By Isabel Yates
What is one of the most popular places to go downtown in the hot summer? It’s the Kentucky Theatre on East Main on a Wednesday night! From late May through early September the Kentucky offers matinee and evening performances of old classic movies, such as “Casablanca” or “African Queen”. People are always seen standing in line to get tickets and sometimes several have to be turned away because of a sold-out house.
Fred Mills, General Manager of the Kentucky says, “We have many “regulars” who never miss a Wednesday night in the summer, but also, we have just as many loyal fans who see every new film that is shown here. The Kentucky fits a niche. Many films are shown here that otherwise would never come to Kentucky.”
Mills gives credit to the film booker he has worked with for many years for helping him select the type film, foreign or American, which will be appreciated and successful in the Bluegrass area.
The summer Classic Series, which is thoroughly enjoyed here, is only shown in eight or ten other theaters nationwide.
However, the summer offerings are only a small part of the overall impact of this downtown entertainment center. New films are always shown on the long weekends, but during the first part of the week, there are often major concerts, lectures, meetings, local films made by citizens or non-profit groups.
One Monday night event, which has been very successful over the last 12 or 15 years, has been Michael Jonathan’s “Woodsongs Radio Hour”, which is now broadcast, not only nationally, but internationally. Many other organizations, such as McConnell Springs, the Henry Clay Foundation, the Rape Crisis Center, Chase Bank, for example, have used the Kentucky for special presentations, films, or group meetings.
Civic-minded Mills calls the Kentucky, “everybody’s theater,” and he works tirelessly with the diverse groups to give them a day and time that his schedule will permit. In addition, he often shows University of Kentucky football and basketball games, especially when UK plays arch rival Louisville. Besides countless students who attend, many families bring their children to enjoy the excitement and, of course, the sodas and popcorn!
The Kentucky Theatre has been serving the public in this manner since 1992, along with its companion and adjacent movie house, The State Theatre, which shows films and also serves as a community venue. Both theaters were built by the Switow Family, who were Russian Jewish immigrants. The Kentucky actually opened in 1922 as a movie theater with an elegant décor and was one of the first 50 in the nation to have sound. It operated continuously until 1987 when a fire broke out in a nearby restaurant, causing such heavy damage to the Kentucky that it had to close.
For several years, many efforts were made by citizens to try to save this historic structure, but the private sector was unable to come up with the funds for renovation. In 1989, Mayor Scotty Baesler and Vice Mayor Pam Miller decided to get the Urban County Government involved to restore and preserve the magnificent old movie house. Not only was this an historic building, but because of its proximity to the government building, restoration would provide two floors of office space for the government. Thus, the building was purchased and then the campaign began to raise funds for the furnishings. The new seats in the theater were sold to the public for $200 each, giving each purchaser a brass name plate in the seat of choice and an invitation to the gala opening.
Under government supervision, the building was restored to most of its former splendor, the campaign for interior furnishings was successful, and the Grand Opening took place on April 11, 1992! The city negotiated a management contract with the Kentucky Theatre group, a local partnership made up of Howard Stovall, Analy Scorsone, and Fred Mills, who serves as General Manager. Mills has long been associated with the Kentucky and aptly quotes the movies by his summary, “It’s been a wonderful life”.
The Kentucky Theatre plays a vital role in the community and is a” classic” in itself on a Wednesday or any other day in the year.
Isabel Yates is a well-known Lexington personality, having served as vice mayor and as a volunteer in numerous community and civic organizations. She’s an active proponent and fundraiser for arts and cultural organizations, historic and preservation interests, health and wellness, economic development and more. She has been an effective “Ambassador” for the Bluegrass for over 40 years, with accollades too numerous to list. An advocate for women’s education and advancement, she is a widow and the mother of four grown children. She joins KyForward as a regular contributor.