The Kentucky Theatre at 90: Downtown silver screen has had a golden history

jpatton1@herald-leader.comSeptember 30, 2012 

For 20 years, Lexingtonians routinely checked their refrigerator doors to see what would be playing at The Kentucky Theatre before making plans.

In fact, during the 1980s and '90s, you could tell what kind of party you were at just by whether The Kentucky's eclectic, art-house cinema schedule was pinned up somewhere. (The conventional wisdom: No calendar? Don't expect sparkling conversation.)

People still complain, more than a decade later, that The Kentucky's switch back to first-run movies in 1999 meant the end of the six-week schedule with a rotating lineup of movies.

The Kentucky, celebrating its 90th birthday this week, is so ubiquitous to downtown Lexington life that any change, no matter how minor, can have the phone ringing in longtime manager Fred Mills' office.

So imagine the cataclysmic effect of an October 1987 fire that shut down the theater for almost five years.

Mills credits then-Mayor Scotty Baesler with having the vision to find a way to bring back the Main Street icon.

"It was obvious we should fix The Kentucky Theatre," Baesler said recently. "It was worth saving. It wasn't a hard thing to decide to do. ... I've always felt you had to take care of the cultural stuff."

Baesler; Pam Miller, who was then vice mayor; and the Urban County Council eventually used $2.3 million from a $6 million bond issue to buy and renovate the fire-damaged Kentucky Theatre and its neighboring State Theatre.

Demand to bring back The Kentucky was overwhelming, Miller said. She raised almost $80,000 for the rebuild from "hundreds of people who didn't have a lot of money but wanted to save this glorious landmark, which enjoys a great deal of support and affection."

For Central Kentucky residents growing up in the 1930s and '40s, a day trip to Lexington on the streetcar, shopping at Wolf Wile department store beside Union Station, lunch at the Canary Cottage ("the South's most exclusive soda luncheonette") next to the Western Union telegraph office and a matinee at The Kentucky could hardly be beat.

Longtime Lexingtonian Ted Bassett fondly remembers The Kentucky and the State, with its cowboy "oaters" and serials under twinkling "stars" in the ceiling.

"In those early days, it was really upscale. Down on the left-hand side you had an organist" playing songs for the crowd to sing along to the bouncing ball on the screen, he said.

Even then, The Kentucky brought out the best in a lot of people.

"Everybody seemed to know everybody," he said. "It was really a wonderful, warm community feeling."

The history of The Kentucky in many ways mirrors that of Lexington: the launch into the modern era after World War I, when automobiles finally displaced horses alongside the streetcars on Main Street; the rush to the suburbs in the 1970s, with multiplexes replacing grand old theaters; and finally the ongoing rebirth of downtown.

Theaters, whales and eskimos

In the 1920s, Lexington and Fayette County, with a population of nearly 55,000, were roaring right along with the rest of the country, to the outrage of preachers and politicians.

The city had hundreds of saloons and dance halls, and there were raging campaigns for enforcing "blue laws" to stop Sunday movies, which were seen as contributing to the moral degradation of minors, women, servants and the working class in general.

According to the New History of Kentucky, automobiles and motion pictures were reviled as sin-stirrers, right up there with bathtub gin and women riding horses astride; despite a local censorship ordinance, Lexington, with electric interurban streetcars to bring foot traffic downtown and from surrounding small towns, was a major entertainment hub.

Local leaders at the time acknowledged movies as the dominant leisure activity and a major form of communication: When President Warren G. Harding died in office in 1923, many Lexingtonians heard the funeral address at a movie theater such as the Ben Ali on Main Street.

Lexingtonians had myriad entertainment options, including roller rinks, miniature golf and amusement parks. Special touring shows such as carnivals, a 50-foot embalmed whale in a train car or a family of Eskimos could count on drawing big crowds with a stopover here.

Special from the start

But The Kentucky Theatre wanted to be special from the beginning.

In 1921, the newly formed Lafayette Amusement Co. announced plans to build a "palatial new photoplay house" on the site of a former livery stable and adjacent to the new Lafayette Hotel on Main Street. It would not be the biggest (the lavish Ben Ali across the street, with its double balconies and luxury boxes on the sides, was bigger), but it aimed to be the best.

