OTTAWA — Taking a drive down the Historic Main Street in Ottawa, a marquee sign sticks out over the sidewalk. You may be surprised to see the latest movie available in the small town.
Ottawa is home to the Plaza Cinema, a movie theater that holds the distinction as the oldest cinemas in the world.
The Plaza opened on May 22, 1907, but was originally named The Bijou. It was also called The Yale and The Crystal before opening as The Plaza in 1935.
In 2018, after years of verification, the Plaza Cinema was recognized as the “Oldest Purpose Built Cinema in Operation” by Guinness World Records. 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.
In the beginning, tickets were a nickel, and usually included two moving pictures and a song performed live.
The road to recognition was not easy. Rita “Peach” Madl, the Plaza’s former owner, spent years collecting evidence to secure the record. The campaign began when Deborah Barker, archivist and former 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.
Now owned by Zaremba, the old theater is being restored but will keep the character that makes you feel like you are walking into history.
The Plaza also features the Movie Memorabilia Museum, which includes one of the earliest motion picture projectors as well as other exhibits, including movie scripts, posters and props. New owner, Scott Zaremba, hopes to have a self-guided, audio tour soon. He also has plans to eventually broaden the tour to include much of downtown Ottawa.
“I think something like this can be a boon to the community,” he said. “There’s nowhere else you can see this, and I think it’s a big deal. And we’re trying to put something together as we speak — so we have a larger tour, featuring our historic downtown. I want to make it big enough where it draws people to stay in community and then go home and tell their friends.”