The non-profit Friends of the Kentucky Theatre have announced plans to re-open the historic theatre on Lexington’s Main Street, as soon “as it is safe to do so.”
The Kentucky celebrated its 90th birthday in 2012, and was temporarily shuttered in 2020, mid-pandemic. Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton announced at the time, “This is the last thing I would ever want to do. I love the Kentucky Theatre…But the management group that runs the theatre contacted us. COVID-19 has steamrolled the Kentucky. Their numbers are way down and they’re having trouble getting movies.”
“The Kentucky will reopen as soon as possible” she said in fall of 2020, pledging that the building would be maintained so that it could successfully reopen. The City terminated the contract it had at the time with the management company at the company’s request.
The Kentucky Theatre originally opened on October 4, 1922, and wasn’t substantially renovated until the 1950s. Fire closed its doors “temporarily,” in 1987, but it remained dark for five years until it re-opened in 1992, after Herculean efforts and a lengthy and arduous campaign.
In Ace’s very first issue in May of 1989, an article titled, “Kentucky Theatre: Revival or Just Plain Survival,” explained that the theater’s planned late 80s revival was delayed because of the complex legal aspects of its ownership and operation. A Kentucky Theatre movie ticket at that time was $2.25. Arthouse “movies we missed” during that lengthy hiatus included Jean de Florette, Babette’s Feast, Salaam Bombay, Lair of the White Worm, and House of Games.
The eventual reopening of the theater in April of 1992 brought improvements, much of which were led by manager Fred Mills, who has been “the face, the backbone, and persona of The Kentucky” since he was first hired as movie usher in 1963. After the landmark theatre turned 90, Ace uncovered What the Kentucky Needs on its Epic Birthday.
Just one year out from its 100th birthday, a major announcement was made today.
Mayor Linda Gorton today recommended that the management contract for the Kentucky Theatre be awarded to the Friends of the Kentucky Theatre.
“The Friends have some exciting new plans for the theatre, and they are also keeping the fan favorites in place,” Gorton said. “It’s a new era for Main Street’s grand old lady, as she prepares to start a year that will mark her second Century.”
Friends Co-Chair Lisa Meek says, “We’re thrilled about the opportunity to manage this beautiful and beloved theater in the heart of Lexington. The task ahead is a big one, and it’s made more complicated by the recent surge in COVID cases. We don’t have a precise reopening date, but we are committed to opening the Kentucky as soon as it is safe and practical to do so.”
Councilmember Hannah LeGris said, “This new partnership between longtime advocates of the theatre and the City will once again open the doors of this beautiful and historically important building to the public for films, concerts, gallery openings, and private events. Along with its companion theater, the State, the Kentucky is an institution in the arts community not only in downtown Lexington, but throughout the Commonwealth. I look forward to this new chapter in the story of the Kentucky Theatre and wish them another 100 years of success as Lexington’s premier historic theater.”
For the last four years, the Friends have studied the best practices at art-house cinemas around the country. The Friends visited some of the best of these cinemas and consulted with art-house cinema directors and industry consultants with the goal of ensuring that the Kentucky continues to thrive as a center for film excellence.
Meek said the Friends “intend to continue the best traditions of the Kentucky Theatre while introducing new programs and initiatives that will make the Kentucky an even more dynamic and vital venue as it enters its second century.”
Friends co-chair Hayward Wilkirson said, “Fred Mills – a.k.a Mr. Kentucky – will continue to serve as the theater’s general manager,” and that “much-loved programs like the Summer Classics movie series, the Rosa Goddard Film Festival, and midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show will continue as staples of the Kentucky Theatre.”
Some of the new initiatives include switching to a non-profit management structure, implementing a membership program, increasing repertory film programming, introducing more film festivals, and reviving musical programming.
The awarding of the contract is contingent on Council approval, expected to come soon.
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