ky theatre

Long-time Kentucky Theatre general manager Fred Mills and organist John Landon admire old Herald-Leader articles about the history of the nearly 100-year-old theater. 

LEXINGTON — For nearly 100 years The Kentucky Theatre has been a vibrant part of Lexington’s downtown scene. Some have even called it “the heartbeat of downtown.” 

Darren Zancan and his DMZ Productions team have captured some of the many stories that make The Kentucky Theatre what it is in their latest documentary.

“I’ve been wanting to do this mini-documentary series for DMZ for months,” Zancan said. “Like, we should do something where we reach out to somebody and do this mini-documentary for free. Like, it doesn’t cost them anything. It is a passion project for us.”

Capturing the history of the theater led Zancan to believe this project was going to be bigger than anticipated. 

“(Darren) is an interesting guy with a big personality,” Hayward Willkirson, co-chair of the Friends of the Kentucky Theatre said. “He kind of just tracked us down, I think he must have seen some of the articles about us reopening the theater and was just interested in helping out in any way that he could.”

The Friends of the Kentucky Theatre is a non-profit organization started in 2012 after theaters nationwide had to transition from 35mm film projection systems to digital. The organization initially wanted to raise money for digital projectors.

“At first, we thought he was just going to do really short little spots, you know—thirty second or a minute long interviews—with people talking about why they love the theater,” he said. 

In September the Friends of the Kentucky Theater were awarded the management contract by the City of Lexington and Mayor Linda Gorton. 

“The more he got into it he became more and more fascinated,” Wilkirson said. “He thought, ‘I’m going to turn this into a 15-minute documentary; I’m going to turn it into a 30-minute documentary.’”

Harry Switow broke ground on The Kentucky Theatre in 1921, opening the doors a year later in October 1922. 

“It’s just been a really neat and worthwhile project because it is such a historical part of Lexington and Kentucky,” Zancan said. “And movies are—I mean, we’ve all grown up with movies.” 

For DMZ, highlighting the stories of the people who make up the theater was important. 

“People feel really connected to (the theater), and not just connected because they can come see a movie there, but it’s such a cultural place,” Zancan said. 

Both Zancan and Wilkirson agree that the processes of making “The Heartbeat of Downtown” documentary had some serendipitous moments. 

Not knowing of a documentary being made about the work of her grandfather, Sarah Burkoff Maritato, emailed the Friends of the Kentucky saying she was going to be in Lexington and had never seen the theater before. Her reaction to The Kentucky Theatre for the very first time is captured in the film. 

“Just the fact you have somebody like Sarah, who is the granddaughter (of architect Switow), who has never seen this place and to watch the emotions come flow through her was really neat,” Zancan said. 

Also a part of the picture is Fred Mills, long-time general manager of The Kentucky Theatre. 

“When you think of a word associated with the theater, it’s Fred,” Zancan said. “He is a treasure.” 

Mills has been working in the theater for more than five decades. 

“(The documentary is) great for the theater,” Wilkirson said. “The theater is almost 100. It will be 100 (years old) in October of (2022), so there are a lot of amazing stories and a lot of really fascinating patrons with deep love for the theater and I think (DMZ) is doing a great job of capturing some of that.” 

The Kentucky Theatre plans to open in January. During the holiday season they have had a soft opening showing holiday classics, Wilkirson said. 

“It’s been well received and pretty well attended given what’s relatively short notice,” he said. 

Patrons visiting The Kentucky Theatre can expect the old traditions to remain when they officially reopen, Wilkerson said. Events like Rocky Horror will be back; summer classics will be shown and even organ music will return. Friends of the Kentucky plan to build on those traditions and revitalize the theater, Wilkirson said. 

“With the Kentucky Theatre turning 100, you can imagine how many films have been shown there,” he said. “From 1920 through 2020. We might do a retrospective over the course of a whole year, sort of a history of film at The Kentucky starting in the ’20s with Charlie Chaplin and coming all the way up.” 

Even in the era of Netflix you can see films at The Kentucky Theatre that you are never going to see anywhere else, Wilkirson said. 

Zancan and DMZ hope to air the documentary on television. 

Freeman Kelly, of Georgetown, contributed drone footage to the documentary.


James Scogin can be reached at

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