The Kentucky Theatre hosts real Cocaine Bear at movie screening


Brady Saylor

Moviegoers pose for photos with the Cocaine Bear taxidermy during the Cocaine Bear premiere on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, at the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Brady Saylor | Staff

Nate Lucas, Reporter

For the highly anticipated movie premiere of “Cocaine Bear,” the Kentucky Theatre partnered with the KY for KY Fun Mall to bring the real taxidermied bear to the red carpet on Friday, Feb. 24.

The KY for KY Fun Mall details the true story of the cocaine bear on its website. In 1985, drug smugglers dropped around 80 pounds of cocaine off a plane into the Georgia wilderness. Three months later, a 175-pound bear ate the cocaine and died instantly.

Examiners said the bear’s stomach was packed to the brim with cocaine. 

The film “Cocaine Bear” dramatizes the story, depicting a coke-addicted bear as it rampages through a national forest. 

The Kentucky Theatre held a red carpet event on Feb. 24 for “Cocaine Bear,” featuring the taxidermied bear for which the movie is named. The KY for KY Fun Mall, which currently has ownership of the taxidermied bear, sold its own Cocaine Bear merchandise

The event included a Cocaine Bear mascot that attendees could take pictures with. Moviegoers showed their excitement by wearing the namesake’s merchandise. The line for the event went out the door. 

Moviegoers wait in line outside the Kentucky Theatre during the Cocaine Bear premiere on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Brady Saylor | Staff

Moviegoer Brian Overwein heard about the event through a friend and agreed to attend the red carpet. 

“This is the nicest I’ve dressed in my life,” Overwein said. “It kind of tickles me that it’s for ‘Cocaine Bear.’” 

As Overwein waited outside for his plus one, he had no idea the taxidermied bear was inside.

“Oh wait, he’s in there?” Overwein said. 

Jill Smith attended the red carpet event with her daughter, who wore a Grateful Dead Bear and Cocaine Bear mashup shirt. 

“I just found out about him (Cocaine Bear) a couple days ago,” Smith said. 

Although Smith is afraid of bears, she was still excited to go to the movie and see the taxidermied animal.

While the red carpet event was happening, viewers from an earlier showing of “Cocaine Bear” emerged from the theater with excitement.

Gabe Hall was among them, decked out in a NFL Bears script hat that spelled “Cocaine Bear” and a D.A.R.E. inspired “Cocaine Bear” shirt. 

“I loved it,” he said. “I’d rated it a 8.5 out of 10.”

Hall said he heard about the movie, and after doing some research about the original story, knew he needed to see the bear in person at The Kentucky Theatre.

“It was just cocaine. There was a lot of cocaine in the movie,” Hall said. 

The real bear has a complicated history of owners, adding to the level of legend already surrounding it.

According to the KY for KY Fun Mall’s website, after a Georgia medical examiner performed a necropsy on the bear, they gifted ownership of the bear to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

After a wildfire caused the park to evacuate, the park moved the Cocaine Bear taxidermy to a temporary storage facility.

Moviegoers take a photo with the Cocaine Bear taxidermy during the Cocaine Bear premiere on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, at the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Brady Saylor | Staff

Then the bear appeared in Las Vegas, where country star Waylon Jennings found it and gifted it to friend Roy Thompson. 

Adam Lewis, an employee at the KY for KY Fun Mall, clarified the bear’s history of ownership.

“One thing I want people to know is Waylon Jennings did not own him,” Lewis said. “That’s a rumor that goes around, but it’s not true.” 

Thompson passed away in 2009, causing his estate to be sold, and the bear switched hands once again.

In 2015, the KY for KY Fun Mall contacted the current owners of the bear and obtained ownership.

“The last people to own it was a couple in Reno, Nevada. The husband had passed away, the wife hated the bear, it was in his pharmacy,” Lewis said. “We got in contact with her, she said if we pay for shipping that we could have it.” 

Lewis said since the KY for KY Fun Mall received the bear, the taxidermy has been on Roadside America, a website used for tourists to find “offbeat” attractions.

“That kind of made him semi-famous,” Lewis said. “Then when the movie released, it started getting international traffic. So we’ve had people from all over the world come visit the store.” 

Lewis said the movie’s premiere brought the KY for KY Fun Mall to the full focus of national news networks.

“The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo, Peacock, probably every news channel in Kentucky, within the last month for sure, we’ve been interviewed by everybody,” Lewis said.