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'The Center for it All' | The Vault revisits opening night at the Kentucky Center for the Arts

The star-studded affair in November 1983 brought out entertainment greats from Broadway to Hollywood including Charlton Heston and Lily Tomlin.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It was November 1983, the Kentucky Center for the  Arts’ opening ceremony was a lavish affair.

The new 2,400-seat Robert S. Whitney Hall was packed with people.

It was named after the founder and conductor of the Louisville Orchestra for 30 years.

The opening night was a benefit and each seat cost $750 to help raise an addition $1 million to finish the smaller 620-seat Bomhard Theater.

Many stars showed up at the event including famous actress and comedienne Lily Tomlin who brought her mother Lillie Mae along.

“My mother’s excited because Kentucky is her home state,” Tomlin said.

Lillie Mae added as she laughed, “It doesn’t take much to excite an old woman.”

Credit: WHAS-TV
Actress and comedienne Lily Tomlin and her mother Lillie Mae

Louisville’s beloved national news anchor Diane Sawyer was also in attendance.

"It's a terrific way to come home and what a sensation this building is,” she said. I think of all the communities in this country much bigger many more resources they don't have anything like this.”

Credit: WHAS-TV
Diane Sawyer speaks at the grand opening of the Kentucky Center for the Arts in 1983.

Opera Star Jessye Norman was also impressed by our city's newest attraction.

"It’s a beautiful building and I think it’s wonderful to be at the very beginning of something like this.”

One of the night’s biggest surprises was Oscar-winning actor Charlton Heston who served as the master of ceremonies. He also talked about the significance and impact of the Center’s opening.

“I think it means a great deal to the entire country and certainly to the state of Kentucky and the city of Louisville,” he said. “This is just a magnificent complex. I honestly haven’t seen anything better anywhere in the world.”

RELATED: 'It feels electric': The magic of Broadway returns to Kentucky Performing Arts

During a performance by the Louisville Orchestra, Heston joked about a possible precursor to the night’s event.

“You know years ago when I was in Egypt shooting the Ten Commandments, just before I parted the Red Sea, I remember saying – no kidding – I remember distinctly saying if this works, some day I’m going to go open an art center in Louisville, Kentucky.”

Credit: WHAS-TV
Oscar-winning actor Charlton Heston speaks during the grand opening celebration at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in 1983.

The evenings performances also included excepts from upcoming plays and musical acts – including a piece from Louisville native and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman.

“It’s such an honor to be here. It’s so good to be home,” Norman expressed.

The evening concluded with a star-studded rendition of My Old Kentucky Home.

The Kentucky Center for the Arts opened with style and gave Kentucky art a home in Louisville for years to come.

Since the opening, the Kentucky Center has grabbed the national spotlight, hosting presidential debates, the Dailai Lama, undergoing renovations and winning international recognition.

The Center underwent a rebranding in 2019, formally calling itself Kentucky Performing Arts.


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