Frankfort's Grand will embrace the past with modern twist

shopkins@herald-leader.comMay 18, 2009 

FRANKFORT — Exposed brick and a rugged concrete wall in an area that will be used as a concession for popcorn, candy and wine suggest that the historical Grand Theatre is far from completion.

But once the sawdust is swept away and exposed wires are hidden, the wall will remain.

"We wanted to preserve and display some of the historic fabric," said Bill Cull, president of Save the Grand Inc., a non-profit created in 2002 to help restore the downtown Frankfort theater. "People in the community love seeing the reflection of history."

A $5 million project to renovate the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St., is expected to be complete by the end of July, and there will be a grand opening in September, Cull said.

The theater was built in 1911 as a 135-seat vaudeville house. In 1941, it was turned into a modern, 680-seat movie theater. It closed in the mid-1960s and has served as office and commercial space for a variety of businesses.

There was some talk about renovating the Grand in 1983 after a study that suggested that more evening entertainment was needed in the area. Organizers of that effort, including Cull, were unable to raise enough money for the renovations.

But the idea has finally come to fruition. The project is expected to revitalize downtown and keep people from having to travel to Louisville and Lexington for entertainment,

Frankfort Mayor Gippy Graham said the community will embrace the theater when it opens this fall.

"I'm very excited," Graham said. "I just think it's going to have a big impact on attracting people and getting more people downtown."

Joy Jeffries, executive director of the Frankfort/Franklin County Tourism Commission, said she's pleased that the Grand will provide visitors with cultural activities in the evening. She said Frankfort has bars and cafés that offer live music and other entertainment, such as poetry readings, but the Grand will have more diverse program.

"They are looking at the whole gamut of the arts," she said. "I've seen their first season, and it's going to be incredible. I'm very excited."

She said the Grand will host programs for the young and old, including jazz, musicals and ballets.

"It's a very eclectic program designed to reach a variety of ages and interests," she said.

Events this fall will include R&B groups The Platters and The Coasters, a New York Theatre Ballet production of Sleeping Beauty, and singer John Sebastian, who will perform during the Alltech Fortnight Festival, Cull said.

Movies will include first-run, critically acclaimed films.

In 2006, the theater opened with a limited occupancy of about 200 people. About 7,000 paid admissions were sold for about 34 events, including music and children's theater. Movies shown that year included Good Night, and Good Luck; Crash; and Syriana.

"It was a tremendous success," Cull said. "We felt it proved the community wanted the theater."

He said the success in 2006 helped theater organizers obtain some money from the legislature and encouraged Franklin Fiscal Court to levy bonds for the project.

The theater will open using all-volunteer labor, which could be difficult, Cull said.

"It has to be skilled labor or people who care," said Cull, who has teamed up with volunteers to do some renovations. "It's a challenge."

Cull said organizers hope to eventually hire an executive director and a technical director, possibly next year.

The Grand will give visitors a taste of the old — with some modern sparkle.

The flashing blue-and-yellow marquee — paid for with a state Renaissance on Main grant — is a reproduction of the one that was removed after the theater closed.

Renaissance on Main grants have financed a variety of improvements to downtowns statewide, including façade repairs, property renovations and streetscape repairs and improvements

Wall stenciling throughout the theater remains from the original building. And many light fixtures and design elements are reminiscent of what was prevalent seven decades ago.

Because the grand was only a movie theater in the 1940s, a stage for performing arts has been built and a historic home next to the theatre was bought to provide dressing areas and lockers for performers.

A door once used by black patrons during segregation has been replaced by a glass ticket window facing St. Clair Street. And the balcony, where blacks were required to sit then, has been redesigned so that people sitting there can see the new stage.

"Though it was built for the wrong reasons, it's still the best seat in the house," Cull said, standing in the balcony as crews worked last week.

The balcony will have about 155 seats. The lower level will have about 260.

A reception and catering area in a space that used to house an old air conditioner and other equipment will be used for art exhibits and gatherings at event openings.

"It's going to be fun," Cull said. "And, hopefully, it will pay its way."

Shawntaye Hopkins covers Franklin County. Reach her at (502)867-1354.

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