Kim family keeps Gardena cinema operational for decades – Daily Breeze
The Gardena Cinema is the last stand-alone single-screen cinema in the South Bay. And much of the credit goes to the Kim family, who have operated it since 1976.
Three decades before the Kims arrived, Harry Milstein and Albert Mellinkoff decided to build a fourth theater in their local chain. The couple already owned and operated the Torrance and Grand Theaters in Torrance, as well as the Gardena Theater.
They decided to call their final movie palace the Park Theater and hired architect C. F. Normberg to build it on land at 14948 Crenshaw Blvd., between Marine and Rosecrans Avenues. The location was less than a mile northeast of El Camino College then under construction.
The partners originally planned for the 800-seat building to be a showcase for first-run films. They organized the presence of several celebrities to celebrate the inauguration on December 11, 1946, including guest of honor and famous war hero Louis Zamperini. Zamperini’s wife, Cynthia, was mistaken for a movie star by some members of the public, according to the Torrance Herald.
Zamperini’s celebrity guests at the opening included Johnny Weismuller, Martha Raye, Preston Foster, James Dunn and “Wild” cowboy star Bill Elliott. (Unfortunately, the name of the film shown on opening night has been lost to history.)
By 1947, the theater was showing premieres, second runs, double-feature doubles, soap operas, and even exploitation films such as Kroger Babb’s “Mommy and Daddy,” an adults-only roadshow that featured footage from a live birth, among others. things, according to Michael Weldon’s “Psychotronic Video Guide” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996). Men and women were admitted to separate sessions for this one.
The park became more of a second-run theater in the 1950s, screening everything from B-movie dramas to westerns to sci-fi movies. Don Dear, the former alderman and mayor of Gardena, told reporter Gary Kohatsu of El Camino College’s Warrior Life magazine that he saw one movie in particular:
“I was about 11 when I saw ‘The Thing (From Another World),'” he said of the classic 1951 horror film. Please sit up straight so she can hide behind me. It was a very scary movie.”
Around 1960, Joseph and Mary Donato purchased the theater and continued to serve up a steady diet of feature doubles throughout the decade, including beach flicks, Elvis Presley double-headers, and similar fare.
They would eventually sell the operation to John and Nancy Kim, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea in 1971. The Kims were running a Mexican grocery store in Colton when they learned the Park Theater was up for sale.
They worked hard to be able to afford it, eventually selling the Colton market and moving to Hawthorne when their contract for the theater closed in 1976.
Shortly after purchasing the park, the couple began to notice the large Latino population in the area. They found a distributor of Spanish-language films and renamed the park the Teatro Variedades (Variety Theater, sometimes translated as “Vaudeville Theater”) in 1977.
The Kims also hired a promoter who brought live entertainment to the theater on weekends, often packing them to the rafters.
Programming catered to the theater’s Latino clientele until its foreign-language film distributor went bankrupt in the late 1980s. The Kims tried to market Korean films for a time, with the theater changing name for “Eden” and “Morning Calm”.
This deal turned out to be less lucrative than the couple had hoped. When their daughter, Judy, returned from Smith College in 1994, her parents enlisted her help in an attempt to reverse the theater’s declining fortunes.
The family decided to return to showing Hollywood films in 1996, renaming their theater the Gardena Cinema and charging their patrons less than the new first-run theaters. Their focus was on crowd-pleasing movies.
The layout of the theater has changed little since its debut and includes two weeping rooms on either side of the projection booth. Over the years, the Kims have added neon lighting to the snack bar, giving the lobby an old-world theater feel.
They faced a financial challenge in 2013 when they were forced to adopt new digital projection technology or face closure. Fortunately, they were able to raise the $150,000 for the new equipment.
In 2016, the Kims won a long battle to buy the parking lot adjoining their theater, which the family had wanted for years. The outdoor space has proven useful in the time of COVID-19, allowing the family to host outdoor movie screenings on the property beginning in August 2020.
The death of matriarch Nancy Kim on May 8 brought a temporary halt to operations at the Gardena Cinema, following a well-attended memorial service held in her honor at the theater.
But, as of this writing, the Gardena Cinema is back in action, starting with drive-in screenings of “Clueless” (1995) scheduled for August 27-28.
Sources: Daily Breeze Archives. “Gardena Cinema”, Cinema Treasures website. “Gardena Cinema”, Los Angeles theaters website. “Gardena Cinema: A family story with a Hollywood ending,” by Gary Kohatsu, Warrior Life magazine, El Camino College, June 1, 2021. Los Angeles Times Archive. Torrance Press Herald Archive.