Even in an era of ornate movie houses, the Kentucky's marble, its hand-carved woodwork and its enormous art-glass skylights set it apart. According to newspaper accounts, the marble alone cost $18,000, the plumbing $16,000, the ornamental metal $10,000 and the Wurlitzer organ $25,000 — the equivalent of nearly $1 million in today's dollars.

The skylights even had special effects. The projectionist could change the color of light behind them, making the sky look cool blue on a summer day or giving it a warming orange glow during winter. With a change in light color, the theater could shift the mood along with the movies, which were silent.

Lexington's was actually the second version of The Kentucky. A year earlier, the Switow family had opened a similar theater in Louisville, also called the Kentucky and designed by the same architects, Joseph and Joseph of Louisville.

The Switow family, Russian Jewish immigrants who set up movie houses in Indiana and Louisville, built Lexington's Kentucky Theatre for an estimated $250,000 — about $3.4 million in today's dollars. Son Harry Switow, 24, living in the Lafayette Hotel, oversaw the design, down to the salmon-pink glazed terra cotta bricks on the Italian Renaissance façade.

The marquee stretched across two storefronts and had more than 4,000 lights, but it didn't have any place to list movies. Typically, they were promoted with eye-catching displays known as standees.

The grand opening

At The Kentucky's gala grand opening on Oct. 4, 1922, all 1,276 seats were filled to see Norma Talmadge in the long-since-forgotten film The Eternal Flame.

Organist H. Haden Read, formerly of Louisville's posh Rialto, performed a concert, wrapping up with My Old Kentucky Home while city commissioners led the audience in song.

Then-Gov. Edwin P. Morrow, speaking at the event, hailed the theater as an expression of faith in the future of Lexington and the surrounding community.

"The commonwealth is greater and richer today than it was yesterday by reason of the completion and dedication of a handsome new theater building," Morrow said.

For matinees, adults paid 25 cents; evening, Sunday and holiday admission was 30 cents. Children got in for a dime.

In ads in The Lexington Herald, management touted "More Luxury for Lexington. Every Patron an Honored Guest." In slightly smaller print: "All Seats on One Floor. Built for Safety and Comfort."

That was probably code for whites only, wrote Gregory A. Waller, a former University of Kentucky professor now at Indiana University in Bloomington, in his book, Main Street Amusements, about Lexington's entertainment scene at the turn of the last century.

Most of the other theaters in the city had "colored" balconies. The Strand, built in 1915 by Switow's father, Michael, originally was to have had a blacks-only balcony. But after a local takeover engineered by city boss William Frederick "Billy" Klair, the Strand announced it would be "exclusively for white patrons."

The Kentucky had no balcony from the beginning (the small one it has now is for sound and lighting control during performances), and it wouldn't be open to black patrons until the early 1960s. The adjacent State Theatre, built in 1929, also by the Switows, had a balcony for blacks, who entered from Main Street via a staircase on the west side of The Kentucky and then crossed to the State.

But the ad's claim that it was "Built for Safety" might have been real. Mills, the longtime theater manager, said that in an era when theater fires were common, The Kentucky had double the aisles and exits of most theaters, and the windows over the projection room would slam shut, giving the audience a better chance to escape, if the ultraflammable nitrate-based film then in use caught fire.

Making movie and basketball history

In many ways, The Kentucky Theatre was ahead of industry standards for years.

In the era before "talkies," The Kentucky in 1926 upgraded to a better Wurlitzer organ. It could make any sound needed for a film — from thunder to thundering horses' hooves — and it filled the huge theater with music.

But in June 1928 and again in 1932, it filled with water. Downtown Lexington flooded, and 3 feet of water soaked The Kentucky's Mighty Wurlitzer in its organ pit. The instrument has not really been restored to full glory since.

Luckily, in 1927 The Kentucky had been one of the first 50 theaters outfitted with Warner Bros.' new Vitaphone sound equipment, a kind of record that played dialogue and sound synchronized to a film.

That same year, The Kentucky added a wider screen and reportedly became the first theater anywhere to present in its full glory the dramatic aerial dogfight in the film Wings, which won the first Oscar for best picture, awarded in 1929. The screen apparently expanded to the full width of the stage for that scene and then went back to normal for the rest of the movie.

Always eager to find an edge in the competitive theater market, The Kentucky also was sports-savvy. In 1925, operators arranged to receive updates of the Kentucky-Georgia basketball game by telegraph and gave the audience a running account. That proved so popular they did the same thing with the UK-Tennessee football game in 1926.

