Historic Gardena Cinema hopes to reopen as a pop-up drive-in amid various setbacks By Gary Kohatsu

Photo by Gary Kohatsu COMING ATTRACTION?—Judy Kim, the daughter of the Gardena Cinema owners John and Nancy Kim, changes the theater marquee in this file photo taken in the fall of 2020. The theater, which converted to a popup drive-in movie house because of the pandemic, has been closed since October 2021 due to illness in the Kim family. July Kim said she hopes to reopen for outdoor movie shows this spring.

At the end of a stage performance, the cast returns for a curtain call. This is when actors receive the audience’s final applause. Gardena Cinema might be taking its last bow, or curtsy this spring. The iconic movie theater has been closed off and on since the pandemic. Recently, it has been in dormancy since October 2021 due to family illness. Manager July Kim, the daughter of theater owners John and Nancy Kim hopes to stage what could be a final comeback. She told the GVN that perhaps the Gardena Cinema might open in March and return to outdoor drive-in viewing. Sadly, indoor movies are just a memory at the Gardena Cinema. 75 years ago Hollywood released “Miracle on 34th Street,” a sentimental comedy-drama in 1947 about a department store Santa Claus with an identity crisis, whose case ends up in court. There is no record of “Miracle” ever playing at the newlybuilt Park Theatre in Gardena. However, there is evidence that this theater would wrestle with its own identity crisis that would span three-quarters of a century. For the Park Theatre, a cinema built in December 1946, having multiple identities would not be cause for alarm. In fact, new names, owners, marketing strategies, minor make-overs and equipment upgrades would pave the way to the Park Theater’s salvation, not ruin. Flash Forward to March 2020. Now called the Gardena Cinema and still standing at 14948 Crenshaw Blvd., this majestic walk-in movie theater retained much of its original charm and features: 800 seats, a single 37-foot screen, a small but wellstocked snack bar, twin balconies, two cry rooms and plenty of ambiance of days past. Unlike other single-screen, independent theaters built before 1950, Gardena Cinema was still showing first-run studio movies at the start of 2020. Always G-rated flicks that cater to families, theater owners say, as an ongoing effort to remain solvent. The Kim family has owned the Gardena Cinema since 1976 and three family members were working at the theater seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Dad John sold tickets, wife Nancy manned the snack bar and daughter Judy handled everything else, from setting up the digital projector and ordering supplies, to securing the next feature film and changing the lobby posters for the coming blockbuster. Then, with little warning came the plague of the 21st Century. By January 2020, COVID-19 was spreading throughout the world. It was an airborne virus more terrifying than any mutant monster movie. Suddenly, social distancing became the new normal. It took this pandemic and a state mandate to shut down the Gardena Cinema in mid-March of 2020. Nobody could blame the theater owners, John Kim, 80, and wife Nancy, 73, from choosing retirement. As with many non-essential businesses, forced closure to this theater was akin to dropping the lid on a casket. The following months saw no patrons and no money. Gardena Cinema did not even qualify for small business pandemic relief, the owners said. Like an old reel of film, the theater was shelved. Its neon lights went dark, its projector silenced, the popcorn machine unplugged and every seat was vacant. “There are extremes, steep up and downs in this business,” Judy Kim, 49, said. “When you make money, you have to save your pennies for when you’re not making any money.” Her parents were thrifty. For 40 years they tucked away money for a rainy day, she says. But their savings was running dry. By late summer 2020, many mom-and-pop businesses were in bankruptcy. The Gardena Cinema should have followed them into the abyss of closure. But a curious thing happened. The Gardena Cinema didn’t die. Judy Kim chose to soldier on despite the financial hardships and her parents retirement. As in the Michael J. Fox classic, “Back to the Future,” the Gardena Cinema turned to the past to salvage its future. Judy was approached by Alex Martinez, founder of LA Arts Society, about setting up a pop-up drive-in cinema. The GC’s adjacent parking lot would make an ideal drive-in hub and Alex had both the experience and the equipment — including an inflatable screen — to show outdoor movies at a moment’s notice. What?… outdoor picture shows? It seemed that drive-in movie viewing was making a fashionable comeback during the pandemic. Movie pundits might call this a fresh take on “the suspension of disbelief.”

Photos by Gary Kohatsu
THE SHOW MUST GO ON—The Kim family has owned the 800-seat Gardena Cinema since the 1970s. John, from left, daughter Judy and Nancy have
been the only theater employees in recent years. Both John and Nancy retired at the start of the pandemic. Judy Kim has assumed almost all of the
operational duties since March 2020. She presently has shut down the theater to care for her aging parents, and especially Nancy’s bout with cancer.

