Marquees flicker back to life as downtown movie houses are restored
A half-century ago, downtown movie houses with grand names like the Palace, the Plaza, and the Capitol dominated the social life in towns across Kentucky.
Many featured rich European-style architecture and modern amenities such as air conditioning—and people associated them with momentous occasions of their lives.
“So many memories came from people’s experiences with the theaters, whether it was the first place they went on a date or the first place they saw a Disney film as a child,” says Roger Stapleton, state coordinator for the Kentucky Main Street Program, which works to revitalize downtowns.
Over the years, the dawn of television and box-shaped multiplex theaters in the suburbs drove most of the downtown movie houses out of business.
But in recent years, communities have fought to preserve their movie memories by making the renovation of historic theaters the cornerstones of downtown redevelopment projects, Stapleton says.
“It’s a rallying point for so many communities,” he says. “People say this is not a white elephant, we need to do something with it.”
Faced with steep competition for government and charity funds and the challenges of reconstructing dilapidated buildings to meet modern standards, many projects founder.
But gradually, marquees are flickering to life on Main Streets across Kentucky. At least 25 Kentucky communities, from Maysville to Glasgow and from Hopkinsville to Russellville, are in some stage of reviving their historic movie houses.
Here is a glimpse of four downtown movie houses in different stages of restoration, including memories recalled, the hard work that lies ahead, and for some the sweet glory of their success.
Donald Buckley shines his flashlight around what’s left of the Russell Theatre in Maysville.
Once, the Russell looked like a Mediterranean garden with ivied colonnades and Spanish-style balconies. Its atmospheric ceiling, which features simulated clouds, a moon, stars, and a rainbow, was state-of-the-art technology when it opened in the 1930s.
But today, Buckley’s flashlight exposes how far the Russell has fallen since Hollywood stars came here for the 1953 premier of Rosemary Clooney’s first film, The Stars Are Singing.
Evidence of water damage is everywhere. Huge chunks of plaster are missing from the walls, exposing the brick underneath. Wood supports hold up a decorative balcony.
The original 700 auditorium seats were sold years ago. There is no heat and the only lighting is temporary, making the cavernous auditorium cold and dark.
On the stage floor lie the shredded remains of a gold, satin curtain and a folded, dirtied movie screen.
Buckley, treasurer of the Rescue the Russell Theatre group and frequent docent for tours of the building, surveys the scene with a grim face.
“I’ve had people come in here that have cried,” he says, shaking his head.
Marla Baxter, Maysville’s assistant director of tourism and renaissance, hasn’t been inside the Russell since her teen years. She frowns as Buckley shines his flashlight on her childhood haunt.
“There were seats there,” she says, pointing to a platform on the side of the theater. “We sat here when I was 5 years old and watched Bambi. It was the thing to do on Saturdays. You came here. Your parents dropped you off with pocket money. It was great memories.” She folds her arms and stares at the scene. “This is a shame,” she adds quietly.
In 1996, Buckley, a former classmate of Rosemary Clooney, the world-famous singer and actress who grew up in Maysville, joined a community effort to restore the Russell Theatre.
Before her death in 2002, Clooney gave the Russell restoration some of her star power. She came to town three times to host the Rosemary Clooney Music Festival, a fund-raiser with profits that go toward the project.
And the festival has continued in her name, featuring stars such as Linda Ronstadt, Rosemary’s famous nephew George Clooney, and Bing Crosby’s wife, Katherine. In September 2004, singer Roberta Flack headlined the event, and more than 1,700 people dined at a huge banquet set up on Third Street in the shadow of the Russell marquee.
But even such high-profile support and grand festivities haven’t been enough to rescue the Russell.
Each year, the festival raises about $12,000, Buckley says. “That’s a lot of money, but when you’re trying to raise $3.2 million, it’s only a drop in the bucket.”
Several years ago, Buckley’s group used an environmental grant to restore the marquee, which birds had damaged, and to remove asbestos and add secure doors to prevent break-ins. And it’s spent more than $400,000 on architectural studies and projects such as roof repairs to stop the building’s deterioration, Buckley says.
“But it’s an awfully long process,” he says. “The kind of work that needs to be done is extremely extensive.”
Buckley admits he’s frustrated by the slow progress.
“But we’re pretty dedicated to the restoration,” he says. “It’s a building that you don’t see everywhere. It has character. It’s an anchor of the downtown. It adds to the community. And everybody is community-minded—at least on our board. They want to preserve something that is part of our history.”
Just about everybody in Glasgow carries a memory of the Plaza Theatre.
For more than 50 years, the movie house on East Main Street was the place to court and gather. The marquee announced first-run movies from flicks by Elvis Presley and Bob Hope to kid favorites from Walt Disney Pictures.
Back in the days before television and DVD, movie buffs formed a line that stretched down Main Street and around the town square when Gone with the Wind played the Plaza. And the theater’s stage attracted big-name entertainers, from Dinah Shore to Roy Rogers and his horse to the Les Brown Orchestra.
Inside the Plaza, theatergoers found a Spanish-Italian courtyard scene, with Mediterranean-style balconies overlooking the stage and stone statues decorating the facade. Overhead, stars twinkled and clouds rolled across a simulated evening sky.
“I used to go there every Sunday afternoon and occasionally meet a young gal there,” recalled Charles Honeycutt, who was mayor of the south-central Kentucky community for 17 years and was the driving force behind the Plaza Theatre restoration until his death in December 2004. “If you weren’t old enough to have a car, at least you had the movie theater. Some women told me that’s where they got their first kiss.” He chuckled and hastened to add, “ … though not by me.”
