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Arts | Culture

A fond farewell to the Ken Cinema as its closing credits roll

The Ken Cinema, located on Adams Avenue, offers a wide variety of films, from independent fare to foreign language cinema to restored classics.
In this undated file photo, the Ken Cinema in Kensington advertises its typical quirky fare. After Landmark Theatres announced it was not renewing its lease on the 70-year-old single-screen theater, the Ken’s future is uncertain.
( Andrew Kleske)

Landmark Theatres is no longer running the beloved Ken Cinema in Kensington, and its future is up in the air

Before corona virus-related closures sent our entertainment lives into forced hibernation, Landmark Theatres was scheduled to show its last films at the single-screen Ken Cinema movie theater on Sunday. Appropriately enough, its final screening was supposed to be a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

On Monday afternoon, Landmark announced that all of its theaters nationwide — including San Diego’s Ken and the Hillcrest Cinemas — were closing temporarily as of midnight. But even though Dr. Frank-N-Furter will now be a no-show, my mascara tears will be fully operational.

When Landmark announced last month that it was not renewing its lease with the Kensington theater — which is owned by the Berkun Trust — it was a sad acknowledgment of an unforgiving bottom line. The owners told KPBS’ Beth Accomando that they are still interested in keeping the Ken Cinema flame burning, but it won’t be easy.

In a time when movie theaters are wooing customers away from their couches and streaming services with comfy reclining chairs, upscale eats and craft beer and cocktails, the Ken has remained its old-school, no-frills self.

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No cushy recliners. No flatbread pizza. No martinis no how.

Sentimental fans like myself still found the idea of the Ken and its quirky mix of foreign, classic and independent films comforting. If you actually went there, however, you were immediately reminded that it wasn’t comfortable.

There is no question that the Ken’s heyday was many matinees ago. Its San Diego art-house comrades — the Guild in Hillcrest, the Strand in Ocean Beach, the Fine Arts in Pacific Beach — are all long gone, and the audiences for offbeat indie flicks and classic films are finding their fixes in many other elsewheres.

But like the classic movies that have found a home on its screen for so many decades now, the Ken deserves to be celebrated for being the treasure it is and the indelible memory palace it will always be.

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My introduction to the Ken was perfect in its imperfection. It was January of 1978, and some sophisticated older SDSU dorm-mates invited me to join them for a screening of the (X-rated!) “Last Tango in Paris.” We got there late and ended up sitting way too close to the screen for my freshman comfort.

By the end of the evening, I had a stiff neck and a familiarity with Marlon Brando’s hindquarters that I never wanted. More importantly, though, I had found my happy place.

With its musty velvet seats, dusty lobby couch and unused crying room, the Ken reminded me of the Grove, the single-screen downtown Upland movie theater where I saw “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” with my Mom and more summer-vacation screenings of “Island of the Blue Dolphins” than I could begin to count.

But if the theater reminded me of my childhood, the programming pointed the way toward my pop-culture geek future.

For you youngsters who grew up with easy access to cable, VCRs and DVD players, the idea that you could have no control over your entertainment life seems impossible and cruel. But in the 1970s, that’s mostly how it was. Television was pretty terrible, so my spirits lived and died by the local movie listings. And while some of those multiplex offerings were fantastic, there were never enough of them to fill up my diversion-starved weekends.

Which is why “What’s at the Ken?” became the rallying cry that launched me and my friends out of the Hollywood desert and into the welcoming arms of our beloved cinematic escape hatch.

The Ken’s line-up was mostly made up of classic-film double features that usually changed daily. So if you weren’t feeling the “Steppenwolf"/"Siddhartha” English-major vibe, never fear. The next day it could be “The Last Waltz” and “Hair.” Or “Harold and Maude” and “King of Hearts.” Or — Thank the MGM gods! — “Singin’ in the Rain” and “An American in Paris.”

The Ken was my cinema school, introducing me to the elegant evils of film noir (“Double Indemnity,” “The Asphalt Jungle”); the horizon-exploding wonders of European cinema (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Lina Wertmüller); and the weird, midnight-madness genius of John Waters, David Lynch and whatever “Performance” was supposed to be. If the Ken saw fit to show it, I was up for watching it.

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It was also my refuge. I could go there with friends to escape the pressure-cooker of midterms or to blow off steam when we survived another semester. I could also go there alone, where I knew that no bout of the blues was a match for “The Philadelphia Story” or another round of “Annie Hall,” and that there was no amount of college-girl heartbreak that a few hours with Gene Kelly couldn’t fix.

The Ken was a source of enlightenment, education and escape. It was my textbook, my diary and my crystal ball, all wrapped up in a popcorn bag with extra butter on top. I would have been lonely and bored without it. And so hungry on so many levels.

Before signing off at midnight Sunday with “Rocky Horror,” the Ken was scheduled to show four screenings of “Casablanca.” So in honor of the movie theater that was my home away from home when I really needed one, let me raise my box of Junior Mints and say:

“Here’s looking at you, Ken.”


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