The Kim family, from left, daughter Judy Kim, John Kim and Nancy Kim, own and operate the Gardena Cinema, the historic “last” movie venue of its kind in the South Bay. Opened in December 1946, the theater was originally catered to the post-war, working class in Gardena and surrounding communities. The Kims have owned the theater since 1976. Photo by Miyung Kim

Gardena Cinema is one of the last indoor, full-screen theatres still showing first-run movies

By Michael Axt

Once upon a time, the Park Theater was the “Cinema Paradiso” for the local baby-boomer scene — the only walk-in picture show in Gardena, then a budding, working-class community 20 miles south of Hollywood.

Now known as Gardena Cinema, this iconic theater still maintains a full-sized, single screen, while shunning the megatrend toward Cineplex multi-theaters. It is firmly “old school” and according to the LA Weekly, “the last of the independent cinemas operating in the South Bay.”

It opened in December 1946 at 14948 Crenshaw Blvd., when Gardena was transforming from a semi-rural town toward its future as the “Freeway City.” There were still poultry farms, strawberry fields and scatters of bucolic Craftsman houses when the much-awaited theater opened its doors in a Hollywood-style “klieg light” premiere.

A Gardena Valley News article dated Dec. 19, 1946 described the cinema as the “beautiful theater interiorly decorated in a palette of burgundy, rose, aqua and gold.” It was built by a noted architect, C. F Normberg, who “earthquake-proofed” the edifice and designed many school buildings in the county, according the GVN news piece.)

Reeling through the years, the Park Theater’s marquee extolled Oscar-recognized, screen classics like  “It’s A Wonderful Life, ” the original “Mary Poppins, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

First owned by Pacific Theaters, Joe and Mary Donato acquired it as an independent “family business” in 1960. The theater billed a double feature, a cartoon, and short documentaries with some unexpected hijinks from the audience.

“As a little one growing up, the Park Theater was the highlight of any weekend. If I could scrape up and save a dollar or dollar and half. And it seemed all the kids in the neighborhood were there. We would sometimes get into a food fight with flying pizzas, fries and candy.” said Catherine Escobar, a former Gardena resident who attended during the 1960s and ‘70s.

Joe Donato had the personality of a carnival barker and lured customers in with gimmick-promotions, like a lottery for “that much coveted Schwinn Bicycle,” according to Escobar.

Donato also booked theme fests, like American-International: “schlock” B-Movies with macabre titles like “Bucket of Blood” and “The Wild Angels,” as well as  Elvis Presley’s matinee double billers, such as  ‘Viva Las Vegas” and  “Roustabout.”

The Donato era passed when John and Mary Kim purchased the movie house in 1976 and converted it into Spanish-language film venue and vaudeville stage, called Teatro Variedades. Hispanic celebrities like La India Maria and Jorge Rivero, “the Burt Reynolds of Mexico,“ performed on the stage, according to Judy Kim, the present owner and manager.

“One of the memories I have is my dad selling more tickets than there were seats” Kim laughed.” He didn’t know that you couldn’t do that until a marshal informed him that they couldn’t (have) customers standing room only.”

“My Dad thought they (Hispanic moviegoers)  were neglected and it turned out to be a lucrative market venture.” said Kim.

The Teatro Variedades period spanned the years of 1978 to 1988.

Kim literally grew up with the movies and ran the 35-mm projector, akin to the boy projectionist Salvatore in the Giussepe Tornnatore films “Cinema Paradiso.”

She also multi tasked as box office cashier, concession stand attendant and the greeter of customers.

It all spawned from a childhood dream of Nancy Kim, whose “childhood friend’s parents owned a movie theater.” So, John Kim worked three jobs to accumulate the capital to buy his wife a cinema palace. An American dream came true and “a Gardena family business.”

As a side note, in early February, GC stood in for a location shot for a film crew who used its interior for movie theater in ‘Voir,” a Netflix production about a young girl obsessed with the Steven Spielberg classic, “Jaws.”

Since 1996, the Gardena Cinema has kept its 36-foot single- screen and returned full time to featuring first-run,  major studio releases with a decidedly “family-oriented” rating

“We have stayed away from the “restricted” films because we wanted movies that the whole family could watch, ” Kim said

She is considering projects for the theater, including a battle of the bands or a film festival venue for local filmmakers

As an historic footnote, Gardena has had two other walk-in theaters. One was a rival movie house, the Gardena Theater on Gardena Boulevard. It suffered an arson mishap and then officially closed in 1955. The Little Fox on Vermont Avenue thrived as porno theater of much folkloric tales in the 1970s, but it joined in the dustbin of city history. Another popular cinema was the Vermont Drive-in, which was as its name implies, was an outdoor-cinema. It converted to a swap meet in the ‘90s, before closing in 1999.

Gardena Cinema has not only outlived all rivals, but continues to thrive in an era of Netflix and other movie-streaming enterprises.

“It has remained a kind of time capsule in Gardena with its small town vibe,” observed Kim.

Open seven evenings a week, Gardena Cinema also has special promotions, such as $5 Mondays and Spanish-subtitled Tuesdays. For information or tickets, call 310-217-0505