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The History of the Kentucky Theater

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More than just a movie house

The Kentucky Theatre is a familiar Landmark to generations of Lexingtonians. It’s richly ornamented walls and glowing stained glass fixtures have hosted gala events and entertained overflowing crowds. They have also endured hard times and disasters, both natural and manmade. And so it stands today, a true palace of memories, a hall full of comedy, tragedy, drama, adventure, and just plain fun.

We hope you enjoy this brief look at her history and join us soon to continue the tradition by making some memories of your own.

October, 1921

Construction plans announced

The Builder, Lafayette Amusement Company, offered $20 in gold to name Lexington’s “palatial new photoplay house”. The winner, of course, was the “Kentucky.”

Early architectural rendering (courtesy, Henry Saggs)

October 4, 1922

The Premier

The luxury, comfort, and elegance of hand painted murals, plush carpeting, indirect lighting, marble floors, and a “modern ventilation system” were among the features promoted to compete with other larger and already well-established theaters in town.

The opening program began with a musical overture played on the Wurlitzer Unit Orchestra organ. This was followed by an audience rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” led by a city commissioner, while lyrics were projected on the screen. Governor Edwin P. Morrow delivered a dedication speech and then the movie program itself commenced: a short comedic parody of Valentino’s The Sheik, a newsreel, and Norma Talmadge in a historical romance entitled The Eternal Flame.

Special “Kentucky Theatre Section” in the Lexington Herald (courtesy, the Lexington Herald-Leader)

Kentucky Theatre inner lobby (courtesy, University of Kentucky Photo Archives)

Kentucky Theatre auditorium (courtesy, University of Kentucky Photo Archives)

1920’s

Programs & Promotions

Throughout most of the 20’s the theater’s program changed twice weekly, and return engagements were rare. Continuous shows ran from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. except on Sundays when shows began at 1:00 p.m. Prices were 10 cents for children and 25 or 30 cents for adults.

Intense competition with Lexington’s four other nearby movie theaters often called for elaborate promotions. The goal was to encourage citizens to develop the habit of attending twice a week.

A promotional display – and shoe ad (courtesy, University of Kentucky Photo Archives)

April 24, 1927

Enter the “talkies”

In a major marketing coup, the Kentucky was the first to introduce Warner Brothers’ vitaphone sound films to Lexington.

Publicity stunt for an early “talkie” featuring The Marx Brothers (courtesy, University of Kentucky Photo Archives)

April 20, 1929

The State Theatre Opens

With the success of the Kentucky, the Lafayette Amusement Company opened a second theater right next door. The 950 seat State Theatre, with a 200 seat racially segregated balcony, was decorated in an “old Spain” motif. It’s second-run features and lower ticket prices allowed it to complement rather than compete with the Kentucky.

Six months later both theaters were signed to a twenty year lease by Publix Theaters Corporation, a subsidiary of Paramount studios.

The original State Theatre auditorium (courtesy, University of Kentucky Photo Archives)

Early 1930’s

Keeping Up

Even more effort was put into special promotions, in part, to offset lagging ticket sales brought on by the Great Depression and the waning novelty of the “talkies.” Prices were reduced and live entertainment of varied quality was sometimes offered as well.

Miniature golf in the lobby (courtesy, University of Kentucky Photo Archives)

Dracula, 1931 (courtesy, University of Kentucky Photo Archives)

Well appointed ushers, 1931 (courtesy, University of Kentucky Photo Archives)

1933

New Management

On March 1, one of the original owners, Michael Switow, again took over operation of the Kentucky, after Paramount was forced into receivership. He immediately began to negotiate a lease with the Phoenix Amusement Company, who also ran the Strand and Ben Ali theaters. When the deal was formalized in April all four Lexington movie houses were then managed by the same company. After refurbishing, the Kentucky became their flagship theater, consistently offering firstrun attractions at higher prices.

Gala reopening, August 19, 1933 (courtesy, University of Kentucky Photo Archives)

1936

A Class Act

Phoenix Amusement Company was sold to the Schine Corporation which maintained the theaters reputation as the city’s premiere movie theater, showing only “Class A” pictures.

1940

Gone With The Wind

The local premiere of this classic film played for two weeks in February, with all seats reserved.

Main Street looking West circa 1940 (courtesy, University of Kentucky Photo Archives)

1950’s

“Cool Inside”

An instant hit, the Kentucky was one of the first air-conditioned public buildings in town.

1965

The Sound of Music

Thousands lined up daily to see this summer’s timeless hit.

Marquee announcing The Sound of Music (courtesy, Historic Preservation Office)

1979

New Directions

The Kentucky was one of a handful of theaters across the country to begin experimenting with a repertory format, showing many different films each week on a rotating basis. Classics, foreign hits and art films helped cultivate loyal patrons.

1980’s

In the Midnight Hour

The ever-popular midnight shows are introduced.

Rocky Horror Picture Show participants (courtesy of Fred Mills)

October 2, 1987

Damaged

The theater is damaged by smoke from a fire in a neighboring building.

December, 1990

Merry Christmas

The roofs, storefronts, and outdoor marquee are restored and the marquee lights are turned on in time for the holidays.

1991

Momentum Builds

With a new management contract in place additional City funds are approved and a campaign to “sell” seats in exchange for brass name plates proves even more popular than hoped for.

Auditorium renovation viewed through stained glass ceiling fixture opening (photo by James R. Redmann)

April 11, 1992

Gala Reopening

Back by popular demand!

Cover of the official reopening commemorative book (photo by James R. Redmann)

The marquee at night (photo by Raymond Adams ©2006)

Interior front lobby (photo by Raymond Adams ©2006)

The concession area (photo by Raymond Adams ©2006)

The present Kentucky Theatre auditorium (photo by Lee P. Thomas)

(photo by Lee P. Thomas)

Ceiling detail from the present Kentucky Theatre auditorium (photo by Lee P. Thomas)

View from the back of the State Theatre (photo by Lee P. Thomas)

Side wall of the State Theatre (photo by Lee P. Thomas)

View from the stage of the State Theatre (photo by Lee P. Thomas)

Side wall of the State Theatre (photo by Lee P. Thomas)