By DOUG CARDER, Herald Staff Writer | 9/27/2013
On a November evening in 1905, a handful of curious Ottawans are seen climbing the stairs to the second floor of the downtown Pickrell Building. Having no chairs, they mill around while waiting to watch a newfangled form of entertainment called a motion picture.
Pan the camera forward 108 years, and patrons still are seen flocking to the same building in the 200 block of South Main Street to watch first-run movies from the comfort of their plush seats in the Plaza Grill and Cinema theater, 209 S. Main St.
FADE TO BLACK.
In a story that sounds right out of Hollywood, local businesswoman Peach Madl has discovered she apparently owns the oldest operating cinema in America ... possibly even the world. And it’s located smack dab in the middle of Ottawa, USA.
A trove of 6,000 negatives in the historic J.B. Muecke photograph collection — on loan to the Franklin County Historical Society — has unearthed evidence that The Bijou — the forerunner to the current Plaza theater — began showing movies in 1905 in the upstairs floor of the two-story Pickrell Building, where the two-screen Plaza continues to operate today in the heart of downtown Ottawa, one local historian said.
Muecke (pronounced “Mickey”) was a prominent photographer in Ottawa in the mid-1900s who chronicled nearly every aspect of life in the city. In the case of cinematic discovery, Muecke took a photograph of an original 1905 photo of The Bijou, Deborah Barker, executive director of the Franklin County Historical Society, said.
The 1905 photograph of the cinema is important, Barker said, because it would predate other theaters’ claims of being the oldest by about two years.
Armed with scanned images of historical negatives and a ream of documentation that includes local newspaper articles and other accounts, Madl has launched an ambitious plan — with the aid of Barker, Kristi Lee, director of the Franklin County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and other members of her “chick team” — to convert the theater into a living tribute to the history of movie making through interactive exhibits, historical photographs, Hollywood memorabilia, a short documentary and an IMAX 4D experience designed to educate and entertain people about the world of “cinemagic,” she said.
“We want to make it a destination place for people to enjoy the history of movie making in the oldest cinema in America and possibly the world,” Madl, a lifelong fan of Walt Disney, said. “Our target date to complete the project is May 2014.”
Madl, who has operated the theater for about seven years, said she was floored when Barker brought the photographic proof to her attention.
“Of course, I didn’t believe it at first — it was such a sweet thought,” Madl said. “We had no idea it was a cinema all those years ago and then to discover we are the oldest operating movie theater in the United States — it’s just so exciting. Ottawa being a rural town in the middle of the Midwest wouldn’t be thought to be so progressive, but we were. And the collection [of photographic negatives] proves it.”
Madl said she realizes her claim will undergo intense scrutiny from historians and cinema buffs across the country. She said the idea has been met with mild skepticism from some people in her own community.
“I see the smiles, glossed-over expressions, looks that say, ‘Are you nuts or something?’” Madl said, laughing. “So we are working very hard to document everything.”
Madl said she, Barker and others have spent the past two months documenting the discovery through researching newspaper archives from the period and talking with community members.
“Our records document a carnival on Main Street in 1905 that included two tents where movies were being shown,” Barker said. “We have a photo of one of the tents [called a Kinedrome] on East Second Street,” Barker said. “One movie was ‘The Great Train Robbery,’ the other was about a great bank robbery.”
Later that year the Guardian newspaper — a Prohibitionist paper operated by Vincent Robb in the Pickrell Building — recorded many stories about the first regular movies being shown by Fred Beeler in the current Plaza theater building, Barker said.
“The newspaper editor apparently was a big movie fan because he wrote many articles about what a wonderful cultural enrichment the movies were and what a fascinating and safe place for children during matinee showings,” Barker said.
The original movies were shown upstairs, then moved downstairs at a later point in the early 1900s, with the main showroom being accessed by a long hall behind the shops in the front of the building, Barker said.
“People had to stand to watch the movies shown upstairs,” Barker said. “But the movies were only 12 minutes long, so they weren’t going to get too tired.”
Herald archives indicate “rough kitchen chairs” were installed after the theater fad proved to have staying power.
The theater went through a succession of owners, name changes — The Bijou, Crystal Theatre, The Plaza — and calamities in the 1900s, newspaper archives indicated. But the building always has housed a cinema since 1905, Barker stressed.
“I think the claim [as the oldest operating cinema in America] is extremely legitimate,” Barker said.
The Crystal Theatre survived a March 2, 1917, fire, Barker said.
“During the silent era [‘talkies’ came to Ottawa in 1929], theaters had a piano player,” Barker said. “A piano player [named Professor Mapes] continuously played the piano and told people how to get out the back door after a fire started in the projector.”
