The Kentucky Center opened in November of 1983 under the direction of Gov. John Y. Brown and a combined project budget from the state as well as local donors. Brown was quoted as saying there hasn’t been a more productive investment by the state than that of the arts center. He might be correct! 


Over the years, The Kentucky Center has been the anchor for the arts and home to the major productions of Broadway in Louisville, the magical concerts of the Louisville Orchestra, the elegance of the Louisville Ballet and some of the biggest names in music, comedy, and entertainment. The Kentucky Center has hosted world leaders, presidential debates, and town halls on its stages. For 40 years, the flagship venue has proven to have been a great investment for the community, the city of Louisville and the entire commonwealth. 


Looking back over the years, memories were made that will last a lifetime. We caught up with some friends of The Kentucky Center to find out what they love about the venue, as well as some of their favorite memories. 

Jerry Abramson – Five-time Mayor of Louisville (1986-1999 & 2003-2011); Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky; Director of Intergovernmental Affairs in the Obama White House





Listen to the full interview below: 


What do you remember about the time leading up to, and the night of, the grand opening of The Kentucky Center? 


It was exciting at the outset. The question was, “Where was it going to be located?” There was an argument that it should be located where the Humana building is today, and then the decision was to cross the street and place it contiguous to the Belvedere. There was also the question when Gov. John Y. Brown and Phyllis George were leading our commonwealth, as to who was going to pay for it. Originally, Julian Carroll, the governor prior to John Y., had said the state would cover it, and it was a significant amount of money. John Y. said, when he became governor, that unless the community generated — I think the number was $10 million — for a sinking fund, a capital endowment, if you will, to make sure of the upkeep for The Kentucky Center, that it would not be built. And that’s when, as I recall, Mr. Barry Bingham, Sr., led with a lot of other folks, including David Jones and Wendell Cherry, all of which, unfortunately, have passed on — they raised $10 million to have that endowment, and John Y. stepped in as governor of Kentucky and made the investment accordingly.


The opening night was incredible. First, I was very fortunate to have been able to go. It was not inexpensive. As I remember, it was $1,500 a couple. I was a partner in Greenebaum Doll & McDonald, and the firm put up half the price, and the partners then matched it with half the price, so I was able to attend. I was single at the time, but I had a date with the woman that I ultimately married, Madeline. So therefore, when you see the names of people who were at the opening and put up the original funding, I have my name there for the two tickets. I can always say I was with my soon-to-be wife, so it worked out quite well. 


It was an elegant night, with a red carpet from Main Street up to the opening. We walked afterwards over to the convention center for an elegant dinner. The one faux pas that occurred, as I remember, was Charlton Heston was the emcee at the beginning, and we were all so excited, black tie and rolling into this magnificent building, and we thought we were the center of the arts in the world at that point. And Heston opens up by saying, “Gosh, everybody looks so great. It’s such a wonderful night. It’s really great to be here in Nashville.” And you could just feel the air coming out of the balloon!


Why is The Kentucky Center so special to the community and the city of Louisville?


The reality is that culture plays a major role in so many aspects of our lives, in terms of quality of life and the opportunities for exposure for our children. And for adults to be able to appreciate the ballet, appreciate the Broadway series, appreciate the opera, appreciate the orchestra, StageOne, the small entrepreneurial theater, the next facility, like the Bomhard for the Kentucky Authors Forum and smaller plays and events — it is an incredible centerpiece for our hometown.


From an economic development point of view, obviously, it creates a lot of jobs. But I used it when I was mayor as a part of our pitch as we tried to attract businesses that were ready to relocate to look at Louisville seriously. I would use an event at the Center for the Arts, and I would call over and say, “CEO and spouse of XYZ company are going to be in town in three weeks. We’re going to be showing this, that, whatever, and I see there’s a performance of the ballet or a performance of the orchestra, or there’s a play that night. Can I get four tickets, and Madeline and I will take the CEO and spouse to show that there’s a cultural base in this community to assure them and their employees that they’ll have that kind of quality of life, if they would become a member of our hometown and join us in the future?”


