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Still the way movies were 'meant to be' seen: Kentucky Theatre manager reflects on the venue's 100th anniversary

Josh James

The Kentucky Theatre is celebrating its 100th anniversary this weekend and throughout the month. WUKY’s Josh James caught up with the man who is synonymous with the cherished downtown venue, Fred Mills, about what's in store.

This weekend might be the theatre’s 100th birthday party, but the venue itself— known by many names, from the heartbeat of downtown to the Grand Dame on Main — has technically already passed that milestone, turning the big 1-0-0 on October 5th.

On Saturday, patrons willing to drop – what else, $100 – are invited to recreate the early days, dressing for cocktails, sipping Jazz Age libations, and dining on hors d’oeuvres while short films from the 20s light up the screen and the Faux Frenchman provide the musical accompaniment.

Later in the evening, things will get a bit more casual with a birthday shindig and music from The Swells.

"We want it to be a party," manager Fred Mills says. "We want people to have a good time."

Like theaters across the country, the Kentucky has weathered a challenge hardly anyone saw coming: a pandemic that forced the venue to close up shop right around this time two years ago. But since the Kentucky reopened in January, he’s learned just how special the theatre is with a new type of compliment.

"I've heard it probably 100 or 150 times. Folks have said, 'Fred, I want you to know that we go to Kroger, we go to the pharmacy, but this is really the first place we've walked into in two years,'" Mills recalls. "So that's quite a compliment."

But in the meantime, the movie landscape has changed, with more people opting for bigger screen TVs, the convenience of streaming services, and the comforts of home. Yet Mills says the Kentucky Theatre has a magic ingredient, and he can see it on the faces of kids who come to the theatre for the first time.

"They'll say, 'What kind of place is this?' because they're used to the multiplexes, the small auditoriums, and they walk up to this front door of the auditorium where we are now, and they look in, and they say, 'Wow.'"

With theater-goers still in a kind of COVID limbo, Mills says life is returning to the Kentucky. While some long-time patrons aren’t ready to head back just yet, for now the signs are encouraging. Audiences are making their way back into the spacious main theatre, where they’re free to sit at a distance from others if they wish and still get a taste of the movie theatre experience.

And that includes some beloved seasonal traditions.

This month will include a showing of the 100-year-old silent film, Nosferatu, with organ accompaniment, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy will be taking the stage, and, of course, there’s the colorful screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Mills and company hope it’s all part of a comeback, one that can keep popular events alive while ushering in new offerings.

"We want to keep the best part of the Kentucky Theatre, what it's known for. Summer Classics will continue. We'll play first-run movies, quality movies. We consider ourself an arthouse cinema. I think we pretty much always have been to some degree or the other. We hope to be able to do more film festivals," Mills adds.

It all depends on lots of variables as theater-owners try to navigate a changing scene when it comes to movies and how people watch them.

But at the end of the day, Mills sounds confident that there’s more to watching films than simply paying for that lifeless term “content.” He sees the experience of moviegoing with an audience, in a unique theatre, where the film is still the main attraction as irreplaceable.

"Seeing a film in this theatre is the way it was meant to be," he says.

Now, it’s up to the iconic downtown institution, turning triple digits, to prove it’s still the best ticket in town.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.