Kentucky’s local theaters are cultural and historic landmarks
Kentucky’s historic and independent theaters set the stage for a unique, intimate entertainment experience. Get your ticket to see acts that range from local and world-renowned live performers to classic flicks. Don’t forget the popcorn—extra buttery, of course.
Hopkinsville’s historic Alhambra Theatre is a regional landmark. Built in 1928, the Alhambra’s mosaic tiles and its auditorium façade were inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. Original features, such as the archway in the entrance and the chandelier, are still there today.
Even so, Margaret Prim, executive director of the Pennyroyal Arts Council, the organization that manages the Alhambra, says the theatre was in “dire shape” a few years ago. A $3.5 million renovation in 2018 brought the Alhambra back to life, adding a second-floor event space and viewing room.
Now the Alhambra is the heartbeat of the city’s downtown area, and is a multi-disciplinary theater. Its visitors can enjoy live shows and classic films, plus local theater and school performances. The Arts Council also works closely with area schools to promote the arts with programs like smARTS—Students Meeting the Arts, reaching about 15,000 students each year with science and history shows, as well as musicals.
Prim recognizes the Alhambra’s significance to the community. “Most of our citizens, if they’re from here, remember coming to the Alhambra as a young child and seeing movies and dating here and bringing their kids here,” Prim says. “It’s our past.”
Nearly a century later, the Alhambra Theatre continues to play a role in Hopkinsville’s future, bringing world class entertainment to the stage. “It gives a place for people to be and to grow and to explore their creative side,” says Prim.
Maiden Alley Cinema
In downtown Paducah, Maiden Alley Cinema was founded in 1991 as the Paducah Film Society, an outlet to showcase art films. The group of arts-minded people hosted Sundays at the Cinema just one day each month. As community interest and awareness grew, programming expanded. Ten years later, Maiden Alley Cinema was born.
Today, Maiden Alley Cinema is an independent, nonprofit art house cinema and one of the area’s leading visual and performing arts organizations. While Maiden Alley specializes in documentary, foreign and independent films, it also shows mainstream movies. “We have movies for everyone, from the most pretentious film buff to small children,” says Rebecca Madding, Maiden Alley Cinema executive director.
By day, the nearby River Discovery Center uses the theater to show a river documentary to area visitors. In the evening, Maiden Alley Cinema brings the performing arts to life for a wide-ranging audience with programming like Movies for Me, geared toward children, and the vintage film series Film Brew.
The theater also hosts Music @ MAC, a popular series featuring musicians ranging from local to international on the Maiden Alley stage. Budding filmmakers are elevated through River’s Edge International Film Festival and the 48 Hour Film Project.
Madding says when it comes to Kentucky’s role in the theater, “I feel like we have a rich culture and history to tell. I personally love being able to be that outlet, especially for local filmmakers.”
The Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center
Built in 1948, The Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center in Lexington is a historic Black theatre. Originally a movie house, the Lyric often showed classic Saturday morning cartoons. It later evolved to live stage performances, becoming a cultural icon.
Soulful sounds from Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington and other jazz greats echoed throughout the theatre. The Lyric was vibrant and alive—a thriving entertainment hub and the place to be in the East End community.
That all changed in 1963. Whit Whitaker, the Lyric’s executive director, says because of segregation at the time, many black businesses in the area died, including the Lyric. It lay dormant for 47 years.
“Then the city and the community came together in a project to raise money to revive it and restore it,” Whitaker says. In 2010, the Lyric reopened with a scaled-down theatre seating 526, plus a new community room, art gallery and museum.
While honoring its past, the Lyric celebrates cultural diversity through the arts. Events featuring live theatrical and musical performances by talented entertainers still grace the Lyric’s stage. Educational programming and community outreach are also part of the Lyric’s mission.
Whitaker says the Lyric holds a special place in the hearts of African Americans in the East End community, and he recognizes the importance of historic theaters. “To me, they’re definitely state landmarks, but they’re national landmarks,” Whitaker says, “especially a theater that identifies with a certain population, or culture or race.”
Located in the heart of downtown Maysville is the Russell Theatre. On the National Register of Historic Places, this atmospheric, “talkie” theatre opened in 1930 with a debut of Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee. “The Russell was supposed to be a reprieve from the Great Depression, which was the time period when it was built,” says board member Amanda Hankinson.
The Russell’s claim to fame? In 1953, Maysville native Rosemary Clooney’s first movie, The Stars are Singing, premiered there. Her movie attire is still displayed in the lobby.
After a decline, the Russell closed in 1983 with the James Bond installment Octopussy. Later, a local grassroots effort worked to save the iconic theatre. Fast forward to 2013: With standing room only, the Russell reopened to the public with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
“People packed the place,” says Hankinson. “It was amazing. Nobody had been in there for 30 years.”
The Russell’s auditorium currently is being restored, so there are no winter shows. However, you can still schedule a tour. Spring plans include resuming movie showings and hosting educational school field trips.
Once restoration is complete, Hankinson hopes everyone enjoys the theatre in the manner it was intended—as an escape. She adds, “We want people to come in and revel in the beauty that is the Russell Theatre.”
A gift—and a getaway—for Maysville
Maysville businessman Col. J. Barbour Russell made his fortune in his family’s wholesale grocery business. A philanthropist, Russell envisioned giving the community an escape from the Great Depression with a grand downtown movie palace—the Russell Theatre, a luxurious Spanish Colonial-style structure. “What the Roxy is to New York,” Russell proudly proclaimed, “the Russell will be to Maysville.” In 1930, Russell’s project cost around $200,000, which works out to about $3.1 million if built today, according to calculations from www.officialdata.org.
They don’t make ’em like this anymore
See why these community landmark theaters are the opposite of today’s boxy multiplexes in these videos.
Learn why the Alhambra Theatre is called Hopkinsville’s cultural hub in Season of Giving: Alhambra Theatre 2020.
See details of the Alhambra Theatre in this video tour.
Take a look at the rich history of the Russell Theatre in this video: An Atmosphere of Elegance: Remembering the Russell.
Follow the history of the Russell Theatre and what it means to the residents of Maysville in this video produced to help restore the structure.
You’ll catch a glimpse of the interior of the Maiden Alley Cinema in Maiden Alley Cinema: The Movies Are Here.