So, it plays a role in economic development, in terms of creating jobs and generating an economic multiplier, but it also played a role in saying to the decision-makers of companies that were looking to relocate that you may be coming from New York or Chicago, or you may be coming from Atlanta or Denver, or L.A., and you may not really know much about Louisville, and you think of Kentucky as sort of a backwards state for whatever reason. And we’re able, through the cultural arts and the aspect of the orchestra and the opera, the ballet and Actors Theatre and StageOne theater — we’re able to show that this is a very sophisticated community in many ways and provide some real quality, enhanced quality of life for you and for your employees.


What do you like about The Kentucky Center as far as the comfort, design, architecture, acoustics? What really stands out to you? If you’re going to describe it to a CEO you are luring to Louisville, what would you say? 


The first thing that comes to mind is the discussion I had when Wendell Cherry was alive about the magnificent art that is displayed throughout The Kentucky Center for the Arts. I mean, people, I think, look up on the walls or look at the statues and say, “Aren’t those nice?” But the reality is, they’re not only nice — they’re incredibly special. And the workmanship — those who painted or compiled the art are well-known national and international artists. So, that jumps out at me. And I’ve always been concerned that too many people overlook that aspect.


The Whitney is certainly special. There was a big argument about having or not having a middle aisle. It was developed as more of a European setting, as I remember the explanation that the late Wendell Cherry gave, that it was European, and it would not have that dead area that would reflect negatively on sound that a center aisle would have. And therefore, it would be a better sound acoustically without it. 


And at one point, we had the floating clouds, which have gone away, but the theory from the original developer of the acoustics for the Whitney was that the clouds would move in the “sky” based on whether it was a play or an orchestra concert or an opera, to be able to provide enhanced listening experiences for those sitting in the Whitney theater. I’m not sure that worked out as well as they had hoped and has been changed.


The other thing that was smart was how the 600-seat Bomhard was set up for sort of new, entrepreneurial events that need smaller seating capacity. It allows you to see things that you otherwise wouldn’t have had an opportunity to see at a large arts center. 


I’m very impressed with the thinking of those who developed it originally, and as time has gone by, the changes, I think, have enhanced it.


How often do you attend performances at the center, and what are some of your favorite performances to attend there?

We have had season tickets at the orchestra for many years. We go to Broadway plays from time to time, based on ones we want to see. We go to the Kentucky Authors Forum in the Bomhard. So, we go relatively often.


Are there any performances or memories that stick out or really memorable moments? 

You know, often it would be the specialty of having a soloist that would play with the orchestra who would be incredibly special. The most recent one, Yuja Wang, she was a magnificent pianist. I happened to play French horn in the Seneca High School orchestra, so any time a French horn soloist was part of the orchestra’s presentation, I always found that very special.


But I have always enjoyed the soloists who have played with the orchestra. The artists have always been extremely special and enhanced the opportunities. Now, I like the classics, so was it two years since the orchestra performed Beethoven’s Fifth? It was completely sold out. Personally, that’s my taste in music. But I find it very exciting the way (Music Director) Teddy (Abrams) is able to bring us new classical music, interwoven with what we think of as classical music, so that we can have an appreciation for both. I think he’s done an excellent job in that regard.


Is there anything you would like to add about The Kentucky Center?

I just think it was special when it opened, and it continues to be special today, and it needs to be nurtured and appreciated. Folks need to engage and participate to ensure its success. You really have to appreciate the state of Kentucky’s commitment to financial support, as well as this community and region’s commitment on an annual basis, to ensure that it’s maintained and that it is updated where necessary. We’re very fortunate to have that partnership with our commonwealth.


Leslie Broecker – Executive Director, Broadway in Louisville 


What makes The Kentucky Center so special to the community and city of Louisville? 

