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  The Kentucky Theatre opened in 1922 and was the largest of the Lexington palace theatre houses. It featured ornate Italian Renaissance architecture, flanked with cartouches, concentric rosettes, and cherubs. The Kentucky sported a 4,000 bulb marquis, 1,276 seats, and a $25,000 Wurlitzer organ. Young Harry Switow, whose family owned the building, oversaw it’s design and construction. On opening night, The Governor Edwin P. Morrow, lead the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home”, accompanied by the house orchestra and the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. The first movie shown was "The Eternal Flame" with Norma Tallmadge and Adolphe Menjou and was accompanied by H. Haden Read at the console. The Kentucky was considered to be an upscale house with its first run films and by the fact that it did not have a balcony. Without a ‘colored balcony’ the Kentucky was whites only, de facto.
 
  One of the biggest draws during an evening of entertainment was the Mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ. The Mighty Wurlitzer was incomparable to any type of musical instrument that we can experience today. It was an organ with huge chambers with instruments selected to give the organ the largest range of sound. It had drums, a harp, a marimba, horns, glockenspiel, and much more, along with diverse sound effects; thunder, train whistle, etc. It could sound like a full orchestra, or mimic a nightingale. The sound traveled through chambers and ports to different parts of the theatre, giving the theatre a kind of early surround sound. Organists were famous showmen and talented musicians. H. Hayden Read was brought in from the Rialto in Louisville as the featured organist. The Mighty Wurlitzer was played as a prologue to the show, accompanied the film, and continued as you were leaving. It was a romantic and elegant experience as the lights never came on in the theatre, the only light was ambient from huge art-glass domes and the flashlights of uniformed ushers who would light the way to your seats. Air conditioning came from air blown over ice blocks placed behind the screen.
 
  In 1926, Bill Hackney came from Versailles, Kentucky, to study with H. Hayden Read, and was looking forward to his career as a theatre organist. Read soon took a job out of state and Hackney was the first choice as his replacement. Bill Hackney would play in four hour shifts along with Elladee Mahoney, and earned $100 a week. Unfortunately, downtown Lexington is built on a very low spot, and every once in a while was prone to flooding. A flood in 1928 had 4 feet of water in the Kentucky’s auditorium and The Mighty Wurlitzer was completely submerged. In February 1927, the Kentucky Theater became one of the first fifty theaters in the nation to be outfitted with Warner Brothers new "vitaphone" sound equipment. This new "sound" was a phonograph, mechanically linked and sequenced with the film in the projector. This new sound accompaniment system and the storm flooding brought an end to the Mighty Wurlitzer in the Kentucky Theater. Bill Hackney was forced into obsolescence and did not return to the theatre for 70 years.
 
  The Mighty Wurlitzer remained underneath the stage, and over the next 60 years its chambers were slowly pilfered. The organ console and chambers were removed in 1977. Later Oscar Wilson, a Lexington eccentric, bought and partially restored it in 1987. He had the organ installed in his party room and spent $80,000 on the repair and restoration. Regrettably, restoration techniques were primitive and the materials used lasted about 10 years. Upon his death, he donated The Mighty Wurlitzer to the University of Kentucky. The organ is now the focus of a $600,000 restoration project, headed by Lexington architect Steve Brown, and will be returned to the theatre.
 
  The thirties and forties in downtown Lexington were some of its most vibrant and lively times. Lexington was a stop for vaudeville acts coming from Cincinnati to Nashville. Weekends in downtown Lexington brought thousands of people from surrounding towns, where they would shop, enjoy restaurants, vaudeville acts, and movies. The major picture houses were the 880 seat State Theatre (constructed in 1929, renovated in 1996), the 1,400 seat Strand Theatre (constructed in 1915, demolished in 1979), the 934 seat Ada Meade Theatre (constructed in 1913, demolished in 1955), and the 1,500 seat Ben Ali Theatre (constructed in 1913, demolished in 1965) with its lavish Tiffany Studios interior.
 
