For decades, Lexingtonians used to crowd around the Kentucky Theatre’s box office, walk along the marble floors of the ornately-decorated building and watch some of the many films it would show as an arthouse theater. Yet, despite the liveliness of East Main Street, the Kentucky Theatre has not seen new business for nearly a year.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on Lexington’s businesses in 2020, the Kentucky Theatre was hit hard. After abiding by the initial shutdown in March of last year, the theater was able to reopen in June 2020 and stayed open until October of the same year, but with no new films to screen and multiple waves of COVID-19 still to come, the theater had to close again.
And since then, the Kentucky Theatre has remained closed.
Nestled next to The Bar Complex and Barney Miller’s, the Kentucky Theatre has been a city-staple for almost a century. Passersby have likely seen the theater’s classic marquee hanging over the sidewalk, once shining bright to promote new films.
Those visiting the Kentucky Theatre in present-day would likely be met with an empty outdoor box office area, locked front doors (even ringing the doorbell would prove fruitless) and probably a few strange glances from pedestrians. But behind those locked doors lies years of rich history.
Who better to ask about this history than Fred Mills, aptly referred to as “Mr. Kentucky Theatre” by fans.
Mills has been the manager of the Kentucky Theatre for more than 50 years, long enough to find himself intertwined with much of the building’s history. If asked about the theater, Mills will start at the very beginning even if it predates him.
Opened in 1922, the Kentucky Theatre was built and initially operated by the Switow family, who Mills said owned about 30 theaters at the height of their business.
“The Switow family operated the theater ‘til probably the 30s,” Mills said. After the family left, a chain called the Schine Corporation leased the Kentucky Theatre out and retained the business until about 1957. The Switow family returned to the theater in 1958 and did a complete renovation of the building, which Mills said was “probably the first time it had been renovated since it opened in 1922.”
Several years later in 1963, a young Mills was offered a part-time job as an usher by his friend’s father who was the Kentucky Theatre’s assistant manager at that time. Mills graduated high school in 1965, deciding to attend college at Eastern Kentucky University. During his time at EKU, Mills would commute to Lexington on weekends to work at the theater. However, after graduating from EKU in 1970, Mills struggled to find work. Fortunately, there became a job opening at the Kentucky Theatre, and Mills soon started in management.
“I guess the rest, in a sense, is sort of history. I’ve remained at the Kentucky for pretty much the rest of my life,” Mills said.
Throughout his time at the Kentucky Theatre, Mills has borne witness to some of the location’s greatest highs and lows.
One of those lows saw the Kentucky Theatre suffering from heavy smoke damage in 1987 after someone broke into a neighboring restaurant, stole money and set a fire to cover their tracks. The damage inflicted by the fire rendered the theater inoperable.
Ultimately, the Switow family did not open the theater back up, and the historic cinema saw itself in a situation very similar to the one it faces now — closed and without management. Mills credits Lexington’s former Mayor Scotty Baesler for helping to save the theater after the fire.
“He was a visionary and he had always said that he had gotten more telephone calls, more letters, more visits from people wanting the theater back,” Mills said. “He had realized the importance of the theater to downtown Lexington and what it meant to generations of people who had been coming.”
With Baesler’s support, the City of Lexington bought the land and the theater’s buildings, sold bonds and renovated the locale, completing the project in 1992. At this time, the Kentucky Theatre Group (which Mills was a part of) was awarded the new management contract. The Group managed the theatre for nearly 30 years, and during that time, the Kentucky Theatre was a go-to for first-run, independent and art films as well as repertory shows and live music.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the theater’s business, though, Mills and the rest of the Kentucky Theatre Group had no choice but close in October 2020, also opting not to return to manage it.
“The reason the theater closed was just the lack of attendees. It just wasn’t sustaining itself,” Mills said. “The owners had to continually put in money for the Theatre to operate. Since that time it’s remained closed.”
The Kentucky Theatre’s closure left Mills “totally lost.”
“It’s not only my job, my career, but it’s always been my social life,” Mills said. “Sometimes time takes care of a lot of things, but being used to working quite a few hours a week and then not having a place to come to and just missing seeing everyone... it was very, very difficult.”
