Kentucky Theatre closes Feb. 17 when renovations begin

The renovation of the Kentucky Theatre, which is the first update to the classic movie house in 22 years, will include restoration and cleaning of its iconic marquee.
The renovation of the Kentucky Theatre, which is the first update to the classic movie house in 22 years, will include restoration and cleaning of its iconic marquee. Herald-Leader

The sound of Humphrey Bogart saying, "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," will signal the end of an era for downtown Lexington's Kentucky Theatre.

The beloved downtown movie house and concert venue will feature the 1942 classic Casablanca Feb. 14 to 16 and a Feb. 16 screening of Louisville filmmaker Archie Borders' Pleased to Meet Me before it closes for an extensive renovation, including replacing all of the seats, upgrading the lighting and restoring the iconic marquee.

The main theater will be closed until April or May. But the adjoining State Theatre will remain open, bringing Lexington its favorite art house fare, albeit with a "Please excuse our dust" sign.

"We're trying to retain the classic look of the theater, while making it more comfortable and inviting to patrons," said Harold Tate, manager of the project.

The renovation follows more than a year of fundraising by the Friends of the Kentucky Theatre, a volunteer organization formed to raise $1 million to give the theater its first update in 22 years. According to Tate, the group has raised more than $800,000, clearing the way to begin the construction phase of the project, which included the installation of digital projectors in the Kentucky and State theaters last spring.

"I think we have done remarkably well for a year and a half," Friends of the Kentucky chair and former Lexington vice-mayor Isabel Yates said. "We'll pay all the bills. It's a great feeling that we have come this far."

Part of the fundraising efforts has been selling seats in the theater at $500 each. The seats will have plaques with the names of the donors on the armrests. They will also come with a standard of 21st century movie houses: cup holders.

More than 300 seats have been sold, Tate said, and they are still available as the theater is continuing to raise funds for the renovation project.

The plan is to reopen in time to launch the annual Summer Classics movie series, which is slated to start May 28 with the 60th anniversary digital restoration of the Japanese version of Gojira (1954) better known here as Godzilla. Tate and theater manager Fred Mills say they will have a better sense of exactly how long the project will take once the theater closes and the seats begin being removed.

"We're hoping for 90 days to get everything done," Tate says.

The seats are the primary issue, with many of them unusable.

"The last renovation was 1992, and that's a lot of butts in seats over 22 years," Mills says. "We can stand in the back now when people are coming in, and one will sit in one of those seats, and then everyone gets up and moves down one or two seats."

The theater will retain the same number of seats, 805. Mills says people who bought seats in the last renovation can pick up their seat plaques during regular operating hours, after 5 p.m. weekdays and 1 p.m. weekends.

With the seats out, the theater will also replace the well-worn carpeting and Tate says they are exploring installation of an innovation to benefit people who need hearing assistance. They are hoping to install a hearing loop, a wire that will run through the floor in the theater, and "if you have a hearing aid, it will tap into the loop so you can hear the sound of the movie better," Tate says.

The new carpeting will give the theater a new, contemporary tone with a gray and black design. And patrons should be able to see it with new LED lighting in the theater and lobby, some of which has already been installed.

Touring the theater, Mills and Tate pointed out that lighting in the stained-glass domes in the theater ceiling has already been upgraded. Lighting around the screen and stage at the front of the theater will be able to change colors, and all lighting will be put on a new computerized dimmer system. The LED lighting, Tate says, should create a substantial savings for the theater in energy consumption.

While they are at it, everything in the theater will get a general cleaning, wiping out spots of dirt and dust that have accumulated. That includes the marquee that will be cleaned and fixed.

"We had a lot of great reaction to the new projector and sound system when we installed that last summer," Tate said. "We are hoping people will feel the same about these changes when we are done."