Saving the Grand Theatre is a historic preservation project whose time has finally come. One of five theaters operated between the mid 1800s and the 1970s in what is now Historic Downtown, the Grand is the only theater remaining with its theater configuration still intact.
Built in 1911 as a 135-seat vaudeville house, the Grand added motion-picture entertainment first with silent movies and then “talkies.” In 1941, under the ownership of Chakeres Theatres, the Grand was converted to a then-modern 680-seat movie theatre. It boasted the first air conditioning system, which used ice to cool water and produce a cold mist carried through pipes.
The Grand Theatre was closed in 1966, and since then, the building has served a variety of commercial purposes. By 1980 when Jim Morris purchased the building to house his real estate office, it had already undergone many changes. Fortunately, the auditorium’s added drop ceiling served to preserve the entire upstairs, where the balcony, corridor and bathrooms remained intact.
In 1983, market research for another downtown project noted Frankfort’s need for additional evening entertainment to attract tourists. At that time, the first effort to raise restoration funds began, but the goal went unmet. Renovation talks resurfaced in 1990 but failed to take off.
Finally in 2002, Mike Greer, a Frankfort resident interested in the arts, put together the group that created the nonprofit Save The Grand Theatre, Inc., and served as president. Bill Cull—who had led the original 1983 effort—became president in 2005 and still serves today. Charles Stewart, Fontaine “Chip” Banks, Ed Stodola and Joanna Hay served on the board. An additional dedicated force is made up of more than 150 volunteers.
The group inaugurated two annual branded events—the Taste of Frankfort in 2002 and the 225-mile bicycle ride across Kentucky known as GABRAKY [Grand (now “Governor’s) Autumn Bike Ride Across Kentucky] in 2004.
Although the group had some initial fundraising success, purchasing the theatre from Jim Morris in 2005 was the beginning of the strategy that propelled the project forward. “We bought the building and started having events,” said Cull. “Of course, we had to do some nominal renovation to have even a limited number of people in the building. And a Renaissance on Main grant paid for the reproduction of the theatre’s original marquee that had been removed in the late 1960s.”
Spring 2005 brought The Grand Awakening. It was a full week of successful fundraising events that also won a $25,000 commitment from then-Governor Ernie Fletcher.
In early 2006, after extensive expensive renovations, the Grand received an occupancy permit for up to 200 people. This would now allow for ongoing events that the Save the Grand group hoped would provide funds needed for the full restoration.
Cull said the 2006 season—with 36 events and nearly 7,000 paid admissions—was a spectacular success. “We had everything from Bluegrass music to films such as ‘Some Like It Hot’ to children’s theatre.” A number of influential legislators attended these events, resulting in the Kentucky General Assembly’s appropriating $488,000 for the project. The funds were used to buy an adjacent building sorely needed for back-of-house facilities such as dressing rooms, prop and costume storage, green rooms and administrative offices.
The Grand Theatre’s next big break followed soon after the 2006 season success. The Franklin County Fiscal Court voted to levy a two-percent hotel room tax to support the restoration. From there, the Save the Grand group bid the work, requested the bonds to finance the project, awarded the construction contract and began renovation.
Opening in fall 2009, the Grand Theatre is a $5-million, 428-seat performing and visual arts theatre, that is state of the art in every way, including wiring for closed circuit TV.
At last, Frankfort residents and their children will have cultural opportunities right in their own downtown, schools and daycares will have a local destination for cultural field trips, and the Grand almost certainly will be a center for social engagement as well as a venue for civic participation and education.
The Grand was one of the venues for the Alltech Fortnight Festival, which was two weeks of entertainment events, sponsored by Alltech, in conjunction with the 2010 World Equestrian Games. “But Alltech is getting the Festival off the ground a year early in the fall of 2009,” Cull said. “Then, for the Games in 2010, we expect to offer even more high-level entertainment.” For more information, visit www.grandtheatrefrankfort.org.