From the archives: Don Edwards: Venerable Kentucky Theatre survives, defies modern 'cattle-plex' cinemas

Herald-Leader ColumnistSeptember 30, 2012 

Retired Herald-Leader columnist Don Edwards wrote much about the Kentucky Theatre. This column was originally published April 7, 2002.

A two-bit matinee, Rudolph Valentino and Lillian Gish acting, flappers dancing the Charleston and the crowd singing: "Yes, we have no bananas ... we have no bananas today!"

Against all odds, Lexington's Main Street house of dreams is still standing. For eight decades, the show has gone on.

"It was special, a class act from the beginning," said the Kentucky Theatre's longtime manager, Fred Mills. "The Switow family had successfully operated movie houses in Southern Indiana and parts of Kentucky. They were immigrants — Russian-Jewish folks — and Harry Switow was like the boy genius of the family. His father had earlier built the Strand in Lexington.

"Harry came here and literally lived in the old Lafayette Hotel in 1921 and '22 to oversee construction. Everything had to be the best, the best equipment, the best building. 'Every patron an honored guest' was his motto.

"We still try to do that. We're not a 'cattle-plex' where you herd 'em in and herd 'em out."

The $250,000 Italian-Renaissance-style building, replete with gilded cherubs on the ceiling, 1,276 seats on the floor and a $25,000 Wurlitzer organ that could make orchestral music and any sound effect the silent films required — it could even imitate a cuckoo clock — opened on Oct. 4, 1922.

The opening program was Norma Talmadge in The Eternal Flame. Prices were 25 cents for matinees, 30 cents on evenings and "never over 10 cents" for children. And, sad but true, it opened racially segregated.

The all-white Kentucky had no balcony where "colored sections" were in other downtown theaters. The Kentucky wasn't integrated until the 1960s.

For entertainment, it had everything. Uniformed ushers, first-run pictures, jazz bands and Charleston dancers on stage — and yes, even Big Blue. The University of Kentucky football and basketball games were broadcast "play by play over direct wire and announced through the Vitaphone."

And it had hyperbolic promotion stunts, such as an ambulance and nurse stationed outside in case any customer "died of fright" during the showing of Bela Lugosi playing Dracula. Talking pictures were "in" by then. A "modern marvel," newspapers called them.

My 94-year-old mother remembers riding a train to Lexington, having lunch at the Canary Cottage restaurant and going to the feature at the Kentucky as a perfect example of a rare and splendid day.

I remember the place from the 1950s, when it was beginning to show signs of wear and to be beaten out by TV and drive-in movies outside of town, such as Circle 25 and Southland 68 (both long gone now).

And you can't think about the Kentucky without thinking about the State Theatre, a Switow-built neighbor in 1929. The downscale State had not been as elegant as the Kentucky, but was once a great "popcorn-movie" house that showed lots of Westerns and adventure flicks.

The Kentucky had a major remodeling in 1958, but you could already see the handwriting on the wall for the walk-in theaters. And the State changed for a while in the 1960s. Suddenly it was an "art house" full of European pictures with English subtitles. It didn't serve popcorn; only coffee. And its patrons were people discussing "film" instead of talking about movies.

Today it's an annex of the Kentucky. The State has its own distinction — a ghost of a projectionist from years ago who died of carbon-monoxide poisoning. The shadowy figure appears only at closing time, in a seat on the left side. When an employee asks him to leave, he vanishes behind the curtain, a place where there is no exit.

The Kentucky, which was terribly damaged by a 1987 fire that spread from the then-nearby Fleur-de-Lys restaurant, has had its share of real-life celebrities. Debbie Reynolds was a guest at the reopening 10 years ago, and silent-era star Lillian Gish was at a party celebrating an earlier remodeling.

Bionic Man Lee Majors premiered a movie there called Steel, which he directed in Lexington. And in the old days, people said, Rock Hudson used to stroll over from the Gilded Cage bar next door and catch some celluloid at the Kentucky.

A real old-timer, the original mighty Wurlitzer organ, is on the way back. "We've raised about half of the $475,000 it'll take to do it," said Steve Brown, a Lexington architect who is president of a group doing the project.

"There's a three-keyboard Rodgers organ in there now. That's what we'll play later this year at an October special showing of the 1925 silent version of Phantom of the Opera."

There's life in the old Kentucky yet.

"Every movie, every stage performer," Mills, said, "is still a big event."

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