Russell Theatre: The Heart of Downtown Maysville

by Russell Theatre volunteers

photo: Brian Zehowski

Colonel J. Barbour Russell & the Russell Theatre

Colonel J. Barbour Russell, a flamboyant, well-known Maysville businessman who made his early fortune in the grocery business, decided to erect a movie palace in downtown Maysville in 1928 to expand his real estate holdings. A president of both the Maysville Rotary Club and the Maysville County Club, Russell had also formed the first boys’ band in Maysville, the Kentucky Cardinal Boys’ Band and had achieved some regional celebrity as patron of the band. With the erection of the grand downtown theatre, though, Russell would realize his greatest prominence.

photo: Amanda Hankinson

Russell contracted with architects Frankel and Curtis of Lexington and interior designer Ralph Clevenger of Columbus, Ohio, to build a luxurious structure that transported its patrons to a world of escape. The structure resulting from Russell’s vision is constructed entirely of steel, concrete, brick, and terra cotta in Spanish Colonial style with a Moorish influence. “What the Roxy is to New York,” Russell boasted, “The Russell will be to Maysville.” In 1930 the initial estimate for the theatre was $125,000, but by completion the project topped $200,000 which would be approximately $3,011,260 in 2021.

In February 1929, Col. J. Barbour Russell announced he had let the contract for the erection of a handsome fireproof theatre on East Third Street to be call The Russell. This was envisioned at a time of great economic expansion in the United States, and it became a reality right at the start of the Great Depression when people needed to be transported away from the grim realities of poverty.

photo: Amanda Hankinson

The Golden Years

All of Maysville eagerly turned out for the debut of the new movie palace on December 4, 1930, to see Eddie Cantor in “Whoopee,” but also to view the world of fancy and imagination constructed in their small Kentucky town. The Russell Theatre 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. Indeed, many were later surprised to discover that they had attended an indoor movie, as the “night sky show” was so realistic. It was only at the end of evening that patrons were able to see the elaborate indoor ceiling, as a rainbow flashed across “the sky” to signal the end of the feature film.

photo: Amanda Hankinson

J. Barbour Russell operated the theater until 1935, when it was leased to the Schine Group. For the next few decades, the Schine Group brought both feature films and live entertainment to The Russell. Tom Mix rode his horse on stage here and various other singing and dancing acts shared the venue. The curved orchestra pit shared space underneath the stage with dressing rooms for performers. One unique feature of The Russell’s stage is the dependence on stage right; there is no stage left. More than 700 patrons could be seated on the main floor and in the two balconies.

In the 1950s, the theater served the community as meeting space for the First Christian Church and Trinity United Methodist Church while they were undergoing construction. The curved stage did double-duty as both choir loft and baptismal, as several children received their blessings on the stage.

The Russell Theatre received national recognition in 1953 when Maysville’s own Rosemary Clooney chose The Russell to premiere her hit movie, “The Stars Are Singing,” at a cost of $3 per ticket. Rosemary herself chose to sit with her best friend from childhood, Blanche Chambers, who was African American. From the theater’s beginnings, African American patrons sat in the upper balcony accessed by a separate stairway; they were not allowed on the main floor or in the lobby restrooms. The Russell was finally desegregated in the early 1960s.

photo: Amanda Hankinson

The Decline

For decades, Maysvillians enjoyed movies at The Russell. Cartoons were a regular feature on Saturday mornings, and a local business sponsored bicycle giveaways every month for Maysville’s children. Citizens recall bringing in bottle caps for movie admission. The eight corner “little balcony” seats on the main floor were the most prized in the house. Indeed, throughout his life, these were the seats Mr. Russell himself insisted upon having when he attended a show.

However, as many moved away from downtown in the 1970s, The Russell began to lose much of its polish and magic. The theater was expensive to maintain and was not kept in good repair. Under new management, the interior went through several changes in design. An enterprising manager, in hopes of freshening the interior, painted over much of the original jewel tone colors with bright red and yellow paint.

