A healthy imagination is a vital part of my profession – that, and a good dose of optimism. Otherwise, I would be inundated by depression from watching countless buildings fall and communities wither. Whenever I visit a new place, I always find a building I would like to adopt – and if I ever won the lottery – that I would restore. On a recent trip through Northern Kentucky, I encountered the New Pastime Theater in downtown Falmouth, the county seat of Pendleton County. Historic movie theaters in Kentucky’s small towns are always beguiling, no matter their condition.
Falmouth, located on the Forks of the Licking River, received its charter during the very first session of the Kentucky legislature, on June 23, 1792. The community developed slowly, but by the late-19th century, the town was a major tobacco market, with flourishing businesses and a population right around 1,000 people. But the Licking River has proved a dangerous neighbor. Floods inundated Falmouth in 1937, 1964, and 1997, damaging not only people’s lives, but the economy and the historic downtown.
I could find little historic background on the building itself – it was listed as a “modern intrusion” in the 1982 National Register of Historic Places nomination – a judgement that would not be upheld today. On the 1909 Sanborn map, there was a frame building in this location, housing a general store on one side and a grocery on the other side. It is possible (but in no way verified) that an older building lurks behind the stripped down Art Moderne facade of the theater, which dates to the 1930s or 1940s.
The theater is listed in the Film Daily Yearbook as the Pastime Theater from “before 1941 through to at least 1951.”* It was still operating in the 1990s, with a restaurant tucked in beside the theater. The two-story theater, clad in oversized glazed tile blocks, colored yellow and cream, has apparently been closed since the 1997 flood, which left Falmouth underwater and “torn asunder.” A state trooper, surveying the town from a helicopter, bleakly reported that “there is no Falmouth.”
The theater marquee has not heralded any movies or events in Falmouth for some time, but a little web surfing revealed that the theater still holds meaning and value for at least one resident. A Go Fund Me page was established for the New Pastime Theater in 2014, with a goal of restoring the building to “its former glory and bring a source of entertainment to a town in such need. Along with movies we will offer a stage for plays, live music, stand up comedy, pageants, and everything in between.” It looks like fundraising has been slow – but sometimes dreams take a while to be realized – and yet still deserve the energy of imagining. My time in Falmouth was brief, but I fervently hope that the next time I find myself in Pendleton County, that the magic of the movies has returned to the New Pastime Theater.