Stumbling into the world’s oldest movie theater

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Humans gravitate toward benchmarks.  Anniversaries and events that end in zero, like 50th anniversaries.  Turning 20.  They like superlatives.  The biggest.  The best.  The fastest.  The youngest.  The oldest.  It’s human nature.

You never know what’s going to happen to you in a given day.  Maybe you meet someone new.  Maybe you work on a new project you hadn’t contemplated before.  Or, if you’re lucky, you wander into a new town and stumble upon something new.  Or something old.

It could be in any town in any city, but it just happens to be in a town you hadn’t planned on visiting, on a side jaunt along the way to someplace unrelated to where you now find yourself, staring up at an old building with a marquee.  A movie theater like any other old movie theater on any other main street across the Midwestern United States, that dot towns here and there.  Yet this one makes a surprising assertion.  This one claims to be the oldest.  If you find yourself in front of a theater like that, then you must be in Ottawa, Kansas, a quaint town about a half an hour’s drive south of Kansas City.

And like a trip to The Twilight Zone, the next thing you know you’ve paid the price of your ticket and you’re sitting alone in a movie theater, soaking up that old familiar place that smells like popcorn and feels like home.  You marvel at the gray metal 1930s art deco ceiling lights, the tall vintage curtains, and find yourself watching a film from 1903 that played in this very town in its opening months 109 years ago, then viewed by a crowd of turn of the century townsfolk from a very different turn of the century.  Like you, they were watching this movie for the first time, only they were watching it as the first movie they’d ever seen.

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That movie you’re watching is The Great Train Robbery, Edwin S. Porter’s silent Western film starring Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, A.C. Abadie, and George Barnes.

And there you are, watching this old film in an empty theater.  What ghosts are sitting there watching it with you?  You might sense them after you watch the movie, touring the original back of the theater behind the current, more modernized split screen theater.  Maybe they’re hanging around up near the old flaking paint on the former balcony walls, unseen by visitors to modern movies but still visible to those who care to explore a small film museum hidden behind the theater.

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Maybe these ghosts are trying unsuccessfully to run one of the old projectors on display at the back-stage museum.  Trying to flip through the pages of old movie scripts.  Living within the old photographs of this very theater as it thrived decade after decade.

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And what better than watching a current feature film at a theater that first entertained audiences when Theodore Roosevelt was president, that has run almost non-stop other than a few darkened years during the Great Depression?

Fans of cinema should make a pilgrimage to the oldest movie theater, the old Plaza Theater.  Now updated with a great concession stand and better than your average theater dinner options, the Plaza also shows all the current releases.  More than a half a dozen generations from when it began, it’s still selling out the house once in a while to mega-hits like The Hobbit.

Ottawa Plaza Theater

Check out more information on the Plaza theater at its website here.

And The Great Train Robbery?  The 1903 release is surprisingly modern for such an early attempt at film storytelling.  At under 15 minutes, what we’d call a short film today manages to contain plenty–dancing, criminals, horses, a steam-powered train, and a good old fashioned shoot-’em-up.  Director Porter had a good eye for including images an audience new to “moving pictures” would marvel at, including lush woods and expressive actors.  Today he might not show the entirety of his robbers tying up each victim’s hands, but then again he conveyed a great deal of reality in few short minutes.  And he included elements we’d all come to expect from our favorite Westerns, 30, 40, 50, and even more years later.  Not a bad start at all.

C.J. Bunce / Editor / borg

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