In August 2020, the opening week’s movies for the parking lot venue featured the concept of being Big. Alex chose four movies, of which Judy promptly booked: “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” “Transformers,” “Jurassic Park” and “Jaws.” “Somebody said to me, ‘why should I come out for‘Jurassic Park’? I can get that on TV,’” Alex says. “I said, ‘because it gets people out of the house. They get a new experience in a safe environment. That’s why ‘Jurassic Park’ sold out.’” STARTING OVER IN 2021 She is the guardian of two pillars of personal devotions. On one shoulder of Judy’s 5-feet high frame, she balances her parents’ welfare and declining health. On the other shoulder rests their beloved theater, with its vast history and uncertain future. Just labors of love, Kim says with an easy smile. This is a woman who follows no set routines, yet her days and nights were filled with routine duties. Everything in her life seemed to run in a continual loop. During the holiday season of 2020 and early 2021, Kim would arrive at the theater around 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, her day off. At least no film showings are scheduled for the evening. Her chocolate brown eyes would peer above a blue face mask. She studied a 16-inch laptop monitor; tracking data, booking movies, exchanging emails, checking the security cameras, posting on social media and securing doctor appointments for her parents. Once on her feet, Judy seemed to walk, talk and work in syncopation — bouncing from task to task like a human tennis ball. Her wind-blown black hair  trailing in a ponytail. Judy speaks with clarity whether in casual chit-chat or laying down the law — she is by the way, a 2003 graduate of Loyola (L.A.) Law School. Her philosophy today is to stay clutter-free. “I live a simple life,” she said unapologetically. “I always follow stoicism. I already have so much burden as it is.” She is not a woman who wastes time in front of the mirror; no make-up, no jewelry, no time for vanity. Judy Kim’s daily attire is deliberately spare: everything in black. A short-sleeved Polo shirt, jogging pants and comfortable loafers. “Black, because I come from the theater (stage training),” she says. “We wear black to be less noticeable. Beside, you can always upscale black to make colorful.” She allows for some diversity in dress. Her socks are gray and in one in ear, a Bluetooth — functional, if not fashionable. A life of zero waste entices her, but for now it’s not a practical option, she says. Judy was married once and divorced. She spent time in the TV industry working in development, but quit to support the family business. She had her own apartment, which she shared with a friend. But in 2019, she moved back to her parent’s Gardena home. Both parents make regular doctor or hospital visits, she says. Her father has lost sight in his left eye and her mother has endured two surgeries for uterine cancer. Judy has become their caregiver, she says. “I think of myself as a familial daughter,” she says. “I live for my parents. They were happy to have me back at home.” Owners then and now The former Park Theater’s origins date back to the post- World War II era. The building was constructed by C.F. Normberg, a noted architect of schools across the country.

INTERIORS—The Gardena Cinema has retained a lot of its original charm. It
is available for rental of film production companies and video productions.
The GC is one of the few stand-along movie houses that had continued to
show first-run movies—until the pandemic closed down businesses.

Through the 1950s, the Park operated as a second-run venue under the M&M Enterprises banner, with co-owner Harry Milstein running the operation. Cinematically, the Cold War era of the ‘50s gave oxygen to low-budget Science Fiction flicks, which were creations of science, exploitation and fears of nuclear war, as chronicled by websites such as Golden Age of SciFi. Among the ardent Saturday matinee patrons was Don Dear, who would later serve as a Gardena councilman and mayor starting in 1970. Dear said he grew up in the North Torrance- Gardena neighborhoods of the 1940s and ‘50s. As a young boy, he fondly remembers the Park Theatre and other local movie houses. “I was about 11 when I saw ‘The Thing (From Another World),” Dear, 81, said of the 1951 Howard Hawks’ Science Fiction classic. “A little girl sitting behind me told me to please sit up straight, so she could hide behind me. It was a very scary movie.” Joe and Mary Donato eventually took ownership of the business circa 1960, presenting double features, including Elvis movies and schlock horror films for years before selling the business in 1976. Judy says her parents were married in 1970 and immigrated to the United States in 1971 from Kwangju, South Korea. As a young girl growing up in the 1950s, Nancy had a wealthy friend whose dad owned a movie theater, Judy Kim recalls her mother often saying. “That friend would invite everybody to watch movies at their theater,” she said. “My mom thought that was the coolest thing.” Nancy dreamed of owning a cinema of her own. Husband John took note of her wish. When the Park Theatre was listed for sale in the mid-1970s, John, an electrical engineer by trade, and Nancy couldn’t resist making an offer. They were to endure a long escrow period while learning the theater business from Joe Donato, Judy says. “Before buying, my parents often would park across the street from the theater,” she said. “They would just sit in the car and scope out the place.” During this time, the Donatos raised the selling price of the theater and the Kims were faced with dropping out of the purchase. “But my Mom told my Dad, ‘I will eat one less meal a day to close escrow,’” Judy Kim said. Not long after, the Kims secured the theater to Nancy’s delight. “My mom is not a cinephile,” Judy said. “To be honest, she’s not a good movie watcher. She always falls asleep during the movie.” But the purchased theater which sits on oneacre of property, did not include the adjacent parking lot, Judy said. That became a nagging worry. Her dad worked at several jobs, simultaneously, to provide for his family and to save money for their first business venture, a Mexican market in Colton, Calif., Judy says. After securing the Theater, the Kims sold the market to their box boy and relocated from San Bernardino County to the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne. Within one year of theater ownership, the family noticed the active Latino community in their neighborhood and renamed the Park Theatre, Teatro Variedades. Judy said her parents understood the plight of Mexican immigrants and sought to fill a need in terms of cash-only entertainment. Mexican cinema The family worked with Mike Enriquez, a local businessman who would serve as their buyer of Mexican films. During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, showing Spanish-language films was very profitable for the Kims. About this time, a promoter of live Mexican entertainment rented the theater for variety stage acts. Live dance shows and singers became a Saturday afternoon staple. Teatro Variedades was drawing such huge crowds on the weekends that John Kim had to build a steel barrier at the theater’s front door that would allow only one patron to enter at a time, Judy says. Her dad would initially sell more tickets than available theater seats and got a visit from the city of Gardena fire marshal, who told him to cut it out or get slapped with a fine. Sometimes patrons would come to the theater intoxicated. John Kim, who stood a sawedoff 5 feet, 6 inches and weighed 180 pounds was the theater’s only means of security. “Some guys would want to mess around with my Dad,” Judy recalled with a chuckle. “My Dad is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do to the ninth degree. He’s like a little whale. One time this guy attacked my Dad. He had to flip the guy. I don’t think my Dad was afraid of anything, not even knives and guns.” Judy says her mom worked the concession stand during performances. She would hire young, pretty Mexican girls to help sell snacks, and to work in the ticket booth. “Guys would come for the girls and not even watch the movie,” Judy said. “When the movie ended, my Dad would say, ‘you have to buy another ticket or leave.’ So they would buy another ticket and keep talking to the girls.” As soon as their shift ended, Nancy Kim noticed the girls would pile into the bathroom and get “all dolled up” to go dancing, she recalls her mother saying. In the late 1980s, the Kim familiy’s Mexican film distributor went out of business. The family abandoned the Spanishlanguage film market and in the mid-1990s, leased the theater to a Korean distributor. The theater name was changed to “Eden” and then “Morning Calm,” but Korean movies proved too tough a sale.

