• Image by David O'Keefe
  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

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

Lush, red-velvet curtains act as a nostalgic reminder of what once was at the #1 house of Reading Cinemas Gaslamp.

Bonus Features: A 44-x-18-foot screen, eclectic booking, and flowing velvet curtains.

Number of Seats: 476

Total Number of Screens: 15

Reading Gaslamp

701 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

(No longer in business.)

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.

The 100-year-old Ken Cinema has the best popcorn in town!

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

Landmark Ken

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.

UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas at Hazard Center, San Diego’s premier showcase for film festivals, is facing demolition.

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

Castle Park Middle School

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.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Sponsor Partners


Jay Allen Sanford May 16, 2012 @ 7:17 p.m.

What a great feature! I've spent the last two years working on an upcoming cover story called "Bigscreen San Diego," covering the largest of the long-gone local moviehouses we didn't already cover in the previous features on downtown's grindhouse row ( http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs... ), San Diego's much-missed drive-in theaters ( http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs... ) , and local porn theaters (most of them former all-age houses - http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs... ) - reading this story has inspired me to dig in and finish the dang thing. This city has a pretty impressive movie theater history, with a few great houses still screening - thanks for chronicling!


MordecaiWatts May 16, 2012 @ 8:13 p.m.

Always nice to see the Ken Cinema get some love. But where do you get the notion it was built in 1912? By all accounts it was built in 1946. Are you conflating it with the late, lamented Guild, which was built in 1913? If you have first-hand research to back this new date for the Ken's birth, do share, por favor.


Jay Allen Sanford May 16, 2012 @ 9:51 p.m.

A couple of Reader comics set at the Ken -




MordecaiWatts May 16, 2012 @ 10:10 p.m.

Here's a friendly challenge for you, Jay: find a photo of that crazy mural that used to adorn the Ken's foyer back in the '70s, the one with Marilyn Monroe and Frank Zappa. I thought the Internet would find it for me in a flash, but no such luck.


Jay Allen Sanford May 16, 2012 @ 10:57 p.m.

Got multiple pics in the archive! May take a bit to dig out 'n' scan, but I'm on the case - we even have construction photos of the Ken being built!


MordecaiWatts May 16, 2012 @ 10:32 p.m.

Scott -- looks like you're right about the 1912 date. So... never mind!


monaghan May 16, 2012 @ 10:50 p.m.

It's a diminished list. No Cove, no Unicorn, no Guild, no Cass Street or the one over on Grand or Garnet -- was it called the Fine Arts? -- or the one on Park Blvd. or in Ocean Beach on the main drag. Plus a lot of bigger ones like the Loma and the one west of the U-T in Mission Valley that used to flood in heavy rain.

Gone, gone, those places where I saw "The Big Lebowski" and "Jeremiah Johnson," "The Wizard of Oz," "Ran," "Do the Right Thing," "The Yellow Submarine," "Saturday Night Fever,""Titanic." Now they're converting North County multi-plexes into food-and-drink-barcalounger venues. No thanks.


Jay Allen Sanford May 16, 2012 @ 11:01 p.m.

Pretty much all of those ran midnight movies in their final days, some going to porn (including the Roxy in PB) - the Unicorn was so geared toward "head" movies that they screened trippy films on the CEILING of one room, with blankets and pillows for people to recline on.


MordecaiWatts May 16, 2012 @ 11:06 p.m.

monagan -- the theater on Garnet was indeed the Fine Arts, where I first encountered Werner Herzog through "Aguirre" and later saw Kurosawa's "Ran" ten times. Of all the movie house I once worked at, only two are still standing, and only the Ken is an operational theater.


Scott Marks May 16, 2012 @ 11:06 p.m.

Thanks everybody! Can't wait to read your piece, JAS. It's not often that I inspire people to do anything but turn off their computers.

Mordecai: I did my research. According to the San Diego Historical Society the Ken was built in 1912 and they have the documentation to prove it. I'll be writing a blog about it soon. Watch the skies!


MordecaiWatts May 16, 2012 @ 11:29 p.m.

Thanks, Scott. I called the Ken after my initial comment and learned about the info at the SDHS from the manager (hence my second comment). When I worked at the Ken in the '80s it seemed accepted wisdom that the theater had only been in operation since the late '40s, so I look forward to learning more about its "lost years" when you blog about it. Hope there will be pictures.

This means that the Ken actually predates the Hillcrest (later known as the Guild) by an entire year.


MordecaiWatts May 17, 2012 @ 12:01 a.m.

Extra kudos for recognizing Jennifer Deering, who knows a thing or two about the cinemah.


Scott Marks May 17, 2012 @ 1:19 p.m.

Tell me about it. As a former theatre manager myself, I stand in awe of her ability to put on a show.


Writeon May 17, 2012 @ 2:59 p.m.

Firstly, great article Scott and equally great cover art by David O'Keefe!

When I saw the cover, I was hoping my fave was included! I was not disappointed as the Ken made it at # 2! The theater is a throwback! The offerings are great! The popcorn is delicious! The quarterly schedule of films is very helpful! The overall experience of the neighborhood is also great! I enjoy the indie and foreign films without sheep-fed, corporate, top heavy CGI to boost sub-par stories! I also don't mind the subtitles. The lack of inane chatter and cellphone antics says something about the attention span of the audience! The neighborhhood also includes Ken Video next door (a San Diego jewel!), the Kensington Library, Kensington Cafe (mochas and happy hour!) and Ponces! The Ken is well worth my fifteen mile drive from the coast!

I am sorry to hear about the pending demolition of the screens at Hazard Center. I attended the San Diego Latino and Asian Film Festivals at Hazard Center on numerous occasions over the years. San Diego has an impressive variety of film festivals! By the way, where will these festivals be held in the future?

I do miss The Cove that was on Girard in La Jolla. The Cove used to show a lot of French films. Fortunately, The Ken includes many French films in their selections.

I do like the offerings of the Reading Gaslamp. They do a good job including non-blockbusters such as quality documentaries. Boo to the non-freebie parking dealio. But there are options!

I also miss the offerings at MoPA. I especially remember the student screenings. Maybe when the economy finally rebounds MoPa could give their film project another go? The parking scene at Balboa Park has a bad rep especially at night but I have always found parking. Generally speaking, I think San Diegans could show more love for the museums in Balboa Park. Not every city has such a selection of quality museums in one place. Maybe we take our museums for granted?

The Landmark Hillcrest has had very good films over the years especially, the documentaries but the parking can be vicious. The last time I was there, I almost burned out my engine while trying to exit their parking garage via the incline ramp.

I will be visiting the theater in Coronado. Such restorative efforts deserve my support!

Great story! It will make it to the reference pile on the coffee(?) table!


xians421 May 17, 2012 @ 4:06 p.m.

IMHO the Ken would be #1 IF they had functional air-conditioning.

As far as the "Lie-MAX" controversy you hit the nail on the head. With no true IMAX screens dedicated to first run big studio films it is worth the drive to Irvine to see a reasonable facsimile. The stadium seating and the HUGE screen (it seems to be almost four stories tall) combine to create an unforgettable experience.


LebowskiT1000 Aug. 15, 2012 @ 2:09 p.m.

Nice list! I've only visited a few of these locations, I'm really looking forward to visiting the Ken cinema at some piont, as with the La Paloma in Encinitas. I've recently made it my mission to visit as many different theaters as I can, for no other reason than just to say, "Hey, I saw __ there!"


Sign in to comment