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The Ken

You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone*

Dale Larabee | Larabee’s Lowdown

Can you imagine the Eiffel Tower shutting down because of a drop in attendance, or the Coliseum in Rome converted to a fabric store because the owners couldn’t afford to upgrade it?

The Ken Theatre in Kensington (Photo by Dale Larabee)

The Ken Theatre on Adams Ave. in Kensington (Photo by Dale Larabee)

The historic Ken Theater, centerpiece of downtown Kensington, is closing on April 27th due to a spat between the property owner and Landmark Theaters over who pays the bill to drag our Ken into the 21st century. To many of us longtime residents, “The Ken” is Kensington and has been since it was built in 1947.

Outsiders come to Kensington to eat, get their hair done, find a rare video at Ken Video or see a movie at the Ken. The Ken makes us unique since it is the only neighborhood theater left. Problem: The Ken is a dinosaur and fewer folks care about dinosaurs anymore. You can only show “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” so many times. I hate change and was surprised so few of us were upset The Ken would close, and there have been no picket signs or “Save the Ken” movements. The local reaction is a loud and clear “So?”

Will our equally loved Ken Video be next?

Tom Guarnotta, a resident since 1945, remembers The Ken built when Kensington was the end of the trolley line.

“The Ken made Kensington. The theater drew other businesses and then more homes,” he said.

Guarnotta remembers in the early days “Dish Night” and bathroom scale giveaways were used to drum up business. At The Ken, he saw “It Happened One Night,” “The Bishop’s Wife” and Saturday matinees of “The Cisco Kid” and “Hopalong Cassidy.”

S. Charles Lee was The Ken’s architect and built it in the Art Deco style of theater design — pretty far out in its day. Unfortunately, nobody upgraded The Ken much since ’47, and I’m told one using the women’s’ restroom can’t comfortably sit where one needs to sit and still be able to close the door.

Scores of locals once worked at The Ken. Davene Gibson worked for a time as an usher in the early 1960s while a student at Hoover High.

“We sat in the box office, sold tickets, locked the booth, hustled inside to punch tickets, sold popcorn and showed patrons to their seats,” Gibson recalled.

Dale Larabee

Dale Larabee

The Ken was the first San Diego theater to show foreign films. Evelyn Riddick, another Hoover co-ed, remembers in 1962 watching French, Italian and Japanese movies with heartthrobs Bridgette Bardot and Marcello Mastroianni — her semester abroad at The Ken. During slow times, she and others — bored behind the concession counter — would unwrap chocolate cherries and try to hit their lonely classmate in the box office.

After a brief hysterical outcry following news that The Ken would close, life around these parts has returned to business as usual. There are lukewarm rumors of another theater group taking over or Landmark renegotiating a deal. My friend Betsy McIntyre said it best as I whined about The Ken’s closing: “It’s business!”

“Who’s going to run a theater where no one goes? Landmark is not in business to keep the theater open just because we like it there,” she said. “I just hope they don’t put in a Walmart.”

Or a Fabric Store.

*Added following the April 24 announcement that The Ken would not permanently close: The lukewarm rumors are true! The Ken is saved by a last second deal cut by Landmark Theaters and the owners. But why do I fear a second shoe will drop? Pray the May 2nd re-birth, reopening won’t feature “The Rocky Horror Movie Show” and a bathroom scales give-away. I am an optimistic person, but will our love affair with The Ken change to include us actually attending once we welcome the old girl back? We must wait and see. For now, we can breathe easy for there will be no dismal, deserted theater with used popcorn boxes blowing around the entrance — or worse, the fabric store.

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