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What will happen to the Ken Cinema?

The facade of the Ken Cinema on Monday.
(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Cue the final credits: Landmark Theatres plans to stop showing films at the Ken Cinema, the 70-year-old single-screen movie house in San Diego’s Kensington neighborhood.

“We never like walking away from a theater, especially one with historical significance to the community, but the Ken is a losing proposition,” said Paul Serwitz, Landmark’s president and chief operating officer, in a phone interview Monday. “It’s lost money six out of the last seven years.”

Landmark, which has been on a month-to-month lease since July, will cease operations there on March 22. It plans to shift some of the programming — a mix of foreign films, classics and independent fare — to its other San Diego location, Hillcrest Cinemas, Serwitz said.

What happens next to the 300-seat Ken Cinema is unclear. A phone call to Torrey Pines Property Management, which oversees the Adams Avenue building, was not returned.

Some community members took to social media Monday, bemoaning the apparent loss of what several called a neighborhood treasure and rooting for another company or non-profit to step in and continue showing movies.

They launched a similar campaign six years ago, when it looked like Landmark was leaving, and that led to a new lease that kept the theater open. At the time, Landmark said the deal, which included an upgrade from film projection to digital, would ensure that “the Ken Cinema will remain open for many years to come.”

But “the changing theatrical landscape” — in particular, the popularity of streaming Internet services that allow people to watch first-run movies at home — makes a similar rescue unlikely this time, company officials said.

“We kept evaluating it, looked for different ways to turn it around, but we don’t see any way to make it work,” said Serwitz, who joined Landmark in October after 17 years as a vice president at Regal Entertainment Group, a large movie-exhibition company.

“It’s simply a matter of not being able to attract enough attendance and the related businesses, like concessions, to generate enough revenue. It’s purely a business decision that we don’t make easily.”

Another factor: He said the building owners “have not shown an interest” in upgrading seating and other amenities, which are popular with many moviegoers.

But not all. Some longtime Ken-goers find its small women’s bathroom, for example, to be part of its charm. They know the air-conditioning didn’t always work.

Still, they remember it fondly as the place where they went for double-bills or where they first encountered “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at a midnight screening.

“It’s just more fun than other places,” one recent reviewer on Yelp wrote.

There’s been confusion over the years about when the theater opened, but it dates to at least 1947, when Robert Berkun leased the space and soon began showing foreign films, a first for San Diego.

It was a struggle, according to his 1989 obituary in the San Diego Union. He kept costs down by having his children sell tickets, make popcorn, and sweep up after the showings. Japanese movies did well, though, and then larger success arrived in the late 1950s, when college students got more interested in what he was offering.

Berkun, who bought the property in 1966, resisted off-and-on protests from community members who wanted the theater shut down because of its occasionally racy fare. In 1975, he leased the venue to Landmark, which was just starting out as a company dedicated to showing independent movies. Now Landmark operates 49 theaters, with a combined 245 screens, in 27 cities, according to its website.

Among the company’s holdings are several historic single-screen theaters, “but they are a dying breed,” Serwitz said. The only other one in San Diego County is La Paloma, in Encinitas, which dates back to 1928.


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