Home Ace Issues The Kentucky Theatre: 33 years ago in Ace

The Kentucky Theatre: 33 years ago in Ace

33 Years Ago in Ace 

Remembering the Dark Days of the Kentucky Theatre 

Landmark celebrates 100th birthday in October 2022

Thirty three years ago, the very first Ace rolled off the press, and one of the very first stories ever printed was titled, “Bring Back the Kentucky.” The Kentucky’s iconic calendars had graced all of our fridges throughout the 80s and it was inconceivable that a mere fire had taken it out. 

Anchoring the piece was a “Movies We’ve Missed” sidebar (riddled with typos, in all honesty). The lengthy list included Jean de Florette, Babette’s Feast, Salaam Bombay, Lair of the White Worm, House of Games, and The Thin Blue Line. There was no Netflix, no Hulu, no Amazon Prime. An indie movie fix required a drive to Louisville or Cincinnatti. 

“The Kentucky has been an irreplaceable loss,” bemoaned one film fan in that 1989 issue.

The October 2022 print edition of Ace Magazine includes a feature profile of this month’s 100th anniversary of the Kentucky Theatre by Kevin Nance, an occasion no one is taking for granted. But first, a look back:

Bring Back the Kentucky: Revival or Just Plain Survival?

(an excerpt from the 1989 Ace Magazine archives)


The Kentucky has languished in suspended animation since October 1987, when a fire in the adjacent Fleur de Lys restaurant forced the closure of both establishments. The restaurant moved within a matter of months and is doing a thriving business on Upper Street.The Kentucky Theatre, however, continues to sit quietly, waiting to be revived — “Closed Temporarily” being its limp lament.

Its revival has been delayed, not because of a lack of interest on the part of its loyal followers, but rather because of the complex legal aspects of its ownership and operation. A lawsuit filed in March in Fayette Circuit Court should help resolve the entanglements between landowners and building owners and allow the Kentucky to live once again.

Councilwoman Pam Miller, a member of the citizens’ group, “Friends of the Kentucky,” has been involved in an effort to reopen the theatre. Miller remains a firm believer in The Kentucky’s value to Lexington as an historical, as well as cultural asset. She sees it as “virtually the only institution that has survived the urban renewal process.” She, like its many other loyal fans, eagerly awaits its rebirth.

This Year’s Model: Fred Mills

(an excerpt from the 2011 Ace Magazine archives)


In the cartoon, the character sells you the movie house ticket, changes up, takes your ticket, jumps behind the concession stand to dish up your popcorn and fizzy drink to a rollicking musical number, ushers you down in the darkness to your seats to oboe and slidewhistle accompaniment and then runs up to the projection room to hit a big button that says START.

“There’s more parking around than people realize.” -Fred Mills, Kentucky Theatre manager

At the Kentucky Theater, Fred Mills is that character – and so much more. The Theater will turn 90 in 2012, and Mills himself will celebrate a milestone birthday on New Year’s Day.

Mills, who was first hired as a movie usher 48 years ago in 1963, is the face, the backbone, and persona of The Kentucky Theater.

He’s This Year’s Model because of every year that led up to this year and the consistency of the Kentucky as a great downtown destination — from the opening of a new George Clooney movie, to the live recording of Woodsongs, to the opening notes and steps of the “Thriller” Halloween parade.

The Kentucky has been the site of the Disney Secretariat premiere, has hosted TEDX Lexington, too many concerts to count, a Summer Classics Series, and is a locale for film festivals (like the One World Film Festival).  It welcomed the national premiere of Bloodworth, written and produced by two Kentucky natives.

Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Borel at the October 2010 Secretariat premiere, Kentucky Theatre.

For decades, The Kentucky has been the local heart of Lexington’s downtown revitalization. For some of those years, the Kentucky, famed for its “refrigerator ready” art house was one of the few places to go downtown.  We saw the Seventh Seal, Double Indemnity and The Gods Must Be Crazy.  We showed up at midnight to see the more adventurous offerings.

After an Oct. 3, 1987 fire nearly destroyed the Kentucky, Mills and Mitchell salvaged what they could physically, and worked incessantly to salvage the idea of the 1920s showplace.  The Kentucky figured prominently in a book on historic theaters by then UK Professor Gregory A. Waller, published on the Smithsonian imprint.

In 1989, the theater was purchased by the city and a $1.2 million remodel was approved, “saving” the theater.  (In today’s dollars, that is about 2.1 stoplights).  Fred Mills kept on selling tickets, taking tickets, selling popcorn, showing you to your seat, and planning entertainment.

Landmark Theatre Turns 90

(an excerpt from the 2012 Ace Magazine archives)

The Kentucky’s 90th anniversary planning has been in the works for some time. Manager Fred Mills spoke excitedly about it this past Sunday after a showing of Killer Joe, in between customer interruptions to dispense Coke, and re-stock the men’s room with paper towels.

With reports in the last week that additional theater groups are looking at East downtown as potential locations for development, he’s optimistic that much of the Kentucky’s niche programming will remain a draw, though he told the Herald-Leader he’d rather not have the competition.

He feels confident in the ability of the Friends of the Kentucky Theatre to spearhead a fundraising campaign that will keep the Theatre current with digital technology and the physical facility in good shape. He says of co-chair Isabel Yates, “she is a hard person to say no to.”

Filmmaker Eren McGinnis loved the Kentucky so much, she made a documentary about it…Filmmaker Jean Donohue says, “As a young film criticism student at UK I spent many an afternoon watching the wonderfully ‘curated’ films at the Kentucky. That, combined with the extraordinary cadre of film criticism professors gathered at UK English Department Dick Sugg, Walt Foreman, Armando Prat, it was a heady brew.”

The Kentucky Theatre’s 100th anniversary is included in the October 2022 print edition of Ace Magazine. Click here to browse the digital flipbook of the print edition.