The Kentucky Center is a welcoming space with a welcoming staff, where memories are made and passions are ignited. It’s special because it provides a place where the arts can open eyes and doors and bring people together to share a unique experience.


What was the first performance, concert or event you attended at The Kentucky Center? 

My first show was Zorba, starring Anthony Quinn.


What is the most recent performance you have seen at The Kentucky Center? 

Disney’s Frozen.


What is your favorite memory or performance at The Kentucky Center? 

Wow, this is a tough question. Not sure I can narrow it down. I love seeing the faces of children experiencing their first Broadway show. You never know what that first show is going to conjure up from a child. 

Favorite performances would include Carol Channing in Hello Dolly, Joel Grey in Cabaret, War Horse, Pippin, Ragtime, Chess, Les Miserables, Phantom, Come From Away … I could go on and on.


Other than Broadway performances, what are your favorite types of performances to attend at The Kentucky Center?

 I love attending Louisville Orchestra performances and going to shows in the Bomhard Theater.


Is there anything you would like to add about The Kentucky Center? 

The Kentucky Center is not only important artistically, but also economically. Performances draw thousands of people to our downtown. These folks support our restaurants and attractions, which is vital to rebuilding our city.

Kim Baker – President & CEO, Kentucky Performing Arts 

What makes The Kentucky Center so special to you as well as the community and city of Louisville?

When I was young and growing up here in Louisville as a young artist, I played the flute, I looked at The Kentucky Center as something very aspirational. Going downtown to the center was an extraordinary experience. I think that is one of the reasons it is important in the community. People have a real sense of pride, and it’s a statement that arts and culture are very important to Louisvillians and Kentuckians. At the time when it was built, I think it really brought the cultural community together. It’s funny because now that I am older, I look at the center as being more of an accessible place where community artists and young people come and perform, and professionals come and perform, and it is really a showplace for artists of all types. So, my perspective has changed from my youth to now, so many years later. 


What do you like about the design, architecture, acoustics, layout, etc., of The Kentucky Center?

There are a lot of things I love about it, but the way it was designed is wonderful because there are several theaters in the space and you can have an orchestra playing a concert in the main Whitney Hall, and in the smaller space of the Bomhard, you might have a great bluegrass artist. And when those different audiences mix in the main lobby, it was kind of designed to bring people together and to be a social place to see great performances. It is interesting that the center was designed with 30 exterior doors so that you could come in from all sides of the building and be a part of the space. It is like the living room of the city. 

Another special part of The Kentucky Center is the art collection that is really significant. We have pieces that were designed for the center from artists who have their art all over the world. Artists like sculptors Louise Nevelson and Alexander Calder, and that is very special. It might be small, but it’s a mighty art collection. It really says that this is a great place for a cultural experience all around. I think it is important what you see when you walk into the space, not just what you experience when you get to your seat. Another thing that I really love about the building is that on the outside, there is reflective glass that is really beautiful and neat in the way that it reflects Main Street with the people walking up and down the street. 

From a performer or artist perspective, we get a lot of good feedback. In Whitney Hall for instance, there is a really large backstage area where you could literally play basketball if you wanted, it’s huge! They love working in that space because there is literally nothing you can’t do from a stage perspective. 

The acoustics in Whitney are fantastic. At one point, there were sound-absorbing clouds hanging from the ceiling of the auditorium to help with the acoustics. Can you tell us about that and what the thought was behind it? 

Well, the Whitney is a multipurpose room, meaning it has to be there for everything from a Louisville Orchestra concert or Broadway performance to a rock concert or stand-up comedian. The clouds that were put in place could be moved up and down based on what performance was on the stage. They are no longer there. About 15 years ago, we brought in an acoustician and worked to get the best sound in the room with more modern means, using paneling on the walls and a simpler solution in the ceiling.

