For Clooneys, Kentucky Theatre and 'South Pacific' make for some enchanted evening

jpatton1@herald-leader.comMay 16, 2014 

  • Kentucky Theatre Grand Reopening Celebration

    What: Screening of the 1958 classic film South Pacific, hosted by Nick and Nina Clooney, to mark theater's reopening after an extensive renovation

    When: 7 p.m. May 21. Doors open at 6 p.m.

    Where: Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St.

    Admission: Free, but tickets are required. Available first-come, first-served after 2 p.m. May 18 and after 5 p.m. May 19 and 20. Limit two per patron.

    Learn more: (859) 231-7924, Kentuckytheater.com

When the Kentucky Theatre shows the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic South Pacific next week for its grand reopening celebration, it will be a romantic homecoming for the evening's hosts, Nick and Nina Clooney.

The downtown Lexington movie house was where they had their first date in 1959, to see the musical based on the James A. Michener novel. Tickets were 75 cents each.

Then 25, Nick Clooney was living in Lexington, working in broadcasting, and he had been asked to direct the Miss Lexington pageant. Nina Warren, a beautiful University of Kentucky student from Perryville, won the pageant — and Clooney's heart.

"He just swept me off my feet," Nina said in an interview Wednesday. "If I hadn't been right in from the sticks, who knows?"

Nick left little to chance: Before their June first date, he traded in his old Chrysler.

"He was certain I needed to be impressed. So he goes and buys a 1959 cherry-red Corvette," Nina said. "Brand-new. And believe me, I was impressed. I was also horrified, because he came to pick me up at the farm ... and the road up to our house had boulders as big as the car. I was afraid for the car, embarrassed by the road."

But Nick was undaunted.

"Knowing what Nina looked like, I didn't care about the road," Clooney said. "Off we went, on a 50-mile drive, in my brand-spanking-new Corvette, which I barely knew how to drive, to the Kentucky Theatre. It was a very big deal.

"The movie was South Pacific, and I had been lucky enough as a kid to see it in the theater in New York, when visiting my sister Rosemary. So I was being a big-shot, telling her what the movie was going to be about."

It was raining on the way up, Nick remembers, so he put the hard top on the car, a convertible.

"But the roof leaked, and it leaked all over her nylons," he said.

Didn't matter.

"It was beautiful, and a terrific story," Nina said.

"The Technicolor just enveloped you, with Mitzi Gaynor, just as cute as 7-Up ... And the music. It was great," Nick said.

Must have been: They were married two months later.

Like their nearly 55-year marriage, the film has staying power.

"It's a great film, a cutting from time," said Nick, who once used the Kentucky Theatre as the set for introducing (what else?) South Pacific when he was the classic-films host on the AMC television network.

Nick also has lectured at American University on films and how they have shaped our times.

South Pacific, a musical about the romance between an American nurse and a Frenchman on a tropical island, reflects the World War II era, Nick said.

"Everything before it led up to it and everything since led away from it," Clooney said.

The film's themes of American optimism and overcoming racism resonate today, he said.

Despite the cultural relevance, his favorite memory from that night in June 1959 is more personal.

"If I go back to the moment, with Nina and me, it's the love song from it: Some Enchanted Evening," Clooney said.

"Nina knocked my socks off the very first time I saw her. Nina was Nina. She's absolutely one of a kind. And she's still a knockout. I married the prettiest girl I ever saw, and we had two kids (George and Ada), who still talk to me."

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

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