From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, nearly every city of any size built an ornate theater meant to mimic the great opera houses and theaters of Europe. Frankfort was no exception.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, it had five such theaters. By the mid-1900s, all but one of them had closed. The lone survivor was the beloved Art Deco-style Grand Theater, today a combination movie house and live performance venue.
When The Grand opened in 1911, it was as a vaudeville house with audience- pleasing entertainment ranging from comedy skits to melodrama. The theater progressed to showing silent films, and in the late 1920s was wired for “talkies.” By 1941, it had become solely a movie house, and by 1966, it had closed. The once glamorous entertainment palace became home to a variety of commercial businesses.
“I guess you could say this theater has quite a history,” says Bill Cull, president of Grand Theater, Inc.
But like all historic buildings, The Grand Theater, stunning in its heyday, found itself in need of a facelift. In 2009, it got one.
The non-profit Save the Grand Theater, Inc., which had been formed four years earlier with the intent of restoring the grande dame, purchased the property. They immediately set about raising nearly $5 million to renovate the venerable theater.
Their efforts resulted in today’s Grand, a 428-seat, state-of-the-art performing and visual arts theater that is the pride of its community.
“We like to think that we have programming for all tastes,” says Cull, adding that the majority of season subscribers come from Frankfort, but that more than half of individual ticket sales come from outside Franklin County.
That’s good news, as Cull says one of his goals is to make The Grand a major force in tourism for the city.
“We want people to come to Frankfort to see us, eat and shop locally and then spend the night,” he says.
Considering that in terms of entertainment, Frankfort is not Las Vegas, Austin or Nashville, The Grand has succeeded in attracting some pretty heavy hitters.
The Vienna Boys Choir has played here, but so have the Bacon Brothers, featuring mega-movie star Kevin Bacon.
Those familiar with the Big Band era came to reminisce with the Count Basie, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey orchestras, while those who grew up in the ‘Swinging 60s’ came to hear Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and the Jefferson Starship.
For country music fans, The Grand has hosted Larry Gatlin; for jazz aficionados, Branford Marsalis; for history buffs, Senator George McGovern, invited to discuss his book on Abraham Lincoln, and for animal lovers, Jack Hanna, the former zookeeper at the Columbus, Ohio zoo, who famously kept Johnny Carson seeking refuge atop his desk during his tenure as host of the Tonight Show.
Hanna was certainly a fan favorite,” recalls Cull. “On one of his visits, he brought a cheetah, and when a little boy in the audience stood up to go to the bathroom, the cheetah became quite agitated.
“It took a while to get it calmed down before the show could go on,” he adds.
When asked about his personal favorite guest, Cull ponders awhile and then says, “It would have to be John Sebastian. That was my musical period.”
The Grand’s current schedule is both eclectic and diverse. Upcoming performers include cellist Ben Sollee (Dec. 22) and humorist and Lake Wobegon’s most famous resident, Garrison Keillor (coming in February 2023).
In addition to live performances, The Grand has a year-long calendar of films and other performances, such as live streaming of the Metropolitan Opera.
During the summer months, Turner Classic Movies are shown. The second weekend in December brings the annual Christmas holiday showing of the Polar Express for the younger patrons, and during the winter months, Academy Award-nominated and/or winning films are showcased.
As Cull puts it, “films that appeal to a more niche audience that really appreciates the nuances of filmmaking.
“Films like The King’s Speech, Nomadland and Bohemian Rhapsody,” he says. “We are looking more for critically acclaimed films than blockbusters.”
When selecting performers and films, Cull and his board must keep in mind the size of the theater (10 rows in the orchestra section and 10 rows in the balcony).
“We have to consider the small size and intimate nature of The Grand,” he says. “We have been very fortunate to get a lot of our performers who have scheduled appearances in Nashville and Cincinnati and are happy to add us on as a sort of bonus.”
And that is definitely a bonus for The Grand’s art and culture-loving patrons.