If the Kentucky Theatre’s history proves anything, though, it’s that the cherished local landmark has always risen from the ashes — at times literally.
After Mills and the Kentucky Theatre Group decided they wouldn’t return to manage the Kentucky Theatre, Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton put out what is called a “request for proposal” for a new management company to assume control of the theater.
Hayward Wilkirson and Lisa Meek accepted the challenge and submitted their own management proposal in June 2021.
Wilkirson and Meek are no strangers to the Kentucky Theatre. The two long-time friends are co-chairs of “The Friends of the Kentucky Theatre,” a nonprofit group dedicated to helping preserve and enhance the theatre.
In 2012, when the Friends first began, they helped raise nearly $1 million to help the theater pay for the switch from 35mm film to digital projectors (a necessary change as most movies nowadays are filmed digitally) as well as new wiring and adjustments to the marquee.
When discussing the Kentucky Theatre, Wilkirson and Meek finish each other’s sentences and light up at the mention of their fondness for the beloved cinema, unless they’re exchanging banter about Wilkirson’s ice-crunching habit during films or jesting over the ending of “Cinema Paradiso” (a shared favorite between the two).
“Lisa and I have been friends for many, many years,” Wilkirson said. “Half of our friendship has evolved at the Kentucky Theatre, and I just think that’s true for probably so many people in Lexington. People have had first dates at the theater, people have rented the whole theater for a birthday party or for a spouse because they just love the theater so much. There’s a really special place for the theater in the hearts of many, many people that live in Lexington, and it’s a spot that couldn’t be filled by any other experience or place.”
“People always want to rent the marquee and put their engagement date on there and have their picture made under the marquee, like they’re starring in their own love story,” Meek said.
Meek actually worked at the Kentucky Theatre in high school and college, even having worked the night the theater suffered smoke damage in 1987.
Those who have looked at the theater’s marquee within the past year have probably noticed the trivia questions put there by the Friends. Film trivia is just one of the several ways the group has tried to keep fans of the theater engaged during the pandemic. They’ve also hosted online events and started a film-streaming club, though the latter will disband once the theater reopens and COVID-19 is no longer a threat to moviegoers.
The city of Lexington might not have to wait much longer for the Kentucky Theatre to open its doors once again, though.
In late September 2021, Mayor Gorton announced that she recommended the Friends of the Kentucky Theatre to assume management of the theater.
Wilkirson and Meek already have some exciting new ideas to implement under their management of the Kentucky Theatre, including making the theater a non-profit and introducing a membership program.
“We want to perhaps do something like a café, where you could sit and have a coffee or wine before or after a film,” Meek said. “We’d like to start a third screen. Film festivals, thematic things.”
Wilkirson and Meek spent four years studying the finest arthouse theaters in the country, gathering insight on how they can best improve the Kentucky Theatre.
“Our philosophy with the theater is to make it more than you can get from watching just a film on Netflix, make it a real community event, that’s what’s informed our fundraisers and that’s what would inform our management of the theater,” Wilkirson said.
Mills said he’d like to encourage the theater’s new management to do outreach and try to get more University of Kentucky students to visit the Kentucky Theatre. He recounted a time when the NCAA Championship basketball game was screened in the theater and UK won, saying, “That auditorium was full of people and everybody was cheering, it was quite something to see.”
Of course, Wilkirson and Meek intend on keeping the best traditions of the Kentucky Theatre around, including but not limited to the legendary Fred Mills, the theater’s diverse film offerings and its famous interactive “Rocky Horror” showings.
Mills plans on returning to work at the theater once it reopens.
“This has been the love of my life, and I’ve spent more hours here than I have at my home so I’m really excited to see the theatre get opened again,” Mills said. “I’ve always said I thought the Kentucky Theatre was the heartbeat of Main Street.”
Despite a strenuous year for the Kentucky Theatre, it’s clear that the heartbeat of Main Street will continue to beat on, kept alive by a devoted new management team, a loyal patronage and stories that — like the classic films from years past that the Kentucky Theatre will always show - stand the test of time.