What were some of your early memories of The Kentucky Center?
When the center opened, I was a teenager and remember watching the grand opening on television and seeing how big of a deal it was. So, it has always been a special place for me. Thinking back to my first performance at the center, I think back to some of the Broadway performances back in the early days like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. I think the first one might have been Starlight Express, which is an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about a train. They built a big extension, and everyone was on roller skates, and I was sitting close to the stage and could feel the breeze from the performers when they went by. 

I was also in the first Governor’s School for the Arts class in 1987 for instrumental music. We were at Bellarmine, and we did a lot of our final day performances and field trips at the center. That was also one of the first times and earliest memories for me at the center. And still today, programs like the Music Educators Association, where they bring in kids from around the state. 

It is critical to our mission that we provide opportunities for everyone to experience performances, to participate and to have access. As presenters, we really look to bring in as many different artists as we can for the community. We have the wonderful professional groups that make the center their home, but it is also important that we bring in multicultural groups, community theater, music groups, comedians and others. It is really dynamic and comprehensive. The participation of the kids and young people around the state is important as we try to grow the next generation of artists and art lovers, and it is important to our commonwealth to have programs like that. Kentucky is a place where you can become anyone you want to be, and there is a place for you here, and those programs teach our young people to be exceptional citizens. 


What are your favorite types of performances to attend at The Kentucky Center?

I really like performances that are kind of unexpected and different, so I love contemporary dance and movement, as well as artists from other countries and cities who bring a different perspective to what we typically offer. 


Is there anything you would like to add about The Kentucky Center?

Really just thinking back to so many artists that have been introduced to our community through The Kentucky Center and on our stages. Artists like Lyle Lovett when he just got started in the Bomhard with the Lonesome Pine series, or Bela Fleck or Alison Krauss are some names that stick out. There are many artists that were introduced to our community on one of our smaller stages who continued to grow and end up in a big arena or bigger space, so that is fun to see happen. There are also so many ways to get involved, from volunteering to working a shift or two or simply attending performances. There are just so many ways to get involved in the many programs, and I would like to encourage people to do that if they have an interest. 


I would like to add that when people reflect and remember a show, it may have been 10 years ago, but they talk about it like it was just a year ago because it is so vibrant. There is something that happens when you see a live performance where every bit of your senses is turned on and you just carry it with you, everything from the people you were with and the details to where you were before and after. Seeing a live event is really extraordinary, and I encourage everyone to come see some of the great performances that we bring in. 

Terry Meiners – Radio personality, “The Terry Meiners Show,” 84WHAS Radio 


What are your favorite types of performances to attend at The Kentucky Center?
We really love Broadway performances but also like to attend Louisville Orchestra concerts, Louisville Ballet and the different concerts that come through as well. 


How often do you attend performances at The Kentucky Center?
We probably go to around 10 events at The Kentucky Center per year. 


What is your favorite memory or performance at The Kentucky Center? 

Wow, that’s a tough one, I have so many. I really liked the music-themed Broadway shows like Jersey Boys and The Temptations because I really like hearing the stories and personal lives of some of these iconic figures in music. But one of my recent favorites was To Kill A Mockingbird because it was my favorite book growing up, and then I saw the film, and then to see it on stage was amazing. 


What do you like about the design, architecture, layout, and other characteristics of The Kentucky Center? 

The center is just so magnificent and really offers a bouquet of sensations. From when you first arrive and get settled into the hall, you really appreciate the aural gift of magnificent acoustics. I really love great acoustics and the sound of a theater performance or concert in Whitney Hall is fantastic, much different than a larger venue like a Yum! Center or arena. 


Why is The Kentucky Center important to the city of Louisville?
The Kentucky Center is the mothership of arts in Louisville. Come see your mama, people. Arts move the world!


Ken Clay – Former Vice President of Programming at The Kentucky Center for the Arts; Community Event Producer and Promoter

What makes The Kentucky Center so special to the community and city of Louisville?

Well, it is the home base of the performing arts organizations and the main arts attraction in the downtown area. What it has presented over the years has been spectacular and the focus of many artists from around the country and the world. 


