Where we go to get lost.
We’re a gregarious lot and one that can stand being cooped up in front of a television set for only so long.
Compared to what they soak you for to attend the opera or live theater, movies are still your best entertainment value.
What follows are ten auditoriums that still maintain the magic of moviegoing.
1. Reading Cinemas Gaslamp #1
701 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-232-0401
Bonus Features: A 44-x-18-foot screen, eclectic booking, and flowing velvet curtains.
Number of Seats: 476
Total Number of Screens: 15
701 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
It opened as a Pacific Theatre in November 1997 and quietly changed hands in 2008. What was once a mainstream multiplex vying for first-run hits with neighboring Horton Plaza became Reading Cinemas’ flagship theater in San Diego. It’s the best of all possible movie houses, turning its 15 screens over to everything from mainstream hits to art, foreign, and even revival bookings.
Instead of the iridescent Ringling Bros.-on-meth design scheme of Horton Plaza, architectural firm Benson & Bohl held true to the Gaslamp Quarter’s Victorian surroundings while bringing a stylish touch of ’20s art deco to the imposing two-story lobby. The interior looks like something art director Cedric Gibbons would have whipped up on an MGM soundstage. The frosted-glass doors give way to a remarkable entrance hall flanked by two stairways that lead to the upstairs theaters. There is also a frequently out-of-service escalator and, if all else fails, an elevator to transport patrons to their heavenly destination.
The #1 house is neither San Diego’s biggest nor does it lodge the most expansive screen. What it does have is something you won’t find anywhere else: lush floor-to-ceiling red-velvet curtains that act as a nostalgic reminder of what once was. The 44-x-18-foot screen is sizable enough and the sound and focus will blow you away. They recently installed a Sony 4K projector in their #7 house and the 3-D presentation is impeccable.
So why are there no lines snaking around the block clamoring for a ticket to watch a movie in San Diego’s premier showcase? Parking. With the exception of the Ken, this is the only local theater that doesn’t offer free parking. In this case, you’re going to have to work a little for your art. You didn’t hear it from me, but Horton Plaza offers three hours of free parking in their spacious lot. Save your ticket and keep an eye on the clock — every 15 minutes over the three-hour limit will set you back $2. And if you attend an evening performance, make sure to stamp your tickets prior to showtime. Take it from one who knows: the machines stop validating at 9:00 p.m., and unstamped tickets pay full price.
2. Landmark Theatres Ken Cinema
4061 Adams Avenue, Kensington, 619-819-0236
Bonus Features: Single screen house, quality films, spotless presentation, a knowledgeable staff, and the best popcorn in town!
Number of Seats: 575
Total Number of Screens: 1
4061 Adams Avenue, Kensington
Guess what turns 100 this year? Built in 1912, the Ken Cinema underwent a streamline Art Moderne makeover in 1947, and in 1975 the theater became the second house to be acquired by the Landmark chain. In its youth, the Ken was little more than a standard-issue neighborhood theater, not a patch on downtown picture palaces like the California or the Fox. In its ability to outlast its ritzier counterparts, the Ken achieved San Diego movie immortality by being the last of its breed: a single-screen neighborhood art house.
It’s a safe bet that at one point many refrigerator doors in San Diego County were enhanced by a Ken Cinema calendar, alerting film fans of their daily change of double features. That was when the Ken was known as a revival house. The theater has gone through several different personality changes over the years — for a time it appeared to follow a strict “if it’s gay, it plays” policy — finally settling into its current state as our premier venue for first-run art films.
Upon first moving to San Diego and discovering the wonders of the Ken, I would talk it up during my film intros at MoPA. Several highfalutin boardmembers called me out on my endorsement, branding the theater “uncomfortable” and “filthy looking.” How can anything as beautiful as the Ken be considered squalid? These are the same philistines who refused to allow the sale of popcorn at MoPA because the smell offended them.
The theater has since installed new seats, and what was once one of the few remaining theaters in America to project with carbon arcs switched over to xenon bulbs. In an attempt to keep abreast of the times, a Sony 4K projector recently took up permanent residence in the booth. All they need now is 3-D.
3. UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas at Hazard Center #7
7510 Hazard Center Drive, Mission Valley, 619-574-8684
Bonus Features: Side-to-side masking and curtains that work!
Number of Seats: 398
Total Number of Screens: 7
160 Quintard Street, Chula Vista
It opened in 1990 as part of the Mann chain and for a brief time was owned by Madstone. (Was there ever a less conducive name for an entertainment venue than Madstone Hazard Center?) Currently run by locally based UltraStar Cinemas, San Diego’s premier showcase for film festivals (Asian, Jewish, and Latino) is facing demolition.
Two years ago it was announced that UltraStar Hazard Center was slated to meet the wrecking ball. An off-ramp from the 163 is in the works to give drivers easier access to the shopping center. Something had to give.
The good news is the theater has been given a stay of execution, so to speak, and should be around for at least two more years. Six of the seven screens are no great shakes, but house #7 is a marvel. Excitement surges every time the traveling curtains open to reveal the massive 40-x-16-foot curved screen. Their impeccable exhibition of Jackie Chan’s Little Big Soldier for the Asian Film Festival was last year’s single most memorable presentation. The focus was so sharp you could count the grain pattern.