The Ben Ali Theatre (1913-1965) opened in late September 1913 at 121 East Main Street. The Ben Ali was named for local businessman and horse breeder James Ben Ali Haggin, who owned Elmendorf Farm and built Green Hills mansion on that property. Haggin financially backed the theater’s construction, which occurred under the direction of Haggin’s business manager, Charles H. Berryman. Legend has it that Haggin decided to build the theater after his wife was denied her favorite seat at the Lexington Opera House due to overbooking. Haggin and Berryman formed the Berryman Realty Company and capitalized the venture with $120,000 in common and preferred stock. New York City architect W. H. McElfatrick designed the theater and Tiffany Studios handled the interior decorating. The Ben Ali was built to be a multipurpose venue, and it accommodated live theater, vaudeville acts, musical performances, as well as motion pictures in its first few months.
The Ben Ali was so successful, the Berryman Realty Company merged with the Lexington Opera House after only seven months in business. The prime attractions of live theater and touring vaudeville acts would appear at the Ben Ali and the Lexington Opera House was reserved for smaller vaudeville acts and amateur theater. In mid-1915, the Ben Ali switched to an all-motion picture format and dropped its live performance schedule. The Lexington Opera House was closed briefly and renovated; it re-opened in late 1915 and featured live touring acts dropped by the Ben Ali. In January of 1916, an electrical fire gutted the Ben Ali, destroying the stage and orchestra area. The film schedule was shifted to the Lexington Opera House until the Ben Ali re-opened in April of 1916.
In 1920, John Elliott’s Phoenix Amusement Company purchased both the Ben Ali and Lexington Opera House from the Berryman Realty Company. Phoenix Amusement Company already owned the Strand Theater, just doors away from the Ben Ali on East Main Street, as well as a string of theaters in Central Kentucky. Elliott changed the format of the Ben Ali again, booking it exclusively in vaudeville (vodvil) and live theater, and reserving films for the Strand Theatre. After only a few months, both theaters began to show the mixed format favored by the Ben Ali before the purchase and the Lexington Opera House was closed. The “vodvil” format lasted at the Ben Ali even after 1928, when the theater was renovated again and converted to present sound film.
In 1932, Phoenix Amusement Company entered into a lease agreement with Lafayette Amusement Company to operate the Kentucky, State, and Ada Meade theaters. With the exception of the Lexington Opera House, now a third-run movie house offering the cheapest seats in town, John Elliott’s Phoenix Amusement Company had a monopoly on movie exhibition in Lexington and Central Kentucky. In 1936, Phoenix Amusement Company sold all its properties and operation leases to the Schine Theatre Company. Schine operated the Ben Ali until 1965. Citing low attendance, Schine sold the Ben Ali Theater in 1964 and it closed. The building was demolished in 1965 to make a parking lot.