What do you like the most about The Kentucky Center? 

After working there for so long, I like everything about it, especially the acoustics in the theaters. As a producer there, as far as putting performers on the stage, it is very important that the artists go away with a positive understanding of what they saw and what they experienced, and nothing can mess that up more than some kind of weird acoustical things. The building and theaters were designed in such a way that would ensure that that would not happen and the crew that ran the acoustics when I was there were just superb. 


As a producer of shows that came into The Kentucky Center, what kind of feedback from artists did you hear? 

The comments from the artists were very positive, and they seemed appreciative of being in a facility of that nature. 


When did you work at The Kentucky Center and what was your position? 

I actually started in 1983 and actually produced and presented the first public showing at The Kentucky Center for the Arts. It was a gospel extravaganza. The first showing was a hard hat concert for the people who worked on the building. We had groups from around Kentucky and brought in James Cleveland to be the headliner.  


What are your preferred types of performances to attend at The Kentucky Center? 

I started a series called the Midnight Ramble series that still exists, so I guess that is probably my favorite. But my wife and I like to attend the opera, the ballet, and of course, the Broadway performances. We are in and out of the center on a fairly frequent basis attending events.  


Is there anything you would like to add about The Kentucky Center? 

It is my second home, really. I am just thrilled that it is continuing to fulfill the mission that was established 40 years ago. They have continued to bring in great programs and run the center very efficiently. I also like to see that The Kentucky Center continues to relate to the inner city community with programs like Arts Reach, which I also initiated, that bring kids in and young people in, and reaching out to elder and senior communities, to share the arts with them and make sure they are involved in what’s taking place in the arts in our city. 

Bob Bernhardt – Principal Pops Conductor, Louisville Orchestra 

Bob Bernhardt has been a fixture with the Louisville Orchestra for the past 43 years: as Assistant and Associate Conductor, Principal Guest Conductor with Kentucky Opera, and now for 27 years as the LO’s Principal Pops Conductor. 


He was excited to reminisce about his years of conducting the Louisville Orchestra in Whitney Hall at The Kentucky Center and provide a glimpse at some of his memories. 


Bob Bernhardt: I’m SO old that my first concert in the building was opening night of The Kentucky Center in November of 1983! I was in my third season with the orchestra as Associate Conductor, and I managed to wrangle a free ticket for the gala evening. 

That night, and the months leading up to it, are still vivid in my memory. There were so many moving parts to it, with the Louisville Orchestra being just one. George Stevens Jr. produced the whole thing. Charlton Heston was the emcee, and guest stars included Lily Tomlin, Jessye Norman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Diane Sawyer, Art Buchwald, and the LO.

Not many folks remember Art Buchwald anymore, but he was a brilliant journalist/commentator/satirist/humorist on American life with a popular column in the Washington Post. I’ll never forget how his speech began:

“The first time I came to Louisville, I got off the plane and the first person I met inside the airport was a man who came up to me and asked, ‘So, what do you think of Louisville?’ I told him that I had just arrived and hadn’t had a chance to see the city yet. He was so disappointed. The time, I arrived at the airport and believe it or not, that same man was there! He came up to me again, and asked, ‘So, what do you think of Louisville?’ I didn’t want to disappoint him again, so I said, ‘I think it’s the greatest city in America.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You wouldn’t say that if you lived here.’

It’s a lucky coincidence that for our March Madness Pops concert in a few weeks, (a musical tribute to sports), the LO will be playing Morton Gould’s “Flourishes and Galop,” which was the piece commissioned by the orchestra for that very same opening night! The first time and place that music was heard was on the KCA stage 40 years ago played by our orchestra. It’s a musical tribute to Churchill Downs, and the “Sport of Kings.”

Before the KCA, we didn’t have a true “home” in Louisville. In the history of the LO, we’ve moved around from venue to venue over the course of decades, but in 1983, we came home. 

Douglas Dreisbach – Publisher & President, The Audience Group


What makes The Kentucky Center so special to the community and city of Louisville?