But like most downtown movie houses of its generation, the Plaza fell on hard times. It stopped showing movies more than 15 years ago. Its roof leaked. Its seats and carpets rotted. The twinkling lights in the ceiling faded to black.
Then the memories brought it back. Glasgow residents determined to save this piece of their past.
Architects estimated their dream would cost them more than $1.6 million. They had to repair water-damaged floors, bring the electric, heat, and air conditioning systems up to modern standards, expand the stage, repair the seats, and provide seating for people in wheelchairs.
“It’s a big undertaking,” Honeycutt said during the renovation process last fall.
“When you first look at everything that has to be done, it’s a little mind-boggling.”
But Glasgow residents persevered. They hosted dances and sold sponsorships. The city set aside tax dollars, borrowed money, and won more than $650,000 in grants. After Honeycutt’s death, the board developed the Walk of Stars, a program that raises money by selling stars engraved with the donors’ names and embedded in the sidewalk in front of the theater.
On Sunday, April 17, the newly renovated Plaza Theatre officially reopened to the public with a ceremony dedicating the Honeycutt Concert Hall in recognition of the former mayor’s role.
Three weekends of events followed—including a concert by regional rock bands, a children’s matinee featuring a magician, a bluegrass band jam, and a chamber orchestra performance—says Steve Jones, who is director of the theater.
In its new life, the Plaza is a community performing arts center rather than a movie house, and it has 1,048 seats instead of the original 1,200, says Rhonda Riherd Trautman, director of Renaissance Main Street in Glasgow.
But old-timers still recognize their old courting spot, she says.
“One of the biggest goals was to make sure that when the people who have grown up around here go into the building, it would be as familiar to them as possible,” she says.
One Glasgow resident who was especially anxious to see the revived Plaza is Emily Dale, whose grandfather, Bruce Aspley, built it in 1934. Dale’s father, Walter “Jigger” Aspley, ran the Plaza until 1973, when he sold it and built a multi-screen theater on the outskirts of Glasgow.
“The movies were booked out of Hollywood and they weren’t giving the one-screens the pictures,” Dale recalls. “It was sort of the demise of the Plaza. If you can’t get the pictures, people aren’t going to come.”
But like most Glasgow residents, she’s grateful to Honeycutt and others who fought for the return of the Plaza.
“I literally grew up in the theater,” Dale says. “You know, it’s your childhood. It’s wonderful they’re bringing something back the whole town can enjoy and appreciate.”
The 780-seat Alhambra Theatre has served four generations of Hopkinsville residents. It opened in 1928 as a showplace for silent movies and vaudeville acts, then made the transition to talkies in 1929, according to a history on the theater’s Web site at www.pennyroyalarts.org.
While other single-screen movie houses were closed or closing in the 1980s, the Alhambra took a new direction and became a stage for community plays, concerts, and dance recitals, says Carol Barta, executive director of the Pennyroyal Arts Council, which manages the theater today.
The Alhambra still hosts more than 50 events a year and retains much of its original grand appearance, including a Spanish castle motif with paintings of palm trees along the walls and gardens and vines around the stage, she says.
“Right now, it has a lot of charm and the people who come and perform here enjoy it,” Barta says. “We enjoy being able to have the performance space; otherwise, there isn’t anything like it in this nearby area.”
But the Alhambra is showing its age.
In the early 1990s, Christian County, which owns the building in a partnership with the city of Hopkinsville, launched a capital campaign to replace the theater seats and make other improvements.
Since then, minor renovations have continued, but theater supporters dream of doing more with the Alhambra.
“It’s livable, but it needs work,” Barta says, ticking off a list of projects that includes expanding dressing rooms, renovating restrooms, upgrading the heating system, and restoring other parts of the building.
The county has applied for state funds to pay for major renovations, but has not received any in recent years, says Doris Russell, office manager for the arts council.
“It’s a very unique building and we need to keep it going,” she says. “We struggle all the time just to do the everyday things you have to do. But we need some big bucks.”
Architecturally speaking, The Dixie, a 200-seat theater in Russellville, never was much of a showplace.
“It’s just a big, old, yellow brick building,” concedes Joe Gran Clark, an attorney, historic preservationist, and a former board member of the city’s Main Street Program.
But the building, which operated as a cinema from about 1949 to the mid-1980s, is located near the heart of the city’s downtown.
And for that reason, residents want to restore it as both a movie house and performing arts center, Clark says.
“Just because it’s not a pretty building doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be a functional building,” Clark says.
“We see it as an opportunity to have people downtown. The nearest movie theater is 30 miles away in Bowling Green or Hopkinsville.”
With about $400,000 in private and state grants, the Russellville Main Street Program completed most of the first phase of renovations in summer 2004. That project included restoring the exterior, replacing doors and windows, upgrading electrical wiring and other mechanical systems, adding an entrance, and making restrooms accessible to people with disabilities.
Now officials are trying to raise another $200,000 to restore the interior and possibly add some architectural elements to the exterior, Clark says.
They hope that changes in the marketing process of films will make showing first-run movies possible again, he says. And they want the revival of “the movie” to be a part of a comeback for downtown Russellville.
“With so much work already completed, surely the final phase will be completed within the next couple of years,” Clark says.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: MORE ABOUT HISTORIC DOWNTOWN THEATERS
For information on organizations whose mission it is to restore historic theaters and more information on the downtown movie houses in this story and other Kentucky downtown theaters, click here: downtown theaters