One of the last family-owned cinemas in Los Angeles, a vintage movie theater in Gardena has been a community staple for decades, but its future is now uncertain.
In the fight to save the local landmark, supporters have volunteered to pitch in and help run Gardena Cinema, one of the last vintage theaters left in the Southland.
The owner, Judy Kim, runs the operation herself – a single-screen theater on Crenshaw Boulevard built in the 1940s and purchased by Kim’s parents in 1976.
“There used to be a neighborhood theater in almost every neighborhood in Los Angeles,” said Kim. “Now, they’re all gone.”
Kim took over operations when her mother passed away last year and her father, who is in his 80s, is retiring. She says keeping the 800-seat theater running has been a financial struggle, exacerbated by a three-year pandemic closure, all while her mother was battling cancer.
Kim said her parents worked hard to realize their dreams of owning the theater in the 70s.
“My mom started crying and she said, ‘I’ll eat one less meal a day if it would help us to afford to buy the theater,'” said Kim.
Once the theater reopened following the pandemic, Kim reached out to the community for support and many responded and rallied around her.
“They’re all there just to help this theater because I think it helps people feel connected to something bigger than us,” said Matt Collette, a volunteer. “People are there for free, cleaning toilets for free, sweeping for free … doing what they can.”
Kim said she had to sell her condo to keep the business afloat.
“It’s been slow,” said Kim. “We were closed for almost three years. The hard part for me is manpower. I don’t have enough manpower because this used to be a family business.”
“Personally, it breaks my heart that she might have to sell her theater,” said Eseel Borlasa, a visual communications senior programmer for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. “I do hope that if it changes hands, that the next owners would carry its legacy. The legacy being that Judy has a community of supporters who want to help keep cinema going for its neighborhood.”
Last week, Kim received a big boost of support when the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival held a screening at Gardena Cinema which brought in hundreds of moviegoers.
“As a festival, we welcome opportunities to program in spaces that have a unique charm and a connection to the community like Gardena Cinema does,” said Borlasa. “We saw an opportunity to bring resources and celebrate it for what it is.”
For now, Kim still doesn’t know how long the theater can stay afloat. She’s exploring options including listing it for sale with hopes that the new owner won’t tear down this piece of L.A. history.
“It will definitely break my heart, just like it will break everyone else’s hearts,” said Kim. “Just the thought of it is very sad.”
Kim said she’s also exploring the possibility of turning it into a non-profit organization but says that process could take years to build.