The Kentucky Center serves as the anchor for iconic events and entertainment in downtown Louisville. There is something special about going to an event downtown, especially at The Kentucky Center. The excitement and anticipation while getting drinks and a bite to eat before the show, to entering the venue and being handed your playbill or program and then finding your seat just in time for the lights to go down and curtain to rise, is a unique experience like no other. The Kentucky Center allows for exciting and important events to take place in the heart of the city that has a ripple effect for a strong downtown economy, which is important. Some people might not like going downtown for events, but I love it!


What do you like about The Kentucky Center?

I like the way The Kentucky Center really stands out on Main Street. As you drive west on Main Street, past the iconic Yum! Center and Galt House Hotel, The Kentucky Center building screams, “Look at me!” With its unique shape and wide steps leading to the front entrance, you really can’t miss it. I also like the main lobby with the tall caverness ceilings and floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking Main Street. And, of course, Whitney Hall is a great venue for any type of performance. 


What was the first performance, concert or event you attended at The Kentucky Center? 

My first time at The Kentucky Center was in 1993 to see Bob Dylan. I was in high school and managed to get good tickets the day of the concert so my girlfriend at the time, and wife now, went down and saw the legend himself perform at a fantastic venue. 


What is your favorite memory or performance at The Kentucky Center?

I would say my favorite memories at The Kentucky Center would either be the Bob Dylan concert mentioned previously or when the Broadway show Hamilton was here the first time. It was a highly anticipated show and sold out as soon as tickets went on sale. I managed to get tickets for my family, and we went to a nice dinner before the show and got to experience an amazing performance. 


What are your favorite types of performances to attend at The Kentucky Center?

We tend to go to Broadway performances, concerts, and comedians the most. I like to try to catch a Louisville Orchestra concert or two over the course of the season. We really like their Holiday Pops concert with the Christmas songs that really get you into the season.


Jeff & Kay Tull – Founding Publishers, The Audience Group


Jeff and Kay Tull have been fixtures on the Louisville arts scene for years. As founding publishers of The Audience Group, and publishers of the Audience playbills and performance guides, they have enjoyed many iconic performances from Broadway and the ballet to the orchestra and others. We were excited to catch up with them to get a glimpse at some of their favorite memories of The Kentucky Center. 


Jeff and Kay Tull: One of the things that drew us to Louisville was its vibrant performing arts community. The building of The Kentucky Center for the Arts was a monumental commitment by Louisville to embrace and nurture creative talent, both locally and globally. It made Louisville the undisputed seat of the arts for Kentucky. As uplifting and innovative as the performing arts became, they were complimented by its exceptional contemporary art collection. When Louise Nevelson and John Chamberlain were commissioned to create wall-sized permanent installations in the atrium, it captured the attention of art lovers everywhere.


A great memory was in our first year of publishing Audience, the program for the performing arts, The Broadway Series (as it was known then), brought The Phantom of the Opera to Louisville for an extended run. We wanted to do something special to celebrate the event, so we decided to print part of the program cover with a unique glow-in-the-dark ink. The special effect was kept under wraps until opening night when the house lights dimmed, and the Phantom’s mask glowed in the hands of everyone in the audience! From our position at the back of Whitney Hall, it looked like lightning bugs rising on a warm summer night as patrons held up their programs in surprise.


Throughout the years, The Kentucky Center has continued to inspire and entertain us. We have watched Baryshnikov dance, the Louisville Orchestra transition into one of the most talked about orchestras in the country, and 80-year-old Tony Bennett sing a Capella just to demonstrate the amazing acoustics in Whitney Hall. Of all the extraordinary events we have enjoyed in its halls, the night that world-class entertainment and celebrated speakers assembled to pay tribute to Muhammad Ali was perhaps the most awe-inspiring we have ever attended. The Kentucky Center, as it has countless times, played host to Kentucky and the world.


Happy 40th birthday, and many more!