The theater still hosts free broadcasts of some UK basketball games during tournament season.

But the real sports milestone came in 1928, when the theater might have been the first to air a state basketball championship — the famous meeting in which the "Barefoot Boys from Carr Creek," an Eastern Kentucky hamlet, lost to the Ashland High School Tomcats.

At the time, the state championships were played in UK's Alumni Gym, which seated 2,500. According to lore, UK athletics director S.A. "Daddy" Boles came up with the idea to run a telephone line from the gym to The Kentucky Theatre and air the announcer's play-by-play of the game, giving 1,200 more fans a place to enjoy the game, which went to four overtimes before the Tomcats won 13-11.

Another 1928 double bill featured the "fantastic, futuristic, fatalistic" film Metropolis along with play-by-play from the Kentucky-Tennessee basketball game.

Also one of the first buildings to get air conditioning, The Kentucky flourished through the Great Depression and World War II. It was renovated in 1933, and it got a new marquee in time for the Lexington premiere of Gone With the Wind in 1940, a face lift in 1958 and a major overhaul in 1981. The last milestone was celebrated with a gala attended by silent film star Lillian Gish.

The difficult years

By then, the theater scene had taken on a new look in another way. As downtown went downhill and suburban cineplexes opened, Lexington's ornate theaters began falling under the wrecking ball.

The Ada Meade Theatre on West Main Street went in 1955; the 1,500-seat Ben Ali, at Main Street and Limestone, was demolished in 1965; and the nearby Strand disappeared in 1979. Only The Kentucky and State were left — and they had fallen on hard economic times.

Fred Mills, who was hired at the State as a 17-year-old usher in 1963, was by then manager of both theaters (and the Strand, too, until it closed).

Although the Switow family still owned the theaters, operation of The Kentucky and the State had changed hands a few times during the decades. Among the operators was the Schine company.

For a short time, the State became a popular art house known as the Downtown Cinema, which served coffee and foreign candy but no popcorn; The Kentucky showed "blaxploitation" and karate films.

Even so, Schine realized the only way to make enough money to keep The Kentucky going was to show pornography at the Cinema.

"Folks out of New York turned the Cinema into an X-rated theater," Mills said.

In the days before VCRs, DVDs and the Internet, if one wanted to see what was Behind the Green Door, one had to go to movie theaters.

"It was profitable because it was pretty new and different. That was supporting The Kentucky to a great extent," Mills said.

He was cited with indecency charges several times, but the charges were always dropped.

"I was the porn king of Lexington for a time," Mills said.

The calendar that saved the show

When the Switows resumed control in 1978, they changed The Kentucky's schedule on the advice of their film booker, Larry Thomas, from low-budget slashers to an art house repertory style that was becoming popular in cities around the country.

The six-week paper calendar of movie listings saved The Kentucky Theatre, said Mills. At its height, The Kentucky would print as many as 45,000 for free distribution.

"I think it really was the schedule that turned things around for The Kentucky. And I'm quite confident The Kentucky's ranked right up there with the better repertory and revival houses in the country," Mills said of the calendar. "Everybody had them on their refrigerator, their pantry door. College students had them up on the walls."

The Switows also tried to switch off the porn in the State, "but the timing just wasn't right," Mills said.

By the mid-'80s, the owners announced one weekend that the theater would switch the next week from porn to dollar movies. No one complained, Mills said; the world had moved on.

Another curious phenomenon happened about the same time: midnight movies. Hundreds would come downtown each Friday and Saturday night to watch just about anything and hang out together. The pinnacle: two straight years in the '80s of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

"Rocky Horror helped," Mills said. It helped expose The Kentucky to a new generation, he said.

As more and more young people came to do the Time Warp again, stalwart projectionist (and former chief usher) Raymond Mitchell also became head of security.

The midnight movies and the art house calendar proved The Kentucky could still draw big crowds for the right kind of fare.

By booking an eclectic mix of old movies, arty films and slightly stale new releases, The Kentucky brought hipsters, young and old, back downtown and formed a community.

Community without a hub

Then came the fire, almost 65 years to the day the theater opened.

In 1987, a fire was set at the Fleur-de-Lys restaurant adjoining The Kentucky. Police arrested Frank Leslie Yates fleeing the scene about 4 a.m. Oct. 2, just before the blaze was discovered. (Yates eventually was sentenced to three years in prison for burglary and theft; the arson charge was dropped when he pleaded guilty.)

