The History of the Russell Theatre
An Atmospheric Theatre in the Heart of Downtown Maysville
In 1929, Colonel J. Barbour Russell, a flamboyant, well-known Maysville businessman who made his early fortune in the wholesale grocery business, decided to erect a movie palace in downtown Maysville. A president of both the Maysville Rotary Club and the Maysville County Club, Russell formed the first boys' band in Maysville, the Kentucky Cardinal Boys' Band, and had achieved some regional celebrity as a patron of the band. With the erection of the grand downtown theatre, though, Russell would realize his greatest prominence.
Russell contracted with architects Frankel and Curtis of Lexington and interior designer Ralph Culpepper 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. "What the Roxy is to New York," Russell boasted, "The Russell will be to Maysville." Russell spent $200,000 in 1930 to build the theatre, the equivalent of more than $2.7 million today.
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 called 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.
The Golden Years of The Russell
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 fantasy and imagination constructed in their small Kentucky town. 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 theatre. 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 the 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.
J. Barbour Russell operated the theatre 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 left; there is no stage right. More than 700 patrons could be seated on the main floor and in the two balconies.
in the 1950s, the theatre 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 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. From the theatre'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.