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1649 El Prado, Balboa Park

Bonus Features: Twinkle lights and functioning curtains!

Number of Seats: 226

Total Number of Screens: 1

Museum of Photographic Arts

1649 El Prado, Balboa Park

This is an auditorium I can personally vouch for, as I was there before so much as one seat was nailed to the floor. (Sadly, I cannot take credit for the twinkle lights.) As the museum’s inaugural film curator, I had the honor to ensure that MoPA’s booth, built in 2000, was the most technically proficient one in town, stocked with the finest 35mm projection and sound equipment.

The place is not perfect. The center aisle robs the auditorium of its “sweet seats,” and the cherrywood slabs that adorn the walls tend to deaden sound — but it’s unlikely you will find a venue with sharper focus and more comfortable seating than the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theater.

Why did the MoPA film series fold? After an almost five-year run, they closed my program due to a shrinking budget and, quite frankly, a lack of interest. People don’t want to sit in a dark room watching old movies when it’s warm and sunny outside in Balboa Park.

Currently home to several local festivals (Italian, German, Coming of Age, Human Rights Watch, etc.) and MoPA’s signature POP Thursdays series, the theater doesn’t get nearly the amount of use it should.

The friendliest staff in town is at Reading Cinemas Town Square in Clairemont.

9. Reading Cinemas Town Square

4665 Clairemont Drive, Clairemont Mesa

Bonus Features: The friendliest staff in town.

Total Number of Screens: 14

Clairemont Town Square

4821 Clairemont Drive, Clairemont

From the looks of it, Reading Cinemas Town Square is nothing more than your typical nondescript suburban house with 14 screens pumping out pretty much the same fare as any other show in town. The difference lies in management. Jennifer Deering, aided and abetted by a staff of 35, helps to make the Town Square the friendliest place in the county to watch a movie.

Deering started with Mann Theatres in the ’70s, at the 2252-seat Fox Theatre, now Copley Symphony Hall. She subsequently wound up managing several venues and was there the time Barbra Streisand visited the Valley Circle Theatre to oversee the presentation of The Main Event. “She didn’t like the color of the walls,” Deering remembers, “and had them repainted to suit her taste.”

Deering made the move to Pacific Theatres in 1996 and took command of the Clairemont Town Square in 2000. She stayed on after Reading Cinemas bought out the competing chain in 2008. When it comes to adding a personal touch to the job of multiplex overlord, Deering is this town’s supreme show person. The lobby art (particularly the jumbo standees) is always precisely assembled and situated. Except for the time a life-size Bart Simpson figure turned up missing, later to be found seated in a stall during a bathroom check.

She is not the type of manager that spends her day hiding in the office, and her knowledge of and passion for film is boundless. Next time you visit, ask to speak with “Ms. D.,” as her adoring staff calls her. Consider it time well spent in a movie theater lobby.

Last year’s $3 million restoration of Coronado’s Vintage Cinemas Village Theatre features illuminated murals and an art deco lobby.

10. Vintage Cinemas Village Theatre #1

820 Orange Avenue, Coronado

Bonus Features: Art deco lobby, illuminated murals in each auditorium, and functioning curtains.

Number of Seats: 215

Total Number of Screens: 3

Vintage Village Theatre

820 Orange Avenue, Coronado

The 25,000 residents of Coronado Island once again have a movie theater to call their own. After 53 years of serving the community, Coronado’s Village Theatre, dilapidated and in sad need of repair, was shuttered in 2000. Last year, Los Angeles–based Vintage Cinemas restored the theater — to the tune of $3 million — beyond its former glory.

Vintage Cinemas refurbished the landmark theater with a jeweler’s eye. Their attention to detail is striking; more thought went into designing the lobby than you’ll find in a dozen new builds. With its shimmering blue curtains and phosphorescent wall art, the 215-seat main auditorium is a compact hint of what theatergoers experienced during cinema’s halcyon years. Though beautifully engineered, the two 48-seat rooms resemble swanky home theaters, the type you’d find in many homes on the island.

The purist in me wishes they had renovated the 600-seat single-screen theater instead of slicing it in three, but with all the movies currently jockeying for screen space, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to book mainstream films in a house with only one auditorium. ■

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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!"


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