Coincidentally, Mills, recently back from his honeymoon with former concession stand worker Judy Adams, had just eaten at the Fleur-de-Lys. After starting the 7:30 p.m. feature (the voodoo-themed horror film Angel Heart), the Millses went out to dinner. After the last show, they locked up and Judy went to stay with her ailing mother at Central Church Apartments while Fred went home.

About 4:30 a.m., firefighter Harold Jones, a friend, called Fred Mills. "You'd better get downtown. The theater is on fire. It looks like the entire block is on fire, but we can't tell."

The Kentucky was not badly damaged by fire, but smoke and water took their toll. The lobby's white marble floor looked like asphalt; the carpet, ceilings and walls were covered with sticky black film.

Still, everyone involved seemed optimistic, predicting The Kentucky might reopen in a few months.

Instead, it would take 4½ years, myriad citizen petitions, a lawsuit, a settlement, a bond issue and an innovative purchase by the city to save The Kentucky.

In December 1989, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council, after tireless negotiations by Mayor Baesler, Miller and others, voted to buy the property.

Even then, things weren't smooth. After the city purchase, Mitchell, the projectionist, heard that workers were cleaning up the theater and arrived just as they were about to pitch the 1950s-era Century projectors into the trash. He managed to get them in his trunk and took them home; they eventually were cleaned and restored and are the same ones in use now.

It took three more months to come up with a way to run The Kentucky as a movie theater again — an arms-length arrangement that gave The Kentucky Theater Group, a group of investors headed by Howard Stovall and Analy Scorsone, control of the films and shows.

Stovall promised that Mills would be "very much involved" in The Kentucky's future.

In truth, Mills always had been; everywhere he went, people would ask when The Kentucky would be back. To fill his time, he took part-time jobs, mostly gardening, and he worked at the Lexington Children's Museum. He went to the movies only once, he said recently, after he was invited to the grand opening of the cinemas at Woodhill. He doesn't remember what he saw.

"It wasn't like my theater," Mills said politely.

"Even to look at the theater page in the newspaper really bothered me a whole lot," Mills said in a 1992 interview. "I just thought if I wasn't around it, it seemed like I was able to handle it. That was my way of escaping it."

The big comeback scene

Work to rebuild The Kentucky began in fall 1990. In September, as they sorted through the film in the projection room, employees found trailers for The Graduate, Woodstock: The Movie and The Last Picture Show.

Enough had been accomplished to turn on the lights of the restored marquee for Christmas Eve.

To rebuild The Kentucky in the public mind, leaders planned a grand reopening: To give the theater's longtime supporters a chance to get involved, they sold theater seats for $200, including tickets to the first movie and a promised reception. Signs advertising the event went up in time for the 1991 Fourth of July festivities downtown. By March 1992, more than 260 seats had been sold.

"Nothing has been more fun," Miller said at the time. "There's been no arm-twisting on the seat selling."

Eventually, about 400 people bought brass nameplates for about half the 810 burgundy seats, many in honor of a special theater memory.

In a 1992 story in the Herald-Leader, Todd Garland and Carol Warren of Cumberland said they bought a seat to commemorate the kiss they shared when they left the theater after seeing Breakfast at Tiffany's. Patricia L. Durham said she bought a seat in memory of her vaudeville dancer uncle, Link, who performed on The Kentucky stage decades before.

Finally, on April 11, 1992, The Kentucky Theatre reopened with an invitation-only screening of the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls and a reception for 1,500 with movie star Debbie Reynolds. (City leaders mistakenly selected the film thinking she was in it; she was not, but they didn't know that until the night of the grand reopening.)

Mills made up for the error: Singin' in the Rain, Reynolds' classic film about Hollywood's transition to talkies, played that Sunday, along with Jesus of Montreal, Bugsy, Thelma and Louise and, appropriately, Cinema Paradiso,

The Kentucky also brought back midnight movies to lure students: Pink Floyd: The Wall; U2: Rattle and Hum and even bawdy old Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The crowds returned, as Mills, Mitchell, Baesler, Miller and myriad other diehard downtown denizens always insisted they would.

Less than a year after the reopening, average monthly attendance was slightly less than 9,000, better than before the fire, Mills said.

"They did come back," Mills said.

They came to see Howards End and Casablanca and Blade Runner and A River Runs Through It.

But most of all, they came to see The Kentucky.

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl.

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