Lights, Camera, Action – Smiley Pete Publishing

The theatre, which celebrates its centenary this year, closed in October 2020, citing a drop in both attendance and new film releases during the early months of the pandemic. At this time, the Kentucky Theater Group, the management company that had overseen the theater for decades, elected not to renew its lease with the city of Lexington. (The theater has long operated under a single model, with the city of Lexington owning and managing the single historic building, and a separate management group handling the day-to-day aspects of the business.) After issuing a request for proposals for a new company last spring, the city officially approved the proposal submitted by the local nonprofit organization Friends of the Kentucky Theatre.

Co-chaired by longtime friends and theater fans Hayward Wilkirson and Lisa Meek, the organization — which has provided support to theater in various capacities since its launch in 2012 — has taken the lead in preparing theater for a new era.

“We are ambitious for the theater – we want it to grow sustainably into its second century,” Wilkirson said.

As the theater reopens (January 28 was grand reopening weekend), fans can rest assured that much of what they’ve come to know and love about Kentucky – screenings of midnight of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in the role of longtime beloved general manager Fred Mills – will remain intact during this new chapter, although organizers are also working to incorporate new programming and efforts to to sustain the theater in downtown Lexington for decades to come.

“We’re not all going to be here forever, but we want to make sure the theater survives another 100 years,” Wilkirson said.

Since Wilkirson and Meek joined the Friends of Kentucky board of directors about five years ago, they and other board members have been in regular communication with independent theaters across the country. Knowing that the theater’s former management group was approaching retirement age and likely had a limited lifespan, they brainstormed new possibilities for theater with a variety of industry professionals.

“It’s an extremely generous industry, because you’re not in competition with anyone [if] you’re not in the same city,” Wilkirson said. “Nobody does this because they are businessmen first – they do it because they love cinema and they love their historic theaters. So we were treated to countless hours of free consultation with directors, theaters and non-profit industry consultants, and began to formulate a plan: what would theater look like in its second century? What are we doing to continue with the best in theatre, the traditions that people love about theatre, while incorporating innovations that would make it even more vital? »

In addition to dealing with a long list of cosmetic and equipment repairs, the organization’s current priorities include transitioning the theater itself to non-profit status. This is a common model for independent theaters across the country. They plan to offer varying levels of audience membership, allowing fans of the theater to help sustain the theater long-term (and receive benefits along the way).

At a time when COVID and increased in-home streaming options have hurt movie theater attendance, another important goal is to accentuate the details that make the experience of seeing a movie in the theater so special and unique. .

“You can stream almost anything from home in your pajamas, so what’s going to get you out of the cinema?” Sweet said.

Part of the solution the group is focusing on includes specially curated events — for example, a partnership with the University of Kentucky Museum of Art to host Q&As, panel discussions, and other content. engaging around the films presented.

“I think of events like these almost like the extras or the director’s cut on a DVD,” Meek continued. “It is the content that gives [us] more information about a film’s stories and characters, which I think our audience really appreciates.

Increase film festivals and repertoire screenings (i.e. classic or older films, as opposed to first-run films), build a small cafe or wine bar in the theater, and possibly add a Third “micro-cinema” – which would allow more films to be browsed – are among other tactics the organization plans to explore.

“We shouldn’t have any problems finding films to play; however, a big deal comes from bringing our audience, which tends to be a bit older, back to the theater,” said Fred Mills, who served as the theater’s general manager for more than half a century. “Our number of visits has dropped considerably since the start of the pandemic, but we hope that with a return to more regular programming, traffic will improve.”

Ahead of the centennial anniversary in October, plans for upcoming programming include a year-long retrospective of films from each decade of Kentucky’s nearly 100-year history, with each month featuring a film from each decade of opening of the theatre. February will also feature a retrospective honoring actor Sidney Poitier, who passed away earlier this year. Organizers eventually hope to bring live music back – an idea the theater had explored with promoters at local music venue The Burl in early 2020, before the pandemic hit.

“Their plan was to put on sit-down shows in the theater with more well-known artists that they couldn’t fit into their much smaller venue,” Mills explained. “Fortunately, they are still interested in exploring a partnership. We hope to have more news on this soon.

All of these have the potential to be new revenue streams for theater, but equally important are ushering in and cultivating the next generation of moviegoers, Wilkirson said.

“It’s so easy for people to stay home now and watch movies from the comfort of their homes,” he said. “We need to make every visit to the Kentucky theater as special an experience as possible.”

But first on the agenda, he added, is to reopen the doors – a process that has recently included everything from repairing projectors and sound processors to installing a new system. from point of sale, to restocking the concession stand and buying new vacuum cleaners. and stanchions.

With a reopening goal of $125,000, the organization has raised $107,500 at the time of printing. Much of the fundraising was raised from the theater’s individual fans, whose generosity, Meek and Wilkirson said, is “concrete evidence of the depth of support this historic theater has in Lexington.”

“Theater is like Phoenix, and it seems to rise from the ashes,” Wilkirson said. But we want to get [this] message there: If you love the Kentucky Theater, we need your support to reopen the Kentucky Theater.

For more information about Friends of the Kentucky Theater, including how to show your support with a donation, visit For current and upcoming movie times, visit

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