Wikipedia describes an atmospheric theater as a type of theater design where patrons were transported “to an exotic European courtyard or garden.’
It goes on to say “A cerulean sky, often intricately dotted with accurately depicted starry skies with wispy floating clouds produced by a projector replaced the ornate domes of traditional theatre design. Rather than crystal chandeliers and gilt ornamentation there were arches, trellises, balconies and statuary to evoke a sense of the outdoors.”
True to those words, Maysville’s Russell Theatre was a treat for the eyes long before the lights dimmed and the curtain rose on the entertainment of the day.
According to the theater’s website, “The Russell featured a Mediterranean garden theme, with painted facades of lush landscaping, stone and plaster balconies hung with Spanish shawls, and faux Lombard trees and trailing ivy to add to the effect. Plaster statuary adorned both the lobby and the main floor of the theater. The ceiling, which was painted a dark navy blue to mimic a night sky, twinkled with tiny lights.”
Now, a group of residents is determined, more than 20 years into efforts to save the historic movie house from being demolished, to hold a grand reopening in 2020, 90 years after it initially opened.
“That’s a lofty goal, to have it restored and open in 2020,” Luanne Mattingly, vice president of the Russell Theatre Corp., said Friday.
Mattingly said group tours including those from riverboats that dock at Limestone Landing, and movie presentations, such as the showing planned Saturday of Monty Python’s Life of Brian supplement the sustaining fund of $25,000 annually which keeps the doors open. Movies are shown every second and fourth Saturday, she said. Sales of items from the lobby gift shop along with donations and sales of commemorative bricks also help.
When the original group which saved the theater from destruction bought the building, it faced the immediate need to get a roof on to prevent further damage to the ornate interior.
In the ensuing 20-plus years, the group has replaced the mechanical systems in the lobby; restored the lobby; restored and updated the restrooms; restored the Venus statues; re-installed the projection screen; restored the marquee; repainted the facade; completed asbestos abatement; and installed new windows on the storage building adjacent to the theater. In addition, a projector for the theater was donated and installed. Most recently the storage building was cleared and part of the floor replaced.
Restoring the lobby was possible because of funds designated for the theater during the administration of Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, Mattingly said.
Now comes the monumental task of raising the $2.3 million an architect estimates it will take to restore the auditorium of the building to its original condition. That number could be more or less, but it is still a daunting undertaking, Mattingly said. However, she is determined to make it happen.
Mattingly said she has thought outside the box on ideas for raising the money.
“I’ve looked under every rock, written Hollywood stars and TV personalities,” she said.
What she hopes to find is that one benefactor willing to fund $1 million in seed money. The group also has plans for an antique auction, a repeat of last year’s Summer Jam Session for young artists and some other ideas in the works.
Mattingly hopes the community will embrace the project and come to realize how lucky Maysville is to have an atmospheric theater located here. Most of the other remaining theaters of that genre are located in larger cities — Louisville and Atlanta to name just.
In the meantime, Mattingly said she is looking forward to the day when the Russell Theatre will be open to offer opportunities not just for visitors but for area students whose teachers may be seeking a location to immerse the class in the subject matter or culture they are studying or for residents looking for a unique event venue.
Mattingly said no matter the odds, she is determined to see the project through to the end.
“I’m so passionate about it. I’m just not one to give up on something,” she said.
For more information on efforts to save the theater or to donate visit http://www.russelltheatre.org