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$1.5 million upgrade plan announced for downtown's historic Kentucky Theatre

The marquee needs new neon tubes and lighting that is estimated to cost $75,000 and the theatre's 800 seats need renovating again, requiring $500,000 more. "We need to celebrate (the 90th birthday), but we also need to upgrade," said Isabel Yates, co-chair of the Friends of The Kentucky Theatre, which is trying to raise $1.5 million to refurbish the Lexington landmark.
The marquee needs new neon tubes and lighting that is estimated to cost $75,000 and the theatre's 800 seats need renovating again, requiring $500,000 more. "We need to celebrate (the 90th birthday), but we also need to upgrade," said Isabel Yates, co-chair of the Friends of The Kentucky Theatre, which is trying to raise $1.5 million to refurbish the Lexington landmark. Herald-Leader

The Friends of The Kentucky Theatre announced Wednesday that it is launching a drive to raise up to $1.5 million to upgrade and refurbish the 90-year-old Lexington landmark.

"We need to celebrate, but we also need to update," said Isabel Yates, co-chair of the non-profit group and a former Lexington vice mayor. "... This is a treasure and it belongs to everybody in this community."

The Main Street theater's needs are numerous — from the lobby to the lights to the carpet and sagging seats — and were pointed out during a tour attended by the friends of the theater group and local media.

Fred Mills, longtime manager of the theater, held up a cushion that a patron brought to prop up a seat to illustrate the problem of some of the seats, which can land a patron's bottom uncomfortably close to the floor.

The top priority for the theater is raising money for a digital projection system. Within the next year, distribution of films in the 35 millimeter print format probably will end, Mills said.

"We won't be in business if this isn't done," he said of the digital projector. " ... You're not going to need the seats if you don't have the digital."

Repairs will occur as money is raised. The cost of the digital project and the sound system is about $250,000. Other estimated costs are: $500,000 for seats, $500,000 for lighting, $30,000 for carpet, $75,000 for a marquee, $25,000 to refurbish the lobby and $35,000 to make improvements at the concession stand.

Harold Tate, manager for the project, said the lighting upgrades already are costing hundreds of thousands more than budgeted. He said acoustic upgrades also are needed.

"You're never going to get 100 percent like you do in a suburban theater, but you can do better," he said.

Steve Grossman, co-chair of the group supporting the Kentucky, said he was optimistic about the group's ability to raise the money.

"This is a great institution here," he said. "It's an easy sell."

The neighboring State theater also needs renovation but is not included in The Kentucky fund drive.

The Kentucky opened Oct. 4, 1922, with a showing of The Eternal Flame starring Norma Talmadge. A poster from that era hangs in the lobby and urges moviegoers to "come to the opening of the new Kentucky Theatre. We named it the Kentucky, a credit to Lexington and the entire state."

The 800-seat theater was last renovated more than 20 years ago, after a fire. It reopened in April 1991. The theater is owned by the city and leased to a private company that shows films and hosts other events.

Mills and Tate said that while they want to see how recently announced plans for a proposed "theater district" of modern movie houses develops nearby, going to the Kentucky will remain a unique experience.

"Part of the ambiance of coming here is it's an event," Mills said.

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