Don’t let this happen to the Ken!
The first question I asked Landmark President and COO Paul Serwitz was as direct as a remedy: as of today, did he foresee anything that might prevent the closure of the Ken on March 22? “No,” said Serwitz without missing a beat, “I’m afraid not.” What follows is my best shot.
This wasn’t a hit-and-run phoner. Serwitz, who has spent 35 years in the business, was kind enough to peel off 45 minutes of his time to hear me out. He replied with exchanges that were at once knowing, passionate, and difficult to refute. “If we were in a position where a theatre like (the Ken) didn’t bleed money, as opposed to making money,” says Serwitz, “I’d gladly stick with it. We don’t see a pathway to that theatre becoming profitable enough, or even getting to a place where it’s close to sort of a break-even range that we could live with.” Since its rebirth six years ago, the Ken has been hemorrhaging green. Last year alone, while commercial exhibition on the whole was down 5%, Landmark was down 30%.
After being placed on life-support in 2014, former Landmark COO Ted Mundorff wrote that new seats were in the offing, along with a fresh coat of paint, a change of carpeting in the lobby, and some higher-watt light bulbs so foot traffic on Adams Ave. didn’t mistake it for a spelunker’s cafe. Promises made were promises broken. That was the last I heard from Mundorff. In all fairness, Landmark may have come up short in supplying broadloom and flat enamel, but they did drop a tidy sum outfitting the 70-year-old theatre with state-of-the-art digital projection. Serwitz has been leading Landmark since Mundorff’s departure in October 2019.
When was the last time the Ken hosted a special event? Six years ago, when the San Diego Opera held a benefit presentation of the Marx Bros. in A Night at the Opera. If any theatre in town should be film-festival friendly, it’s the Ken. And what better way to elevate a theatre’s profile among the film community than packing the place with a pre-sold crowd of enthusiasts for something the chain barely needs life a finger to promote? I’m not talking about giving the auditorium over to a festival for its entire two-week run. (At Landmark’s prices, even Mike Bloomberg couldn’t afford that.) How about renting the place out for an opening, or a closing night gala? Even at a discounted price, the theatre is bound to pull in more money than an average evening’s box office.
The Ken is programmed as a “calendar repertory house,” and according to the boss, “based on how Landmark operates from a programming standpoint, it would not make much sense to me that there wouldn’t have been from time to time, or over time, an open mind to those kind of alternative programming efforts to drive more supplemental revenue. We do that all over the country.” Continuing with candor, he adds, “Could there have been more efforts in some areas to try and help? Probably so. But at the rate the theatre’s been a financial drain, it would have to have been significant enough to really make a difference.”
The Ken lives on as an anomaly and curiosity of motion picture exhibition, and it should be honored as such. The ad copy and press releases — what little there are of both — should continually point up the special nature of the venue. (Wouldn’t a 35mm revival go great about now? People love what they can no longer get.) Do you know how lucky our town is to have, tucked away in a residential neighborhood, one of the relatively few single-screen houses still in daily operation? Instead of hailing the art house as the Kensington neighborhood’s crown jewel of cinematic enrichment, the Ken is treated like the red-headed stepchild. If nothing else, a photo of the Ken should be posted in the lobby of the Hillcrest Cinemas, reminding patrons to visit their single-screen sister. And if I hear one more person complain about street parking, my head’s gonna blow a gasket. I’d rather walk a mile to see something of quality projected at the Ken than receive curbside service at the latest Marvel cookie-cutter.
Has the train left the station? Do you really think I’d be wasting my time offering up advice if the situation appeared hopeless? The last time, all it took was a meeting of the minds between lessor and lessee. I called upon an old friend, Randi Kolender-Hock, granddaughter of Bob Berkun, the man who built The Ken in 1947, eventually entrusting his labor of love to Landmark in 1975. In addition to being the beneficiary of the Berkun Family Trust, Randi is what my mom would have called “a real character.” She and Serwitz had never exchanged so much as an email. Lo! See the go-between perform the ceremonial exchanging of the contact info! Something told me that if there was sufficient reason to do so, Serwitz would be willing to meet with the trust. The shuttered door that began our interview was now open a crack. And they’re paid up though the end of March, which may be enough time to work this though.
Let’s close by calling out the true villain in the piece. Neither Landmark, nor landlords, but you, my sanctimonious readers. You who cluck your tongues and moan, “Ain’t it a shame,” but when it comes right down to it, the last time you visited the Ken was when they were still publishing a three-month calendar that doubled as refrigerator art. If everyone reading this had visited the Ken a minimum of three or four times a year, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion.
But enough looking back. I leave you with Randi’s reassurance that no matter whose name is on the lease — Landmark, the Digital Gym, or a third bidder whose name I am not at liberty to release — the Ken will remain in operation as a single screen theatre. (Death before multiplexing!)