  The 50s presented the first major renovation of the Kentucky Theatre. After the Schine family’s contract expired, the Switow family again took over management of the theatre. Harry Switow had a vision for the theatre and oversaw its renovation. The box office was moved from the center to the side, the lounge area at the back of the auditorium was converted to a separate concessions area, and shag carpet was put over the marble floor. The old marquee was torn down and a new marquee with thousands of bulbs was placed on the façade. Raymond Mitchell saw his first films at the State Theatre where his father is worked as a doorman for the balcony. “Only me, my dad, and the black folks were aloud in the balcony,” said Raymond.
 
  The 60s were a difficult time for downtown Lexington with the flight to the suburbs. The Ben Ali Theatre was closed and demolished and The Ben Ali parking lot was built in its place. Raymond Mitchell was hired as an usher at The Kentucky Theatre in 1962 and in 1963, Fred Mills was hired at The State Theatre. The State Theatre was remodeled and reopened as an art house cinema under the name The Downtown Cinema. A film society would come from the university to watch and discuss films in the lobby. This was successful for only a short time.
 
  With many downtown buildings in disrepair, Mayor Foster Pettit spearheaded Urban Renewal in the early 70s. Crumbling and abandoned buildings were sold to make bigger, modern buildings and to bring in higher leases. The Downtown Cinema and The Kentucky’s owners, the Switow family, had to rethink what brought in business to keep the theatres open. The only option was to switch to an X-rated format in The Downtown Cinema which would support The Kentucky. Fred Mills, now manager of The Downtown Cinema, The Kentucky, and The Strand was cited for indecent charges on several occasions, however; the charges were renounced every time.
  The suburbs were growing by leaps and bounds. The ‘matchbox theatres’ began opening in Turfland Mall, Southpark, Chevy Chase, and Northpark. These theatres opened with great fan fair and hope. Today, these ‘matchbox theatres’ are closed or near closure due to the competition from the Megaplexes, which are still farther away from downtown. The Strand closed forever.
 
  The late 70s and early 80s began a new and prosperous time for The Kentucky. The midnight movie was the craze and the lobby and foyer were known as the place to be. Raymond used his muscle to keep order and the after parties of The Kentucky Theatre staff forged lasting and not so lasting relationships. Both Fred and Raymond married concessions girls. The midnight movie craze segued into a repertory format. The Kentucky became a cultural staple with its calendar schedules pasted to refrigerators all over town. Whole social agendas were scheduled around the repertory calendar.
 
  On October 2nd 1987, Fred and his new wife, left early for a dinner date next door at the newly opened Fleur-de-leys restaurant. One of the waiters was not having a good night, is fired, and sent home. The disgruntled waiter returned later that night, poured bourbon on the steps, and torched the place. In the wee hours of October 3rd, Fred received a call notifying him that the theatre was on fire, maybe the entire block. He called Raymond and drove down to the theatre. Raymond bravely entered the theatre to save the film prints, Fred’s wedding photos, and the money in the till. Luckily the theatre survived, but with heavy smoke and water damage. The next morning, Raymond saved the projectors from being hauled away to the dump.
 
 

The next five years saw grassroots efforts of all sorts to bring back the theatre. But no one can be found with pockets deep enough. Through hard work by people like Wade Crabbe, the building was purchased in 1989 by the city and a $1.2 million remodeling project is begun. The theatre was leased to the Kentucky Theatre Group- Analee Scorsone, Howard Stovall, and Fred Mills. The theatre had a grand Re-Opening on April 11, 1992. The repertory format continued until approximately 1999 when it became mostly first run independent features.

In 1999, Lexington’s youngest council member, Scott Crosbie, rallied the county attorney’s office to seize and censor the X rated film “Disco Dolls in Hot Skin”. Obscenity charges were brought against Fred Mills. Public opinion was heavily in favor of free speech and was later ruled that the film was seized illegally. The Kentucky Theatre group and the city made an informal agreement for Fred not to run any more X rated films.

Presently The Kentucky Theatre remains the best place in town to experience first run films, not seen at the Megaplexes, live music, including the weekly recorded radio show “The Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour”, and civic events such as mayoral inaugurations. Fred still greets every patron and Raymond makes the show go on.

 

 

 

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