Nostalgic Joy Awaits at One of the Last Family-Owned Movie Theatres

Pure imagination.

  • Category
    Arts, People
  • Written by
    Scott Sanford Tobis
  • Photographed by
    Adelaide Brannan

When many of us were children, we fantasized about growing up in a unique environment—a candy factory, an amusement park, a movie theatre. We’ve all seen what happens when one takes possession of a chocolate factory (four times on the big screen and counting, in fact). And there are far too many horror movies detailing the brutality transpiring behind the scenes in amusement parks. 

But for Judy Kim, the dream of many a childhood was her reality. This South Bay native quite literally grew up in a movie theatre: Gardena Cinema.  

It was actually the dream of Judy’s mother, Nancy, to own a theatre. As a child growing up in South Korea, her best friend bragged about her parents managing a local theatre. Nancy thought that sounded like the most wonderful thing imaginable. 

So after she and her husband, John, a former engineer, immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s, John worked his way from janitor to owning his own business and then set on a quest to find a theatre to fulfill his wife’s dreams. By the time they found Gardena Cinema in 1975, the Kims had added Judy to their family. The same Judy has successfully run the theatre through the modern era: the economic downswing, the pandemic, neighbors’ unethical business practices, and more. 

Although she may describe herself as “made in Korea, born in the U.S.,” Judy could realistically add “raised in a movie theatre” since she spent her formative years in every part of the Gardena Cinema building. The Kims took over the theatre when Judy was only 4 years old. She spent her days in the front box office, sitting on the lap of Stella (the then-teenage employee now known as Stella Stray Pop, a renowned radio DJ). She napped in the upstairs office and toddled around the theatre, creating the kind of general havoc only a small child can manage. 

Judy’s early memories are likely mixed with the films that were projected on the big screen, but her mind is firmly planted in the real world. She did not initially want to be in the family business—graduating from Smith College and working for theatrical producers at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

She came back home when a family crisis arose and eventually earned a law degree from Loyola after witnessing many small local businesses being taken advantage of by unscrupulous lenders and businesses. However, Stella recalls John demanding that his daughter go to law school in order to facilitate the purchase of the parking lot next door, which they eventually did in 2018—a detail that likely saved the theatre during the pandemic when it became a temporary pop-up drive-in theatre.

Gardena Cinema has evolved and changed with the times. It first opened in 1946 and has had many incarnations over the years, including Park Theatre and Teatro Variedades. These days it looks like a time capsule from the ’50s, with an old-fashioned ticket booth, a single screen and “cry rooms” upstairs on both sides of the auditorium. (Stella recalls one particular employee using the rooms for make-out sessions back in the ’70s.) 

Gardena Cinema has been a labor of love for the Kim family—but not exactly a money-making machine. With the arrival of multiplexes as well as luxury theatres with dine-in options, independent theatres find it hard to survive. 

Judy’s ingenuity and financial acumen has kept the business alive. Gardena Cinema has been the location for the Eddie Murphy film Dolemite Is My Name; for college students’ film shoots; for monthly screenings of classic 3D films, as well as the occasional independent film and special shows hosted by See It On 16mm; for local filmmaking groups’ meetings; and special events.

Gardena Cinema is a special place and a much-needed dose of culture in the South Bay. But its future is unclear. 

Since Nancy, the matriarch of the family, passed away in 2022, John desires to travel. And Judy, being the good daughter, is eager to oblige her father. Yet her love of the theatre the family has owned for almost 50 years and her passion for movies and the community make this a difficult process. 

She has endeavored to turn the theatre into a nonprofit venue. With the array of volunteer staff who help run it, she has almost met her goal. There have been offers to buy the theatre, but Judy hopes she can maintain it while also helping her father achieve his dream—the way he helped her mother achieve her dream by purchasing this beloved South Bay venue. 

Here’s hoping for another 50 years. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and check out Gardena Cinema in the coming months. Whether it’s a classic film, a cult favorite like Judy’s pick I Wanna Hold Your Hand or an indie passion project, it will surely be a unique experience. 

Be sure to say hello to Judy. She’s almost guaranteed to be there—whether it’s behind the ticket booth or the concession stand, or happily wandering around the lobby the same way she did as a young girl. Gardena Cinema is her home, and she’s a welcoming presence.