A major theatre restoration project is nearing completion in Frankfort. Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh takes us along for a tour of the century-old Grand Theatre.
At one time, Frankfort had several downtown theatres, including the Capitol and the Grand. The more opulent Capitol fell to the wrecking ball in the 1970’s, but the Grand, built in the early 1900’s, somehow survived. Originally a vaudeville house, it later featured silent movies and was wired for “talkies” in the 1920’s.
Local attorney Marvin Coles remembers going to the Grand to see cowboy stars of his youth.
“Lash LaRue, and I was thinking about Smiley Burnette,” said Coles. “At the Grand Theatre they had more live entertainment, you might say – Saturday afternoons and matinees. They kind of wanted the young people down there and a lot of young people went to that theatre all the time.”
The Grand, renovated and expanded in the early 1940’s, operated as a movie theatre until 1966. But like many theatres of its day, the Grand fell on hard times and eventually was converted into office space. The chairs were ripped out, the sloped floor was leveled, drop ceilings hid the balcony, and for a while, it served as an auction house.
But, significantly, the L-shaped theatre’s original configuration remained. And in January 2005, the nonprofit group Save The Grand Theatre was formed to transform the building into a multi-purpose community arts center. Now that the $4 million project is winding down, we took a tour of the restored theatre with foundation president Bill Cull. We began out front, beneath the brightly colored, neon-lit replica of the original marquee.
“We used the photos of it to reproduce and to reinstall the marquee in 2006,” said Cull. “We got a Main Streets grant that we used to do that.”
“OK, great, let’s go in,” said McVeigh. “So, now we’re entering the foyer or entryway and it looks like you’ve got some old brick there exposed.”
“Yeah these are the plaster walls from the theatre, the steps you walked up that are the 1909 remnant,” said Cull.
And the exposed walls are going to remain that way, says Cull, so patrons can get a feel for how the old theatre looked. But the restored lobby also includes stainless steel handrails, fresh carpeting, art deco lighting and a modern refreshment stand. Down the hallway, to the left, the red, restored sloped floor of the main theatre opens before us.
“Now we’ve entered the audience chamber,” said Cull. “We’ve built this large stage that will accommodate theatre, dance, concerts, many kinds of things. We still will have a movie screen. We will show more the Kentucky Theatre art film. It’s only 48 feet from the front of the stage to the back row.”
And there’s also the balcony, where before desegregation, African-Americans were required to sit.
“It still is a vestige of discrimination, obviously,” said Cull. “However, if we walk up there, I’ll just tell you, that’s where I want to buy my season tickets, because those are the best seats in the house.”
The intimate, blue and burgundy theatre also includes surround sound and modern projection equipment. Dressing rooms and administrative offices are connected to another historically significant building next door. Bill Cull says the capital city has been sorely lacking a performing arts center and the community is anxious to embrace the Grand, which will be staffed by volunteers.
“I just think it’s going to immeasurably improve this community’s quality of life,” said Cull. “And I do believe it will have a tourism impact.”
Workers are scrambling to put the finishing touches on the building, including bolting down all 418 donated theatre seats. The Grand opens on September 25th, with a show featuring The Platters and The Coasters.