After undergoing mounds of verification, a local landmark has been thrust onto the international stage.
The owner of the Plaza Cinema, located 209 S. Main St., Ottawa, announced Tuesday that the historic theater — opened on May 22, 1907 — had been named “Oldest Purpose Built Cinema in Operation” by Guinness World Records. According to a press release, the Plaza’s founding date beat the previous record holder by more than a year; the Korsør Biograf in Denmark, which opened in August 1908.
The road to recognition was not easy. Rita “Peach“ Madl, the Plaza’s owner, spent years collecting evidence to secure the record. The campaign began when Deborah Barker, archivist and recently retired executive director of the Franklin County Historical Society, uncovered a trove of photographs that indicated the theater was already operating in Ottawa’s early horse and buggy days.
Madl, Barker and film historian Bill Shaffer compiled and authenticated evidence of the cinema’s historicity, which included documents, news reports and photographs from the Franklin County Courthouse, Franklin County Historical Society and the Ottawa City Library, along with evidence from newspapers.com, an online database.
“It was a real eye-opener how thorough and professional Guinness staff were,“ Madl said, adding that convincing Guinness required submitting documentation in the form of articles, movie ads and photographs for every year in the cinema’s 111 year history.
Over the years, the theater saw name changes, changes in ownership, and even expansion, but never moved location.
It open as “The Bijou” and for a time was called “The Yale” and “The Crystal” before opening as “The Plaza“ in 1935.
According to the release, when the cinema opened, tickets cost 5 cents and usually included two moving pictures and an “illustrated song“ performed by a live singer.
The extensive evidence required by Guinness led Madl to discover daily ads that listed the titles of the movies shown in the cinema’s earliest years, many of which were made in France and distributed out of Kansas City. Titles of some of the first movies shown include: “Bad Mother,“ “Pay Day Target,“ “Nihilist’s Revenge,“ “Blind Man’s Dog,“ “Rival Brothers“ and “Horse of Another Color.“
Behind the current twin screening rooms at the Plaza, in the original stage area, Madl has created the Plaza’s Movie Memorabilia Museum. Exhibits include a numbered original Edison Kinetoscope, one of the earliest motion picture devices, movie scripts, posters and props.
Madl is planning to leverage these historic items and more to launch a new “Walk-Through Time“ experience on March 12 at the cinema. According to the release, the experience will feature a photographic timeline of the cinema’s history, screenings of “The Great Train Robbery,“ and a changing lineup of films shown in the cinema’s earliest years. The experience will also include admission to the Movie Memorabilia Museum.
Madl hopes the Guinness World Record will bring new visitors to Ottawa, she said.