Brothers think big in Midway

gkocher1@herald-leader.comMay 18, 2009 

MIDWAY — Since reopening in 2004, the Thoroughbred Theatre has offered a variety of events, including movies, plays, concerts and community fund-raisers.

Now, two brothers who manage the theater have bigger plans.

They have formed a board of directors and have applied for non-profit status to become eligible for grants, to expand the Thoroughbred's offerings and possibly buy the building at 127 East Main Street.

"Rather than be solely an entertainment venue, we're really looking at this as an opportunity to create a community center for the arts," said Jim McDaniel, 54, who co-manages the Thoroughbred with his brother, John, 59.

The brothers bought the theater in 2002 but sold it to its current owner, Tony Moreno, in 2003. Moreno owns the building, but the McDaniels remain in charge of booking acts and events.

Moreno is considering selling the building, and the brothers wouldn't mind buying it if they can get enough financial support. In the past month, more than 30 contributors have pledged to pay $25 a month for six months into a "Cornerstone Fund" to help pay the theater's operating expenses and to expand programs. Jim's expertise as a non-profit manager and fund-raiser — he directed the Sierra Club's national campaign in the 1990s to raise more than $100 million — has come in handy.

The theater is dear to the McDaniels, in part, because they have deep roots in Midway.

They grew up there. Their grandfather was the town marshal in the early 1900s, and their father was Midway's police chief for nearly 30 years. John, a former Woodford County police officer, also writes a weekly column about Midway for The Woodford Sun.

Midway native Bob Rouse, a member of the Thoroughbred's board of directors, said he is behind the McDaniels "100 percent."

"I'm a hometown boy, too, and not only am I proud of them for what they're doing, I'm pleased they've chosen to commit themselves to filling a real void in the community," Rouse said. "Midway has lost some of its independence as it has lost its retail vibrancy, and people go out of town to do so many things. And here's one thing where we can stay in town and do, and that's enjoy arts and entertainment."

The Thoroughbred's ties to Midway also run deep.

The building opened as a theater for silent movies in 1916, and a local pianist would play to accompany the action on the screen. It continued to operate as a movie theater into the 1950s. John McDaniel recalled going there when it was run by Louise Bruen and Lula Lacefield.

"One of them sold the tickets and one of them took care of the popcorn," John McDaniel said. "Dad would give me a quarter, and 15 cents would get me a ticket, and then I went to get the popcorn, and for some reason, I just gave them my ticket and Lula Lacefield would give me a bag of popcorn and I'd just pocket the dime. They spoiled me rotten."

After the movie theater closed in the 1950s, the building was occupied by several retailers, including a hardware store.

When the McDaniel brothers bought it in 2002, it was in poor shape and needed extensive work.

That was done by Moreno, who renovated the property and incorporated details that he had salvaged from notable places associated with horses. There are paddock railings from Churchill Downs, red stall doors from the mare barn at Hamburg Place, beechwood siding from Nantura Stock Farm (home to the stallion Lexington and racing greats Longfellow and Ten Broeck) and green doors from the mare barn at Faraway Farm, where champion Man o' War retired, stood at stud and died.

"I wanted to create an atmosphere and a feel so that when you walked in there, you knew where you were," Moreno said.

The events held at the Thoroughbred are notable for their variety. There have been swing dance lessons; an exhibit of paintings created by the Lexington woman with multiple personalities known simply as "Sybil;" and fund-raisers for Old Friends, a retirement center for thoroughbred horses, and for Francisco's Farm Arts Festival, the annual summer show on the Midway College campus.

Performances on the Thoroughbred's stage have included a Russian clown-mime troupe; the Dillards, the bluegrass group famous for their appearances on The Andy Griffith Show; and a one-man play about Albert Einstein. The theater periodically hosts a "teen night," which opens the stage to local rock bands. And every third Thursday, the theater hosts a family night, when parents and children can have pizza and see a movie.

As more money comes in, the board of directors hopes to expand the Thoroughbred's programming so it can be a true arts center. The vision includes offering an arts-education program for children, establishing a children's theater, a community theater for adult actors, and perhaps a film festival.

In the meantime, the theater is gearing up to host comedian Etta May. Her May 28 and June 4 shows are sold out, and tickets are selling briskly for two more performances on June 5 and 6.

Moreno supports the effort to raise public awareness about the theater.

"What the McDaniels are doing is really smart," he said. "If those guys can do what they think they can do, I'm willing to stick in it with a long-term lease. But at the same time, I think they would rather build equity in the facility. I would definitely sell to them."

Greg Kocher covers Woodford County for the Herald-Leader. Reach him in the Nicholasville bureau at (859) 885-5775.

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