A photograph on file at the historical society showed flood waters lapping at the theater’s front doors in the great flood of 1951.
“All the businesses downtown were affected by the flood,” Barker said.
In the 1930s, the theater was remodeled in the art deco style, which its exterior still reflects today.
“Memories of days gone by are being revived here with the opening of the new Fox theater, The Plaza, tonight,” a Herald reporter wrote in a Feb. 7, 1935, article. “This is the finest movie entertainment house which has been afforded Ottawa since the advent of the motion picture.”
Madl, who said she always has envisioned herself not as the star but as a director/producer who likes to set the stage, wants to share the history of “America’s oldest theater” with local residents, as well as tourists from across the nation and globe.
She will have the opportunity to set that stage by joining forces with the Franklin County Historical Society, the Franklin County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Midland Railway and the Kansas Belle Dinner Train, to make The Plaza Grill and Cinema a regional destination for tourism, according to a news release.
Studio 104, an Ottawa marketing/business consulting arm of the Ottawa Herald, is acting as the marketing and business development strategist for the project, led by Jeanny Sharp, Studio 104’s president.
“We are in the due diligence phase of assessing the feasibility of capitalizing on this historic jewel sitting in the middle of our downtown,” Sharp said. “We want to create an even greater experience that travels beyond the traditional first-run movie audience. We’ve initiated a KickStarter campaign to meet revenue start-up funding needs and to gain letters of support from businesses and organizations to sustain a State Tourism/Attraction grant request.”
Lee, the executive director of the county tourism and visitors bureau, is writing the destination grant, which provides state Department of Tourism dollars to successful applicants to develop tourism destinations.
“The deadline for submitting the grant is Oct. 31,” Lee said. “It’s a very competitive process. Last year they had 14 applications [for the $100,000 pool], and I think they will have even more applications this year. We’re still gathering all the information — we want to have all our ducks in a row before we submit it.”
Lee, who Madl said was the first one who suggested the Plaza theater’s age preceded that of a theater listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, said she believes the Plaza “cinemagic” project will eventually be a tourism boom for the community and county.
“In 2008, the owners of the Korsør Biograf Teater in Korsør, Denmark, discovered that they were operating a movie theater that opened in August 1908,” the Plaza project’s organizers said in a news release. “They were accepted by the Guinness Book of World Records (to appear in the 2010 edition of the book) as the oldest still-operating movie theater in the world. A similar claim is made for L’Idéal Cinéma in Aniche, France, which first showed a film on Sept. 23, 1905, but it served another purpose for a few years, was closed for many years, and was rebuilt in modern style in the 1990s.”
Besides the Guinness record, new entries are being prepared for online encyclopedia, WikiPedia, as well as other industry sources, organizers said.
“We believe the economic impact created by a project of this size will be substantial, which makes it good for everyone,” Lee said.
Area residents are being encouraged to share their favorite theater memories to be included in a documentary being made that will be one of the many features of the future tourist attraction, Madl said, adding that she is hopeful community members who share their memories will help fill in some gaps in the story.
“We’ve been stunned, as we research the history, how many connections there are to the theater and how sentimental people are about ‘their’ theater,” Madl said.
Bill Shaffer, producer for Channel 11 Kansas Public TV, Topeka, plans to produce a film documenting the first movie ever made and short clips of historic films from silent movies to talkies and beyond, Madl said.
“The project is very important to him,” Madl said. “His father is one of the former owners of the theater, and Bill worked there.”
Madl also has acquired a number of historical artifacts from the motion picture industry that would be part of a historical components’ exhibit, such as kinetoscope, peep shows and stereo cards that would be a key part of the planned tourist attraction, Madl said.
Two of the more fun aspects will include an ornate ticket booth with a talking mannequin to issue tickets and an animated character to navigate guests through the displays including clothing and costumes made famous by movies and the stars who wore them, the news release said.
The final phase of the proposed “Plaza Cinemagic Experience” will be watching a 3D movie — complete with 3D glasses — turned into a 4D movie with the addition of wind, smell, rain, lights and fog, Madl said.
The attraction, which will include a capital campaign to raise needed funds to turn the oldest operating theater in America into an educational theater — could include its own Hollywood-like Walk of Fame stars on the sidewalk outside the theater, the release said.
Details about the project are to follow on the theater’s website: www.plazagrillandcinema.com
The community has a significant artifact right on Main Street, Madl said, which she thinks people will travel to see.
“This has become an emotional, spiritual thing for me, because I realize I have an awesome responsibility,” Madl said. “We have a real jewel right here in the middle of our community. Our mission is to create an attraction that will fund the preservation of this artifact.”