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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
SEPT. 28, 2013
Kansas movie theater discovers it is the oldest operating theater in America
OTTAWA, Kansas-- A movie theater in a small rural town finds it is the oldest operating theater in America -- and maybe in the world.
A recent donation of historic photographs made to the Franklin County Historical Society led executive director Deb Barker to alert Plaza Grill and Cinema theater, 211 S. Main St., owner, Peach Madl, that she had some very interesting photographs of the theater from the early days of 1900. That began the research that unraveled more than a century of “Cinemagic” in Ottawa
“Our records document a carnival on Main Street in 1905 that included two tents where movies were being shown. We have a photo of one of the tents on East Second St.” Barker said. “One movie was The Great Train Robbery; the other was about a great bank robbery.
“Later that year the Guardian newspaper recorded many stories about the first regular movie show being opened 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.”
The research journey has been amazing, 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, Madl said. “Ottawa being a rural town in the middle of the Midwest wouldn’t be thought to be so progressive, but we were.”
Just as the local movie theater has been passed down from generation to generation so has that progressive attitude and today, by joining forces with the Franklin County Historical Society, the Franklin County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Midland Railway and the Kansas Belle Dinner Train, a group of Ottawa business leaders are embarking on a project to make The Plaza Grill and Cinema a regional destination for tourism.
The plan is to re-create the movie theater experience by educating and entertaining guests from across the state and beyond.
An Ottawa marketing/business consulting arm of the Ottawa Herald -- Studio 104 -- is acting as the marketing and business development strategist led by Jeanny Sharp.
“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 KickStart campaign (www.kickstarter.com) to meet revenue start-up funding needs and to gain letters of support from businesses and organizations to sustain a State Tourism/Attraction Development grant request.”
The grant request, which is being written by Kristi Lee, executive director at the Franklin County Tourism and Visitors Bureau, is the one who suggested the Plaza Grill and Cinema’s age preceded that of a theater in Denmark – Korsor Biograf Teater, which opened in Jan. 30, 1907 and is operated by a team of volunteers. Korsor was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest operating cinema in the world. Besides the Guinness book record, new entries are being prepared for online encyclopedia, WikiPedia, as well as other industry sources.
“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 encouraged to share their favorite magical movie memories to be included in a documentary being made that will be one of the many features of the tourist attraction. Madl said by sharing your memories the group is hopeful some of the gaps in the story will be filled.
“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.
One of those sentimental advocates is Bill Shaffer, producer for Channel 11 -- Kansas Public TV, Topeka, whose father is one of the former owners of the theater. Shaffer 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 has acquired a number of historical artifacts from the motion picture industry that would be part of a historical components’ exhibit, such as a kinetoscope, peep shows and stereo cards that would be a key part of the planned tourist attraction.
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 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.
The project isn’t about the theater, Madl said.
“It’s about the impact the theater has had on so many Franklin County lives through the years, Madl said. “It’s about the retreat and escape a person could find here, leaving the world and all of its problems out on the sidewalk. There’s magic in these walls and a history that has so many layers we may never get to the original layer.”
Few other cornerstones in small communities across America offer the historical, emotional and cultural value provided by the local “picture show,” Sharp said.
The attraction, which will include a capital campaign to raise needed funds to make the oldest operating theater in America venue truly spectacular, may include its own Hollywood-like Walk of Fame stars on the sidewalk outside the theater. Details will follow on the theater’s website: http://plazacinemagicexperience.com
“We have a significant artifact right here on Main Street, in the heart of our downtown. We have something that people will travel to see and people would love to hear the story. The only way it can happen is if we all believe and we all get excited about the jewel we have in the center of our community.”
Deb Barker, director of the Franklin County Historical Society
FCHS Records and Research Center, 785-242-1232