NAME CHANGE—The Gardena Cinema has undergone several name
changes in its 75-year history. One of the more memorable names is
the Park Theater, which was the movie house’s name when the Kims
purchased the business in the ’70s.

Judy, who studied government and theater at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts from 1990 to 1994, returned home to help her parents. By 1996, the family was facing financial disaster. They made a few key decisions, including changing the theater name to Gardena Cinema (“we have no imagination,” Just says) and decided to show first-run Hollywood movies. “We lost our house, so we put everything into keeping the theater,” Judy Kim said. “We (consolidated) the equity from all properties we owned.” New Millennium Entering the new millennium, the Gardena Cinema featured such popular Hollywood releases as Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” “Salena” and “Pokemon.” Judy’s mom has been the family’s social butterfly. Nancy loved interacting with the customers and loves “shoot em, up movies — when she can stay awake,” Judy said. Nancy’s favorite film is 1997 action spectacle “Face/Off,” starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. “One time we were showing this really good Geena Davis movie,” she said. “My mom would promote it by telling everybody, ‘Come back for a ’Long Kiss Goodnight.’” During the recession of 2008- 2009, Judy’s younger brother Ray moved to South Korea looking for work. Today he teaches English in the family’s home country. He had been the Gardena Cinema’s projectionist. By 2013, the family shelled out $150,000 for a digital projector to replace the classic reel-to-reel film projector. Judy says it was a great investment because the digital version can be programmed to operate independently. Earning a law degree was specifically to help her family, Kim said. She believed her parents were too often victimized in the business world. Foremost on her mind was to secure the future of the Gardena Cinema. She said 70 years ago, the adjoining parking lot had been sold separate of the theater. Today, a splitting of such commercial property would be illegal. “For many years I knew that the parking lot needed to be acquired for the survival of the theater,” Kim said. “I went to law school to strategize on getting that property.” The first step was convincing the parking lot owner to give the Kims a right of first refusal on the property, Judy noted. Later the lot owner attempted to rescind that offer. In 2016, the Kims won a court case for the rights to buy the parking lot, which is on the north side of the theater. A small miracle, Judy says with chuckle. “It was a long battle,” she says. “I told my parents that my goal was to get the parking lot. Now I can die. I’ve accomplished my life goal.”

Photo by Gary Kohatsu
BACK TO THE FUTURE—Gardena Cinema kept the snack bar and
restrooms open for customers who came for the pop-up drive-in
movies in the fall of 2020. When the Kim family started showing
drive-in movies on the north wall of the theater exterior, friends
volunteered their services. Volunteers Virginia Watson and Joseph
Powers, seated left and right, watch the theater entrance during open
hours. The Gardena Cinema is hoping for a return to drive-in theater
operation this spring. Judy Kim has booked such popular ‘80s and
‘90s blockbuster films as “Back to the Future.”