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'It's a wonderful life' for Fred Mills

Inside the lobby of the Kentucky Theatre, you’ll find stickers bearing the likeness of Fred Mills’ face sitting in the concession stand’s candy counter that read “Mr. Kentucky Theatre.”

And within the theater’s main auditorium, a seat on the far left end of the back row is marked by a small gold plaque displaying his name. It’s a personal screening chair to be used by Mills whenever he finds the time to watch a film, he said.

These are fitting tributes for 77-year-old Mills, who’s worked at the theater since he was 17 and found himself intertwined with a great majority of the Lexington staple’s century-long history, much of which he’s spent as the building’s general manager.

“A lot of my friends say, ‘Hey, well you’re the face of the Kentucky Theatre,’” Mills said. “And I guess I’m usually around most times, and so I guess people just get used to that.”

As the theater’s “face,” Mills can be found on any given day standing in the lobby or behind its concession stand — which Mills said is his favorite spot in the house — to welcome patrons catching the locale’s arthouse and independent showings. 

Many of them walk in and greet Mills by name. More often than not, he does the same.

“(Some say), ‘Gosh, sometimes it seems like you know everybody in town,’” he said. 

Considering the amount of patrons he ushers in regularly, Mills admits this is fair. He said he can identify moviegoers by their first and last names, remember where they work and even pick out their car based on how often they drive past the theater downtown.

Mills started at “the Kentucky” in 1963 when his best friend’s father — who managed a downtown theater — asked him if he needed a summer job. He worked as an usher through high school and into his time at Eastern Kentucky University, though he said he planned to become a social studies teacher post-graduation. 

When the time came, however, Mills said teaching jobs were “a dime a dozen.” He was ex-

hausting himself commuting to extra special education teaching courses at EKU in the mornings and back to Lexington in the evenings to work at the theater. 

He was eventually offered a managerial position at the theater in 1970.

“Realizing that I still wasn’t gonna be guaranteed a teaching position, I thought ‘Well, hey, maybe the best thing for me to do is to accept this (position),’ and here we are today,” Mills said. “I think that it was meant to be. I’m not sort of a ‘what if’ person … I truly think that I have the best job in Lexington. I’ve always felt that way.” 

In the years since, Mills has watched the theater change drastically as it faced a devastating fire in 1987 that rendered it inoperable until 1992 and braved the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted a year-long shutdown on account of a lack of funds and new films.

Despite uncertainty, the Kentucky would turn the corner after the pandemic — and Mills with it — thanks to a proposal to the city from a new management group, the Friends of the Kentucky Theatre, Mills said. 

That’s not to say that the historic theater is now without its challenges. It competes, Mills said, with two other major movie theaters in the city: Regal Cinemas and Cinemark. But Mills takes pride in the Kentucky Theatre’s arthouse label.

“You constantly are dealing with availability of films,” Mills said. “(But) we are going to bring films to Lexington that probably would never play here, which over the years we mostly have done that … now more than ever.”

Those lesser-known films, in addition to the Kentucky’s renowned “Rocky Horror Picture Show” screenings and various film and musical events, are what keep Mills’ beloved patrons coming back time and time again.

“Watching folks grow older and have children and bring them down to the Kentucky Theatre and sort of keep a tradition going … (we) hope to always do that whether I’m here or not here,” Mills said. 

The general manager has never married nor did he settle down — in fact, he’s proudly stated that he’s “married to the Kentucky Theatre” — but he said he’s found contentment in not only his coworkers but also the moviegoers he loves to see entertained.

“I do enjoy the relationship that I’ve developed over the years with all the patrons, the Kentucky Theatre folks, well, they’re my family,” he said.

Mills shows no signs of going anywhere, though he admits that he’ll “know when it’s time” to retire.

“There’s never a day that passes that I think, ‘Oh gosh, I’ve got to go to work,’” Mills said. “Lots of my friends that have worked in many other different careers and positions and everything, I don’t know whether they’ve been that fortunate or not … But for me, it’s been a dream. It continues to be a wonderful life for me.”


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