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Louisville's Movie Houses

May kicks off the summer blockbuster season, and as such we’re strolling down memory lane with a look at Louisville’s bygone movie theaters.

The bustling and bright Fourth Street movie district stands out in the minds of many locals, but according to The Encyclopedia of Louisville, the area’s first moving picture show was at a storefront nickelodeon on West Market Street called Dreamland, in 1904.

This set the stage for the dozens of movie theaters that followed.

One of the most popular was the Rialto - a multimillion dollar movie house that opened in 1921.

It was designed by Joseph and Joseph Architects of Louisville, the same firm responsible for The Kentucky Theater downtown.

The ornate Rialto included Bohemian crystal chandeliers, a striking white marble staircase, silk damask covered walls and luxurious velvet covered seats. It sat 35-hundred.

Unfortunately, the Rialto met the grim fate of most of Louisville’s grand movie palaces and was demolished in 1969.

Many of these beautiful buildings were razed and replaced with department stores, office buildings or parking lots.

However, one grand theater that still survives is the Palace, first known as Loew’s State Theater, on Fourth Street. It was considered one of Louisville’s most elaborate movie palaces and was built in 1928 for a reported $1.2 million.

Originally designed to show silent films, the theater was once equipped with a one-thousand pipe Wurlitzer organ that would lift over the stage and provide sound effects.

Although the building has had several renovations in its 81 years, today the theater has been restored to its original design and is used mainly for concerts and other performing arts events.

More to note:

  • The Dreamland’s first moving picture show lasted only 15 minutes.
  • The first authentic movie theater on Fourth St. was the Bisou.
  • The Alamo Theater (1914) was designed by Joseph D. Baldez, who also designed the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs in 1895. The theater’s name changed to the Ohio in 1933.
  • The first true talking motion picture debuted at the New Masonic Theater on January 15, 1927. The New Masonic Theater which was located at 326 W Chestnut and built in 1902. It was demolished in 1956.
  • According to The Encyclopedia of Louisville, Louisville’s Scoop Theater (formerly The Walnut Theater and Drury Lane) was the first in the Couth dedicated to she showing of newsreels, documentaries, and foreign films. These were especially appealing to Louisvillians during World War II. The Scoop closed its doors in 1952.
  • According to The Encyclopedia of Louisville, the Rialto was modeled after the Capitol Theater in New York City.
  • The Encyclopedia of Louisville also states that the first motion picture to be shown at the Rialto was the silent film The Witching Hour, about the 1900 assassination of Kentucky governor William Goebel.
  • The longest running film in Louisville history was The Sound of Music (1965). In its 4-week run, the Rialto hosted more than 300,000 patrons. The last film showed at the Rialto was Doctor Doolittle in 1968. The theater was demolished the following year.
  • The Kentucky Theater opened in 1921; it closed 60 years later. Preservationists were able to save the façade, the lobby and a small seating area (it used to seat 780, now it seas about 200). When the Kentucky opened in 1921, the lobby was adorned with a large chandelier and perfumed fountains, and the auditorium was crowned with a giant stained glass skylight. These elements were later lost due to renovations.
  • The first installment of the multimedia KentuckyShow! played a The Kentucky Theater from 1984-1988. In 2008, a brand new production of KentuckyShow! debuted at The Kentucky Center. Learn more about it in our Season Three Louisville Life feature story.
  • The Brown Theater, known historically for live theater and concert performances, soperated as a movie house from the 1930s through the 1950s.
  • Architect John Eberson, who designed the Louisville Palace Theatre (formerly Loew’s and later United Artists Theatre) was well-known for his work on movie palaces across the country.
  • The Ohio Theater first started in Louisville as the Alamo in 1914. The surviving façade, which stands at 657 S Fourth Street, is the theater’s second location (originally stood at 444 S Fourth St.).
  • In 1912 the cost of a movie ticket in Louisville was ten cents; in 2009 it is $9.00.

Program 325
Louisville Life raises the drawbridge in Versailles, visits Kentucky's oldest historical society, looks back at Louisville's majestic movie houses and more. (#325)