There’s more to Kansas movie history than The Wizard of Oz. That’s the first point Rita “Peach” Madl, the current proprietor of the Plaza Cinema, drives home in our conversation. “We’ve been showing movies here years before Hollywood even existed.”
Ottawa, Kansas, sits about 55 miles from Kansas City. The town of around 12,000 residents has gone through the same ups and downs as many other small towns in the American heartland. A walk down Main Street brings back memories of days gone by, but there’s one building in particular that conjures a special connection to generations of people who’ve called Ottawa home. The Deco-style movie theater in the Pickerell Building on 211 S. Main Street has been a pillar of the community for over a century. Known today by its current name, the Plaza Cinema, the site has just been named the oldest purpose-built cinema in operation by Guinness World Records.
“The look of the town, the architecture of the buildings, is all from the late 1800s or early 1900s,” says Madl. “You could put some old Ford cars and park them on Main Street and it would look like you were in a movie from another time.” The Plaza is a central aspect of the town’s timeless feel. Originally opened as a commercial cinema—The Bijou Theatre—in May 1907, the site went through its first rebranding in 1910 when it was renamed The Crystal Theatre. The programming in those early days consisted largely of imported shorts from France’s Lumière brothers. It wasn’t until 1935 that the movie theater began going by The Plaza. The theater has served as a commercial cinema throughout its entire 111-year (and counting) existence—a bit of history that would never have been uncovered without the chance involvement of Peach Madl and a small team of other key researchers.
Madl bought the Plaza in 2006, not out of a particular desire to enter the exhibition business, but as a way to keep the lights on in the heart of downtown Ottawa. “We bought it in 2006, when we found out the gentleman who owned it was going to jail for a little while,” she says. “We wanted to purchase it from him so that it wouldn’t close. It started as, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to keep that place open.’ We met with him before he went to jail and negotiated to purchase the building and the cinema.”
“Nobody was planning to make a lot of money,” she admits. “We were just hoping to pay for it, keep it open, and enjoy it. The marquee lights up the whole street; we were thinking, can you imagine if it got any darker downtown? We were down to one restaurant. When I was researching it, we figured if we got that marquee’s lights on, five restaurants would open. And it ended up happening: five restaurants are open and viable today. We have an Italian restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, a great pizza place, we have a deli, and we have a wings place.”
Madl called upon Sonic Equipment and other regional vendors to help with much-needed renovations. She survived the digital transition by putting up her own money for the theater’s first-ever digital projector in 2008—a risky move at the height of the Great Recession. The Plaza kept the doors open thanks to Madl’s involvement; it wasn’t until 2013 that she first realized the historical significance of the building. That was the year when Deborah Barker, a local historical archivist, uncovered photographs that indicated the cinema was operational in the early 20th century. Madl and her crew had reason to believe the Plaza predated the Guinness record holder at the time, Denmark’s Korsof Biograf, which had opened on August 1908. Their source, however, was hardly viable: a book called The Annuls of Ottawa, written by a local amateur historian in 1961, which referenced a certain Fred Beeler who projected moving pictures at the Pickerrell Building, the site of the town’s first moving picture show in 1905. That reference, however, included no citation to contemporaneous sources. In historical terms, it was moot. Madl’s first application to Guinness for the Plaza’s claim was canceled.
The Plaza team went back to the drawing board and began gathering the archival materials they needed to stake their claim for the world record. It was during that time that Cindy Hoedel, a reporter for the Kansas City Star, came to town.
“Ottawa is just outside the area covered by the Star, so I had to fight with my editors to let me do this story,” remembers Hoedel. “Ottawa is this quirky, sweet, charming, step-back-in-time kind of town that is becoming very hard to find in America. It’s got a charming Main Street with everything you need: there’s a hardware store, a pharmacy, three or four places to eat, a library, and a cute museum at their train station.”
Like any good reporter, Hoedel was skeptical about Madl’s claims to the record. “We knew Ottawa had four newspapers in 1905 and I found it unbelievable that none of those papers would have written about [the opening]. So, I figured they were wrong … but Peach kept sticking to that 1905 date. I ended up writing my story as a profile of Peach and her quest instead.”
The story ran, and within a year, Madl was inspired to give Guinness another shot. She reached out to Hoedel, by then no longer associated with the Star, offering to hire her to help on the new campaign. “I tried to talk her out of hiring me. I told her I didn’t think she had it and didn’t want to disappoint them,” says Hoedel, laughing. Madl proved to be too persuasive to turn down, however; Hoedel joined the team and instructed Madl as to what they would need in order to build a foolproof case for Guinness. “We had to go back and document every single year starting from 2018 and go as far back as we could get,” says Hoedel. “There couldn’t be any gaps.”
Madl began her journey to document the Plaza’s history on newspapers.com, a digital database that, while helpful, was not exhaustive. Hoedel encouraged Madl to continue the search at libraries and historical societies, where she scoured microfiche archives of local newspapers that were never digitized. That was when the eureka moment happened—coming, fittingly, from a surprising source.
“It was called The Ottawa Guardian, a prohibitionist newspaper that was only around for a year or two,” recalls Madl. “They just thought [moving pictures] were great family fun, something that didn’t involve alcohol, so they talked a lot about it. We got our very first solid evidence of being a commercial cinema from this prohibitionist newspaper.”
“She sent me photos of the microfiche ads with the dates on top of the newspaper pages and I got chills. I couldn’t believe it. We had evidence of the opening day—she was right,” says Hoedel. The former reporter would go on to upload the Plaza’s new application to Guinness, spending hours making sure the 100-plus newspaper ads and announcements were properly submitted.
At the eleventh hour, however, Peach asked Hoedel to hold off on the submission. She believed there was still more to the story. “Right before I was ready to hit submit, Peach wants to go back to the 1905 date,” says Hoedel. “I said, ‘Peach, you don’t have it. The guy, Fred Beeler, isn’t even among the names of people who have owned the theater; it’s the Wagners who are on the lease.’ So she goes back to the library and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t send me a photocopy of an article saying that Fred Beeler is showing movies in his men’s club at the Pickrell building in 1905. She was right about that, too—even if that doesn’t directly impact her record since he wasn’t showing them commercially. So not only was she right all along, so was the amateur historian! That book did us a huge favor: it’s what made Peach think she could have the record. We did not find those ads from 1906 and 1907 until we started to try to prove 1905. This history could have remained a secret if not for that reference in 1961.”
Peach Madl hopes the Guinness World Record will help bring new visitors to Ottawa. The real reward, however, is knowing the town can still catch a movie at the same place it’s relied on for generations. “I’m an entrepreneur and I like to start businesses,” she says. “The main objective for my husband and I is to fill a need in a community. Whenever we see a need—and it looks like a fun opportunity—that’s when we take the first step.”