If you’ve ever visited the Kentucky Theatre, Fred Mills probably knows you.
He knows thousands of Lexington-area residents by their first name, last name, place of employment or vehicle.
The Kentucky will be 95 in April 2017. Mills, who will be 70 on New Year’s Day, has seen most of its history.
“Really, the theater would not be the Kentucky Theatre without Fred Mills,” said Analy Scorsone, who along with Lexington businessman Howard Stovall and Mills oversees the theater’s business. Lexington city government owns the building.
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Scorsone and Stovall have been involved with the theater since they worked to have it restored and reopened after it was closed by a fire at the former Fleur de Lys restaurant next door on Oct. 2, 1987. The theater reopened in 1992.
Mills started working at the Kentucky Theatre on Main Street while in high school at Henry Clay. A neighbor was a manager and asked Mills if he wanted a job.
Mills liked the work, so he then commuted from Eastern Kentucky University to Lexington to work at the theater on weekends.
He did his student teaching at the old Lexington Junior High School, now Lexington Traditional Magnet. His supervisor was the late S.T. Roach, who had just stopped coaching basketball at the old Dunbar High School — where he was a local legend for being at the forefront of integrating the high school game — and had gone into school administration.
By the time he graduated from EKU, Mills saw that there wasn’t a great booming demand for history teachers. So he returned to the theater as a manager, except for a one-year slight detour at Lexington’s Strand Theatre, (which closed in 1974 and was demolished) and the years when the Kentucky was closed because of the fire next door.
He has been there ever since. That’s more than 50 years.
People mistakenly think that Mills watches movies all the time. He doesn’t.
But he can tell almost from the start whether a movie will be a success. That’s why he doesn’t like to lock the Kentucky into long-running movies that might not catch on.
Still, he has seen a lot of movies. His favorite is one of the greats.
“I still think it’s awfully hard to beat ‘Casablanca,’” Mills said.
“Casablanca” is the 1942 classic film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as star-crossed lovers and Claude Rains as the mildly corrupt police inspector who just can’t be bothered with the Nazis. Besides the snappy dialogue, the film, which was not a big hit initially, features the song “As Time Goes By.”
Ironically, “Casablanca” was one of the last movies shown at the Kentucky Theatre before it closed for another restoration and cleaning in February 2014.
That restoration was spurred, in part, by former vice mayor Isabel Yates passing Mills on her way out of an event at the Kentucky Theatre and saying, “Fred, can’t you do anything about those seats?”
Yates went on to chair Friends of the Kentucky, which raised money for the renovation.
The Kentucky Theatre opened in 1922, the same year as the lavish movie palace Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, which would host the first-ever Hollywood film premiere. The Kentucky had tapestries on its walls and thick carpets for patrons; a full-price adult ticket was 30 cents, and the open advertisement boasted that “the modern ventilation system keeps the air as fresh as a hill breeze.”
Jackie Coogan in “Oliver Twist” was coming soon, as was comedian Harold Lloyd in “Grandma’s Boy.” Director D.W. Griffith’s “Orphans of the Storm,” starring Lillian Gish, also was scheduled.
Mills’ office is crowded and small and lacking the amenities you might expect for someone who has devoted his life to keeping downtown Lexington a vibrant entertainment area — for example, a nice office chair. Mills’ chair is plain; nonetheless, he says, it’s quite comfortable for a nap after working long hours at the theater.
He has a fondness for the original 1975 “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” with Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Although the movie started out showing in Lexington at the old Crossroads Theater off Nicholasville Road, the area didn’t really yield the cult film’s quirky audience. Beginning in the late 1970s, the Kentucky proved to be exactly the right fit for a movie that combined viewer costuming, the launching of props such as toilet paper and cards inside the theater, and a lot of dancing.
In fact, Mills helped execute one of the Kentucky’s finest “Rocky Horror” stunt moments: A 30-second motorcycle ride through the theater aisles by a patron, who had people running interference in front of him so no one stepped into the aisle during the ride. The ride — which happened once, more than three decades ago — was an homage to the character of Eddie, played by the musician Meat Loaf (real name Marvin Lee Aday).
As the Kentucky loves “Rocky Horror,” “Rocky Horror” loves the Kentucky: In 2015, the Kentucky had the fourth-largest box office for the movie of any theater in North America, following only Toronto, Chicago and Atlanta, Mills said.
“Rocky Horror” usually gets its biggest audiences during the Halloween season; this year the theater will screen “Rocky Horror” on Oct. 28 and twice on Oct. 29.
Mills said he would like to be at the theater for as long as possible.
“Our goal is to keep the Kentucky Theatre going for all time,” he said.