Movie News & Reviews

The Kentucky at 90: Two events will celebrate theater's past, future

A 90th birthday celebration can hardly be contained to one event. So there are two soirees in as many weeks to give fans a chance to celebrate The Kentucky Theatre.

First is a cinematic experience Thursday that takes viewers back to the days when the theater was young. Less than a week later, on Oct. 10, is a party befitting the beloved downtown Lexington institution.

"We're trying to simultaneously look back and look forward," Lexington Film League co-director Lucy Jones said of the events. "There will be a really heavy emphasis on the history of The Kentucky Theatre because obviously that is very important, icon that it is.

"We're going to have a really fun night while also looking to the future and determining what the theater needs for its continued survival."

The Friends of The Kentucky Theatre, which presents the Oct. 10 party, was formed as a fund-raising entity for the city-owned theater to help it get needed improvements. The theater was renovated and reopened in 1992 after a 1987 fire, but since then the infrastructure has taken a beating and the technology of film presentation has changed.

The chief need for The Kentucky is a digital projector. Numerous film studios have signaled they will stop distributing film prints as early as next year. Most commercial movie theaters now offer digital projection, but The Kentucky still uses film, which could leave it unable to show newer movies.

The theater also needs upgrades to comforts such as its carpeting and seating, which Friends of The Kentucky plans to address. At the party, patrons will be able to buy seats with nameplates for $490 each.

Another initiative that will be back in the spotlight is full renovation of the theater's Wurlitzer organ, which proponents of the Kentucky's Mighty Wurlitzer campaign want to return to its pipe-organ glory. Currently, the organ operates electronically.

Thursday night, the audience will get to hear the organ in action when Clark Wilson plays a new score accompanying the newly restored print of the 1927 silent film classic Wings, which won the first Oscar for best picture.

"I have never seen a silent movie with a live accompaniment, so I think this will be quite an experience for everyone," says Friends board member Rebekah Gray.

Wilson says his goal is actually to disappear into the movie.

"We want people to wake up two hours later and say, 'Oh, my gosh, he was playing the entire time. I totally lost track,'" Wilson says. "It's just like music for films today: It adds another 50 percent to the film. But if you do your job right, you don't stand out in contrast to the film, you just complement what's going on.'"

The live aspect of the accompaniment is a key to making the silent film experience different every time, just as at any live performance. The other key is the organ. Wilson, who also will play Oct. 10, says preserving the Kentucky's Wurlitzer is vitally important to the theater's history and film history.

"There have gotten to be fewer and fewer of these instruments around, bearing in mind, there were over 10,000 to start with," Wilson says. "Organs still in their original theaters number less than 40. There are probably a couple hundred more that have been transplanted, such as The Kentucky's project. All told, it represents a fraction of what was there. The bottom line is there are not going to be any more."

Thursday's event will highlight the character of The Kentucky in a variety of ways, including a "trailer festival" in the adjoining State Theatre of teasers for movies that have shown at The Kentucky over the years, a showing of a portion of The Kentucky Theatre documentary by Eren Isabel McGinnis and Ari Luis Palos, and fans sharing memories of the theater in a booth set up by Bullhorn Media. Fans are encouraged to come dressed in styles from their favorite decade of the theater's existence.

Gray says, "It's all about celebrating that history and the sense of community that the theater brings."