Larry Thomas, a longtime local film buff and lover of great old movie theaters, speaks for many Cincinnatians when he says, “I try at least once a week to consciously think to curse the names of all those who had a hand in murdering the Albee. What a waste!”
It’s indeed hard to believe Cincinnati didn’t save even one of its many downtown movie palaces built early in the 20th century, especially the showcase 3,500-seat Albee Theatre on Fountain Square. It was demolished in 1977.
However, many other cities moved to protect, restore and revitalize their classic theaters, seeing them as quintessential parts of the big-city experience. Luckily, today we can still get that experience by going some 100 miles south to Lexington, Ky. Thomas has played an important role in that.
The grand, 800-seat downtown Kentucky Theatre — built in 1922 and now owned by Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government — recently underwent an interior renovation. A nonprofit group raised $800,000 for digital projection and a refurbished auditorium with new seats and lighting. (The theater closed as a private business in 1987 after a fire; it reopened in 1992 as a government-owned facility.)
The Kentucky today can be appreciated just for its architecture — the lovely domed, stained-glass windows, the original marble floor in the lobby, the 1940s-era neon-accented marquee. But it also lures because of its inventive, informed programming supervised by Thomas.
Thomas owned downtown Cincinnati’s The Movies repertory cinema in the 1980s and now works for WVXU as an editorial consultant but also books the Kentucky for its management team. It’s his favorite of the cluster of theaters he books, and the best part of the job for him occurs in summer when he arranges the Summer Classics series. The classic films he chooses screen Wednesdays at 1:30 and 7:15 p.m. now through Sept. 3.
On June 4, the Kentucky presents a new, digitally restored version of 1965’s Doctor Zhivago, David Lean’s sweepingly romantic three-hour-plus adaptation of the Russian novel by Boris Pasternak, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.
Subsequent classics set for the Kentucky’s big screen are: Orson Welles’ 1947 The Lady From Shanghai (June 11); Stanley Kubrick’s Dr.
Strangelove (June 18); Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (June 25); Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (July 2); Mary Poppins (July 9); the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (July 16); Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Double Indemnity (July 23); Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (July 30); the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (Aug. 6); Preston Sturges’ screwball-comedy classic The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Aug. 13); James Stewart in Harvey (Aug. 20); This Is Spinal Tap (Aug. 27); and Fellini’s masterful 8½ (Sept. 3). All seats are $6.
This is the 11th year for Summer Classics, and the series has a large, devoted following.
“I don’t remember who had the original idea, but that first year was beyond my wildest imaginations for getting people in,” Thomas says. “I thought, ‘Holy Cow, we must have struck a nerve,’ because people were coming by the bucketful.”
Thomas believes Summer Classics has developed its keen following by convincing an audience that new, digitally restored (and digitally projected) prints — shown on a giant screen — make the theatrical presentations genuine cultural events.
That’s especially true when such new prints get issued for a classic film’s anniversary — as is happening this year for the 50th anniversary of the black-pitched antiwar comedy Dr. Strangelove and The Beatles’ ebullient A Hard Day’s Night; and for the 30th of Stop Making Sense, among others.
Thomas also believes this is a golden era for seeing classics in a preserved movie palace ... if a city was wise enough to save one.
“The audience at the Kentucky is definitely more hip than a multiplex audience,” Thomas says. “They know the directors, they know the classics and they know about digital restoration.”
“For so many years all you could get were worn prints — spliced, scratched and with defective soundtracks,” he says. “Any time you could get hold of a new 35-millimeter [film] print of something, it was a big deal. Now with digital prints, they’re stunning.”
(The historic Victoria Theatre in Dayton, primarily a live-event venue, still uses 35-mm prints for its summer Cool Films series.)
There are other reasons to visit the Kentucky this summer. There is a lovely 350-seat second auditorium that was once a separate, adjacent theater called the State, where first-run art/indie/upscale movies are normally presented.
And since 2011, Lexington has had a Harry Dean Stanton Festival honoring the Kentucky-born character actor. This year, Stanton is coming with Michelle Phillips for a closing-night screening of their 1973 gangster-film Dillinger at the Kentucky Theatre 7 p.m. June 15. Tickets are $7. The Kentucky also is screening Repo Man at midnight June 13 as part of the fest (harrydeanstantonfest.org).
Also, for three Wednesday nights in September, a nonprofit group called sQecial media presents the Rosa Goddard Film Festival for foreign films at the Kentucky. The films are Alain Resnais’ 1961 Last Year at Marienbad (Sept. 10); Czech director Jaromil Jires’ 1970 Valerie & Her Week of Wonders (Sept. 17); and French director Agnes Varda’s 1970 Cleo From 5 to 7 (Sept. 24).
The KENTUCKY THEATRE is located at 214 Main St. in downtown Lexington. For more information, call 859-231-6997 or visit kentuckytheater.com.