When invited to look at recently donated photographs of her family’s movie theater, Peach Madl wasn’t expecting to unleash an investigation into the history of cinemas in the U.S.
But what resulted was the discovery that The Plaza Grill and Cinema in Ottawa is likely the oldest operating theater in America, having opened in 1905, predating San Francisco’s Victoria Theatre by three years.
Let the news sink in and the shock wear off. A small town in Kansas, far away from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood and New York City, is home to the country's oldest theater in continuous use.
The Franklin County Historical Society received a donation of 6,000 negatives taken by prominent Ottawa photographer J.D. Muecke starting in 1935. An Ottawa University alumnus named E. Morgan Williams had bought the negatives from Muecke years ago to keep them from going unseen or destroyed, and gave them to the society to help catalog and preserve them.
The historical society has been scanning the photos for three years now, coming across many shots of the town, a lot of which were taken during World War II. Some of the negatives showed homefront rallies and the operating cinema showing military-related movies.
Among Muecke's photos were pictures of someone else’s original photos that dated back to 1905. Those pictures of pictures (the only way to make copies at the time) show folks arriving in horse-drawn carriage to the Ottawa theater — originally called The Bijou, then The Crystal Theatre, and then The Plaza — for some of the first-ever feature films.
Deborah Barker, director of the Franklin County Historical Society, wanted more details, so she started digging into old newspapers on file to find written documentation.
She stumbled across a prohibitionist newspaper called the Ottawa Guardian that happened to be located in the same building as the theater had opened in in 1905.
"The editor was enchanted with the fact that there was a movie theater starting in his building, and he wrote about it a lot,” Barker says.
Newspaper clippings written by Guardian editor Vincent Robb kept revealing astonishing stories. In 1905, circus-like tents would come into town to attract people to see “The Great Train Robbery”; no one knew what a movie theater was back then. Later that year, The Bijou would take residence on the second floor of the Pickrell Building on Main Street, owned by town electrician Fred Beeler.
“The movie theater was just a long, narrow hallway,” Plaza owner Peach Madl says. “And people didn’t sit because the features just lasted 10 minutes. They stood there to see projections and something moving. It was so unique for the time.”
Barker also found a story about the stage still sitting behind the double screen today, where a piano player would play music during silent films. On March 2, 1917, The Crystal Theatre survived a fire during which a piano player by the name of Professor Mapes continuously played while instructing people how to exit the building in the safest manner.
“It’s not my business to say that [it’s the oldest] without researching every other theater in America,” Barker says. “Anybody, any minute could turn around and say that. But it is amazingly old, and it certainly opened in 1905.”
A tourist destination
The claim to be the oldest movie theater in the U.S. is not one that’s easily digestible.
The theater has gone through a long list of owners since 1905, but always housed a cinema. Only the facade of the exterior changed in the '30s to the art deco style it still has today.
Madl has owned the theater since 2006, and it’s been a money drain as of 2008 despite attempts to attract more people by providing restaurant-style food, alcohol and live comedy shows in the space. Not only does she love the idea of owning a historical space that has played a part in many lives but it's also the only movie theater in town.
"We struggled just because we love it," Madl says on hanging onto the property.
Upon hearing the news, she lost sleep over the improbability of owning the first cinema in rural Midwest, constantly questioning the two-month-long research they’d all done.
“It’s messed up,” Madl says. “Everyone’s been giving me a hard time for keeping that theater and all the hard times and the lack of money I have. And now no one believes me. But I knew there was something about this theater.”
Madl has plans to make going to the theater an educational experience about this history of movie-making, with interactive exhibits, memorabilia and a new large-screen 4-D “Cinemagic” experience, using wind, rain or fog, to enhance the 3-D movie. Tickets would be $9 each.
A documentary, starting with the history of the silent film era and beyond, will be produced by Bill Shaffer, producer for Channel 11 Kansas Public TV, Topeka. Shaffer’s father owned the theater in the ‘30s.
To make the Plaza Grill and Cinema a destination spot for tourists, Madl has plans to connect the Midland Railroad and Kansas Belle Dinner Train, which travels from Baldwin City to Ottawa, to a trolley system that will take riders down Main Street to see the 120-year-old buildings still standing today. This also provides a new public transportation system for the town.
Joining forces with the Franklin County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Madl launched a fundraising campaign in hopes of raising $50,000 in addition to a $150,000 state tourism destination grant (eligible if they prove the project will bring in people from more than 100 miles), and an anonymous donor has promised to match up to $50,000 in community donations. In exchange for advance movie tickets, the community can donate at plazagrillandcinema.com, where more information on the project is detailed.
The grant request, written by Kristi Lee, executive director at the Franklin County Tourism and Visitors Bureau, suggests the Plaza Grill and Cinema’s age precedes that of a theater in Denmark – Korsør Biograf Teater, which opened Jan. 30, 1907. It reopened in another location in August 1908, according to the Guinness Book of World Records in 2010, but is still the oldest operating cinema in the world.
“We think that the impact would bring in more than $4 million in additional revenue to the community,” Madl says.