Even with efforts to retain a crowd, The Russell was forced to close in 1983. The last movie to be shown was James Bond’s “Octopussy.” After The Russell closed as a theatre, the building housed a restaurant, a used furniture store, and finally a newspaper filler operation. The roof was damaged by heavy wind allowing water to cause the deterioration of the west interior wall. Unfortunately, the first floor auditorium seats were sold in the early 1980s to another theatre in Kentucky. The balcony seats were spared.

photo: Amanda Hankinson

The Future

By the mid-1990s, the future of The Russell looked bleak. The building was in extreme disrepair, and there was speculation that the existing movie palace structure would be torn down for new construction on the property. In 1995, a group of Maysville citizens began a grassroots fundraising effort to save The Russell. In only 40 days, $41,000 was raised from the community via small donations. This group of citizens formed The Russell Theatre Corporation (TRTC) with the goal of preserving and restoring the historic theatre.

Since embarking on its mission in 1995, TRTC has received monies from the City of Maysville and a Community Development Block Grant to replace the roof, perform asbestos abatement and mold removal, restore the marquee, and replace the doors.

In 2007, TRTC was awarded a $250,000 grant from the Kentucky State Legislature to renovate and restore the lobby area. In addition, the Corporation has completed a feasibility study for re-use analysis, developed a business plan and launched a new website.

photo: Amanda Hankinson

In 2013, while still in need of restoration, movies returned to the screen! The theatre had been dark for 30 years but in October they opened their doors for a book signing by local authors Sean McHugh and Katie McHugh Parker and showed, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” as part of the community’s Downtown Trick-or-Treat event. The community showed up in crowds to see the building that had been shuttered for so many years. Later that evening a screen of “Dracula” closed night on what was the beginning of the Russell’s new era. Since this time, the theatre has hosted school children from the area for field trips and movie outings, continued to show movies sporadically throughout the years, and has occasional held a concert or live performance.

photo: Amanda Hankinson

In June 2015, Russell Theatre volunteer Danny Ruiz stopped by and surprised us with a newly painted ticket booth. The paint prior to his gracious gift was that from the 2007 renovation and was not period correct. Danny used the color palette that had been researched by artisans Steve Jedd & Alison Ashby for a miniature Russell Theatre exterior piece that was commissioned by the KSB Miniatures collection and is currently on display at the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center.

photo: KSB Miniatures Collection

In 2017, the theatre decided to work on the auditorium floor. Volunteers thoroughly cleaned, did minimal repairs, and repainted the floor. This helped the aesthetic appeal of the auditorium, and also helped reduce the hard to remove dust that had collected over the years. New carpet was also placed in the theatre isles.

In 2019, the theatre received an amazing donation from the UK Gatton College of Business and Economics. They were renovating some of their rooms and donated seating to the theatre which was installed prior to the 2019 season. This made a huge difference for those who attended the movies because prior to this installation, patrons used folding chairs that were donated by a dedicated volunteer.

photo: Amanda Hankinson

In 2020, the theatre was ready to kick off the season when COVID-19 hit. All non-essential businesses were shut down, and while the doors to the Russell were closed, the building wasn’t empty. They theatre took this time to correct the color palette of the lobby and restore it to a more period-correct color scheme and design. This work was completed thanks to a generous donation made to the theatre by the Halstead Family Trust.

The Russell Theatre has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the future is bright with promise. In addition to showing feature films, the Russell Theatre plans to offer a mixed use space for area businesses to hold meetings, a museum dedicated to Rosemary Clooney and the history of the building and film, educational services and field trips to regional students, and much more! The Russell Theatre is poised to once again become the “Heart of downtown Maysville,” where it will serve as the area’s most ornate and elegant venue for feature films.

photo: Amanda Hankinson

To keep up with events and announcements, please see the Russell Theatre website and follow the venue on Instagram and Facebook! Please reach out to the volunteer team if you’d like to get more involved or make a donation.

Special thanks to photographer Brian Zehowski and to photographer and Russell Theatre volunteer Amanda Hankinson for allowing use of their photos!