Imagine the oldest cinema in the world. Did your mind wander to the bustling streets of New York City or Los Angeles in glamorous old Hollywood? To get there, you instead need to drive an hour south to a quaint Main Street in Ottawa, Kansas.
“The oldest purpose-built cinema in operation was achieved by Plaza 1907, which has been in operation since 22 May 1907,” Guinness World Records declares.
Ottawans have always known that Plaza 1907 had a rich history. However, its distinction as the oldest theater in the world emerged in 2013, when Deborah Barker of the local historical society developed old negatives.
These photos indicated that Plaza had, in fact, been operating since 1905 — three years longer than Denmark’s Korsof Biograf. Guinness required extensive evidence of the opening date, sending a small team of researchers on a yearslong quest to sort through old articles, photographs and documents referencing the theater.
“The Guinness requirement is verification through documentation — showing that it was operational during all of those time periods,” Plaza’s current owner Scott Zaremba says. “It was just a time-consuming kind of labor of love.”
The first movie shown in Ottawa was at a 1904 street fair, when Chicago exhibitor George Spoor began distributing short “moving pictures” around the Midwest. Using a projection machine called the KinoDrome, he played The Great Train Robbery, a 10-minute film from 1903.
Among the moviegoers was local electrician Fred Beeler, who was inspired to purchase his own portable machine in 1905 and began projecting these moving pictures at a private men’s club inside the Pickrell Building. Local interest inspired the Wagner family to open the Bijou Theater — the town’s first movie theater — on May 1, 1907. Demand prompted a move to its permanent home in the Pickrell Building by May 22. The first films shown were Bad Mother, A Trip to the Stars on a Soap Bubble and Two Wives for One Husband. Complaints from local religious leaders about “fiendish flickering films” convinced owners to include religious content, such as The Holy City.
In those days, a night at the cinema meant standing in a single line to watch 10- to 15-minute silent features. Afterwards, singers would give live performances known as “illustrated songs.” In 1907, there were 12 shows daily, and tickets cost five cents.
Advertisement for the cinema came from local newspapers as much as word of mouth. “The show is first-class in every particular,” The Ottawa Guardian boasted in 1907. “The most fastidious need not be ashamed to attend.”
The Bijou continued to grow and soon showed new films daily. It was renamed twice in 1909 but later damaged by a fire in 1917. To his credit, resident pianist Harry Mapes continued to play until every last audience member had escaped.
The theater survived until the Great Depression hit. Renovations forced the cinema to close from 1929 to 1934 — however, it was never used for another purpose.
Today, the two-screen theater is open weekly from Wednesday to Sunday. To honor the theater’s part in film history, Zaremba also created a memorabilia museum on the Plaza’s original stage. The two-level room is filled with authentic props, posters and scripts dating back to the 19th century. Highlights include a vintage Edison Kinetoscope, an early draft of 1983’s Return of the Jedi (still titled Revenge of the Jedi) and an original wand box from 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
So, how did Plaza 1907 manage to run longer than any other cinema in the world?
The answer likely lies in the Pickrell Building’s industrial origins. The theater’s old projection room was originally a concrete, steel-lined area used for livery stables.
That meant they could safely handle the highly flammable nitrate from which films were originally made.
“That’s how we’re the oldest,” Zaremba says. “Most of them burned down!”