Beth. Thank you.

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Landmark Theatres will cease running the Ken Cinema next month.
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