By Michael Dean Benton
The Kentucky Theater, one of Lexington’s most beloved cultural centers, will celebrate its 90thanniversary this October. Originally opening in 1922, the theater is one of the oldest cinemas still in operation, surpassing even the world famous Los Angeles Grauman’s Theater (also built in 1922 but not actually opened until 1927).
Situated on the southern side of the Main Street artery running through town, the theater continues to serve the Lexington community by hosting a wide range of cultural events. It is not hyperbole to say that this region would be a cinematic wasteland if it wasn’t for the recent releases the Kentucky brings to town. Not only has it operated as the primary Lexington venue for international, experimental and independent cinema, it also hosts a number of film revivals, festivals and special screenings throughout the year. In the summer its Classic Film series hosts capacity crowds of enthusiastic audiences either revisiting old cinematic favorites or encountering them for the first time on the big screen. Fall brings the Rosa Goddard International Film Festival, which this year re-introduced viewers to world cinema classics Band of Outsiders (France 1964), Diva (France 1981), Knife in the Water (Poland 1962), and which premiered in Lexington the critically acclaimed Weekend (United Kingdom 2011).
Of course, the Kentucky does not just screen films. On Mondays, it plays host to Michael Jonathon’s weekly music series Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour, heard on over 500 radio stations and archived online. (Long before I had ever visited or lived in Lexington, I was a regular listener to this radio show.) The Kentucky and its workers also host children’s events on weekend mornings, Troubadour Music concerts, business meetings, special community events, midnight cult movies, and UK Basketball games. They even host a regular church service on Sundays.
A sure sign of its iconic status in our collective conscious: when we refer to something or somebody “playing at the Kentucky,” we all know what and where we mean.
In 1987, the Kentucky Theater was damaged by a fire that started in a restaurant next door. Over the next five years the theater was renovated and had its grand re-opening in 1992. Then Mayor Scotty Baesler had the foresight to have the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government purchase the property through the sale of bonds. While the LFUCG holds the deed, a private firm leases the building and Fred Mills manages it. Though the renovations allowed the theater to continue operating for the past two decades, the Kentucky is once again at a crossroads, its 90 year old body in need of care and some upgrades.
When I sat down recently with manager Fred Mills to discuss plans for renovating the theater, one thing was immediately obvious: even at an advanced age, the Kentucky Theater continues to live a vigorous life. Despite the fact that it was noon on a Wednesday and the theater was not yet open, the phone rang constantly, as did the front bell.
As I listened, Mills explained that the renovation plans were initiated by growing concerns about the deteriorating conditions of some of the older fixtures, the carpet, the seats and the marquee. Many of the light fixtures in the main theater need replacing, and the plan is to switch to LED bulbs for better energy efficiency. The seats and carpet installed in 1992 are worn out from two decades of constant daily traffic. The distinctive front marquee, in operation since the theater opened, has a slew of missing or cracked background panels, and its light fixtures and neon tubing also need to be replaced. The lobby/concessions area, where everyone gathers excitedly before and after events, also needs repairs and a new coat of paint.
Most pressing, Mills says, is the need to switch to digital projectors. In order to keep pace with the projected industry-wide switch in 2013 to solely digital distribution of studio releases, the Kentucky must purchase new projectors, new sound systems and a new screen. Though it will retain the equipment to screen 35 mm films and plans to offer films in that format, not paying for the digital projectors potentially leaves the theater without the ability to screen new releases.
It is projected that all of these updates and repairs will cost at least $1 million. A fundraising group called the Friends of Kentucky Theater, chaired by former Vice-Mayor Isabel Yates, has been set up to facilitate the necessary fundraising. Those who wish to volunteer their time or expertise with fundraising can contact Isabel at firstname.lastname@example.org Checks can be made payable to “Friends of the Kentucky Theatre” and mailed to the Bluegrass Community Foundation, 250 W. Main Street #1220, Lexington, KY 40507. All donations are tax-deductible through the Bluegrass Community Foundation.