Kentucky Theatre

The Kentucky Theatre (214 East Main Street) was opened on October 1st, 1922 by the Lafayette Amusement Company, which had acquired the Ada Meade Theatre in late December of 1921, and spent most of 1922 building and promoting the project. The Lafayette Amusement Company was headed by president Fred Levy and vice-president Michael Switow. The theater was designed by Joseph and Joseph, Louisville architects who also designed the Rialto Theatre in their home city. Michael Switow’s son, Harry Switow oversaw the construction of the theater by the Platoff and Bush Company of Louisville. The Kentucky Theatre was named after a public contest was announced, offering $20 in gold to whomever came up with the winning name. The grand opening was extensively promoted and theater was dedicated by Governor Edwin P. Morrow.

The Kentucky Theatre, ushers with a giant birthday cake to celebrate the 8th Anniversary of Kentucky Theatre opening, 10/18/1930, Lafayette Studios collection #991

The Kentucky was intended to be competition for both the Strand and the Ben Ali theaters, also on Main Street and owned by the Phoenix Amusement Company. (While briefly president of the Phoenix Amusement Company in 1915, Michael Switow oversaw the construction of The Strand.) The Strand and the Ben Ali at the time divided the theater market between them; the Strand exhibited 1st run films and the occasional musical program, while the Ben Ali focused on booking the Vaudeville (Vodvil) acts still touring the country. While the Kentucky was intended primarily as a “movie palace,” it was still constructed with a stage for live acts. Until the advent of sound films in the later 1920s, the Kentucky featured both, but the schedule was biased toward film exhibition. The Kentucky Theatre was unique in that it was a one-floor theater, with no balcony for African-American patrons. It was not until 1961 that the theater ended it’s “whites-only” policy.

In 1927, the Kentucky became one of the first fifty theaters in the United States to converted to sound, with the installation of Vitaphone equipment. Michael Switow had bought out Fred Levy’s interest in the company in 1927 and was now the president of the Lafayette Amusement Company. The company was so successfully that it opened the State Theatre just a few doors down on East Main, in late 1929. The State complemented the Kentucky by offering 2nd run movies and adventure serials and included a balcony section for African-American patrons. Live entertainment market was shrinking and all three theaters held by Lafayette Amusement Company moved toward an all-movie format.

The Kentucky Theatre, interior of theater after remodel, 8/17/1933, Lafayette Studios collection #1721c

Facing the stock market crash of 1929 and in the impending Great Depression, Switow leased the Kentucky and the State to the Publix Theatre Corporation, a division of Paramount Studios. Publix took over the booking and the day-to-day operation of the theaters, and brought with it a increased advertising presence promotional budget. Although the lease with Publix was for twenty years, the relationship collapsed in 1932. Switow resumed control of the theaters, but immediately leased them to the Phoenix Amusement Company for booking and daily operations.

The Phoenix Amusement Company now controlled five of the six movie houses in Lexington, (the last, the Lexington Opera house, was only exhibiting 2nd and 3rd run movies and shorts.) In addition, the company owned or operated theaters in all the surrounding counties. This hegemony continued until Phoenix Amusement Company sold all it’s theaters holding and turned over all its theater lease and operation contracts to the Schine Theatre Company. Schine operated all five theaters until a Federal Anti-trust lawsuit broke up the company in 1958, forcing them to sell off all four theaters. M. Switow and Sons Enterprises stepped in and resumed operation of the Kentucky and State theaters (the Ada Meade was closed and demolished in 1954.) The Kentucky was renovated at that time, and the State was renovated and re-opened as Downtown Cinema in 1964.

In 1966, both were leased to the Panther/Countrywide theaters corporation. In 1973, Panther/Countrywide assigned its operation contracts to Esquire Theatres. Esquire was sued for back rent in 1976 and the Switow organization stepped in again and resumed operating both theaters. In 1987, a fire in a near-by restaurant caused extensive smoke damage to the Kentucky and the State. Both were closed, while various private interests attempted and failed to raise the money to re-open one or both of the theaters.

In 1989, the building and property for both theaters were purchased by the Fayette County Urban Government and renovations began on the Kentucky. In October of 1992, the Kentucky re-opened as an art house theater, with Fred Mills, manager of both the Kentucky and the State through the 1970s and 80s, in charge of day-to-day operations and booking. In 1998, the State re-opened as well, renovated and acting as a second screen for the Kentucky.