If you were thinking it was San Francisco’s Victoria Theater — that would have been my guess — you’d be wrong. You might have thought it was the Plaza Grill and Cinema in Ottawa, Kansas. Now if you happen to live on the other side of the pond, near Marseilles, you’d be quick to point out that the Eden in La Ciotat, opened in 1895. But the crucial question is, “did it stay open?” Nope, having fallen into hard times, as so many theaters did in the seventies, its marquee was dark for a long time. The theater this site and blog are dedicated to, the St. George, in Staten Island, New York, a 2672-seat palace built in 1929 that I helped run in its last cinema year, 1976, would never have been in the running for oldest or longest continuous, having opened in the twenties and closed in ’77.
The oldest continuously-operating movie theater in the world is, according to the Guiness Book of World Records, the State Theatre in Washington, Iowa, which showed its first film in 1897, via the beam of a cinematographe. This was a hand-cranked affair invented only two years before by those fathers of cinema, the Lumiere brothers.
But wait (as Ron Popeil, himself a showman, would say), there’s more!
Not only did the State (once the Graham Opera House) stay open all those years, it’s connected intimately to the very birth of cinema. Did you wonder what a cinematographe — there are fewer than 500 in the world — was doing in the middle of Iowa?
Ever heard of William Franklin Brinton? A sort of Barnum and Bailey of early film, “Brinton,” according to The Guardian, “crossed the Midwest with his wife Indiana and his traveling show, welcoming locals for a ticket price of just a few cents. At first he showed magic lantern slides, some of which 'dissolved' between two static images to create an illusion of movement. When moving pictures arrived, Brinton jumped aboard, ordering many films from distributors in France, one of the most prolific and creative producers in the early period. He also became the manager of the Graham Opera House in Washington, Iowa...now known as the State Theater...Brinton’s programme included trick films such as those by Méliès, which used in-camera special effects to create fantastical spectacles, and many hand-coloured movies where the dye is applied directly to each frame.”
Flash forward the better part of a century to Michael Zahs, a retired Iowa history teacher, who like many of us, is a pack rat. He collects everything. The Brintons are long gone, but their collection is still very much alive, thanks to the fact that it fell — lantern slides, film, equipment and all — safely into the hands of Zahs. Phenomenally, it was stored until 2014 in a shed on Zahs’ property, where he repaired periodically to withdraw one curiosity or another, to show in various venues. Something of a showman himself, he’d picked up his predecessor’s habit of traveling with films from town to town. Seems Brinton’s original collection included a lot of lost work by George Melies, some of it on dangerous nitrate film. There was some back and forth with the Library of Congress over the years, mailing packages that had been duplicated, some, unbelieveably, labeled “explosive,” via the USPS. A lot of this stuff is unique, meaning no copies anywhere else in the world.
Thankfully, the shed on Zahs’ property will now probably not catch fire, at least not on account of volatile film stock. The University of Iowa is, since 2014, the new home of what’s being called The Brinton Entertainment Company, a collection of films, slides, projectors and other odds and ends, all donated by the industrious Michael Zahs. It’s now the subject of a documentary, Saving Brinton, which just aired on PBS, January 1, 2019.
It’s an Iowa story, and the best part is that the documentarians, Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne, are Zahs’ neighbors.
On November 5, 2018, Saving Brinton, studded with awards, returned home for viewing at the State, after having toured four continents.
There was a live act that night on stage at the State, The Pines, a local folk trio, two of its members former students of Zahs’. One of them, Alex Ramsey, said of performing on stage at his hometown movie house, that it was “Just an absolute honor and kind of a dream come true...” It was The Pines‘ first gig in Washington, Iowa. As for Brinton, he’s just come off the road one more time.