Family-owned Gardena Cinema leaves legacy of community

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“The only way that single-screen movie theaters can exist now is if they are financed by a large corporation that has deeper pockets than I do. Or if it basically becomes a nonprofit organization,” says Judy Kim of her struggles to keep Gardena Cinema running. Photo by Shutterstock.

The Gardena Cinema opened in 1946. That year, for about 34 cents, you could have caught a screening of “The Big Sleep” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In 1976, the Kim family purchased the theater and has been operating it ever since. A first-run theater, you can now watch the latest blockbuster in their 800-seat theater for $12. That is, while they’re still open.

“Very rarely would you find something like this in a major metropolitan area, because they've all been priced out of the neighborhoods. Most of the time, they tear them down and build something that's a little more profitable, and might get a better return on your investment,” owner Judy Kim says of the family business. “But my parents kept the Gardena Cinema intact. And they never upgraded it to recliner seats and all the ‘bling bling’ that you see at the movie theaters today. … They could never afford to do it. But by keeping it intact, it's become very vintage now.”

The theater is vintage in many ways, with a trap door in the projection booth left over from the early days of flammable celluloid film and all the ornate fixings of a grand movie palace of the 1940s. And it requires a lot of upkeep, which after the loss of her mother last year to cancer, Kim’s father, who is in his 80s, just can’t handle anymore. So, he’s looking to sell, with the dream of visiting all 50 states in North America with the proceeds.

“My father feels like … we should convert the [theater] into cash, and then use that cash to enjoy the rest of our lives because he doesn't know how much longer he's going to live. So there's really no reason for us to continue hanging on to the movie theater, because when we die, we can't take it with us.”