A historic downtown Ottawa building, more familiar with showing films than being filmed, is set to receive airtime Thursday on a regional public television channel.
The Plaza Cinema, 209 S. Main St., is expected to be featured in a 30-minute KCTW Topeka’s “Sunflower Journeys” episode along with information about trails in Gardner and a Flint Hills photographer. KCTW Channel 11 is scheduled to air the episode 7 p.m. Thursday, 2:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday as part of it’s 28th season.
The theater in the spotlight is said to be the oldest continuously operating cinema in the nation and maybe even the world, now with two screens and a memorabilia museum.
Bill Shaffer, one of three producers of “Sunflower Journeys,” said he helped curate items in the exhibits. His father, Willis, made a career out of managing theaters across Kansas and owned the Ottawa cinema from 1965 until his death in 1976, he said.
“It was a little dream of his to come back and run the theater,” Bill Shaffer said. “ ... He just fell in love with it. That’s where he wanted to hang his hat when he was hired.”
Willis Shaffer first came to Ottawa in 1940 to operate the old Webster Theater on the east side of Main Street south of the Marais des Cygnes River, according to a June 25, 1965, news brief published in The Herald. The news brief also said he returned for six months in 1943 to run the Plaza Cinema.
In January 1950 he moved to Hutchinson, where Bill Shaffer was born, and managed the Fox theater for 15 years until moving back to Ottawa.
Bill Shaffer said he wishes he could sit down with his father to map out when and where the theaters were he frequented as an owner. Shaffer said though he never lived in Ottawa, he remembers photographs of mile-long parades stretching across Main Street and in front of the theater.
“I’m sure dad in the day would arrange for people to be able to sit on the marquee probably and watch from there,” he said. “That was always fun because you got a high position.”
When Willis Shaffer purchased the theater in 1965, it came with a drive-in theater located on the south side of town, something Willis did not know about before, he said. In 1971, he said, he went with his father to see “Vanishing Point,” an auto action-packed movie.
“We went back and got popcorn and dad looked over at me after awhile and says, ‘This is really kinda cool. I like owning a drive-in,” he said.
At the time, the Plaza Cinema was a single theater with a room full of movie posters and an apartment upstairs occupied by a young couple, Bill Shaffer said.
Shaffer first filmed a “Sunflower Journeys” episode in Ottawa in 1993. The segment was about stereopticon viewers, or 3D slide projectors, produced by Underwood & Underwood. He said he interviewed a woman in her 90s who appeared in some of the slides as a little girl.
The feature is archived as Episode 612 from the sixth season. Stereopticon viewers are on display at the Old Depot Museum, 135 W. Tecumseh St., Ottawa.
Shaffer returned to Ottawa last year to film a man who walked from town to town, Henry Fortunato. The historian had help from Deb Barker, Franklin County Historical Society director.
Episode 2809, featuring the Ottawa cinema, should appear online at www.watch.ktwu.org/ktwu-sunflower-journeys/ after Thursday’s showing, Shaffer said. The 28th season will continue through mid-December, he said.
KTWU’s Sunflower Journeys is the state’s longest running local history program, bringing Kansas stories home to viewers after traveling the highways, according to the website.
Amelia Arvesen is a Herald staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @AmeliaArvesen.