Kan. theater plans to promote its historic roots

OTTAWA, Kan. (AP) -- A northeast Kansas town wants to use a movie theater that is believed to be among the nation's oldest to tell the history of early cinema.

The Lawrence Journal-World (http://bit.ly/1cTNyGG) reports that newly discovered photos and newspaper clippings show that films have been shown at what is now The Plaza Grill and Cinema in Ottawa since 1905. Plans for promoting the building's history include adding interactive exhibits, memorabilia and a documentary.

Peach Madl, who has owned the theater since 2006, also envisions a new trolley system transporting people to the theater after they disembark from an excursion train that travels between Baldwin and Ottawa.

Madl has joined forces with the Franklin County Convention and Visitors Bureau to start a fundraising campaign, and an anonymous donor has promised to match up to $50,000 in community donations. The project also could be eligible for a state tourism destination grant.

For now the theater is a money drain, despite attempts to attract more people by providing restaurant-style food, alcohol and live comedy shows in the space.

"We struggled just because we love it," Madl said on hanging onto the property. "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."

A query into the theater's past started when the historical society received a donation of 6,000 negatives shot starting in 1935. They included pictures of photos that show people arriving in horse-drawn carriage to the Ottawa theater for some of the first-ever films.

Franklin County Historical Society director Deborah Barker then stumbled across a prohibitionist newspaper called the Ottawa Guardian that wrote extensively about the theater -- originally called The Bijou, then The Crystal Theatre, and then The Plaza. Both the newspaper and theater were located in the same building.

"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 said.

In 1905, circus-like tents would come into town to attract people to see "The Great Train Robbery." 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.

"People didn't sit because the features just lasted 10 minutes," Madl said. "They stood there to see projections and something moving. It was so unique for the time."

The theater then moved downstairs and eventually the building was remodeled into a theater business, Barker said.

Old newspaper clippings tell of The Crystal Theatre surviving a March 1917 fire during which a piano player continuously played while instructing people how to exit the building in the safest manner.

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 1930s to the art deco style it still has today.

"It's extremely old and a fun location to interpret the history of movies," Barker said.

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Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, http://www.ljworld.com