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The Oldest Movie Theater in the World

An audience watches acrobats perform at the Wintergarten in Berlin in the early 1900s
An audience watches acrobats perform at the Wintergarten in Berlin in the early 1900s | © Lebrecht Music and Arts / Alamy Stock Photo
The magic of celluloid has captured the imagination of young and old for more than a century. Some theaters have been in operation since the earliest days of cinema, whereas others were built once the medium became a popular entertainment pastime. Grab your popcorn and find out more about the oldest movie theaters in the world.

A number of theaters can claim to be the first to show moving pictures to paying audiences. Theatrical light and picture shows rose to prominence in the early 19th century. These live stage performances were popular in London and Paris, and would often take place in converted auditoriums that were more used to seeing lectures, pantomimes and other theatrical endeavours. These shows can be considered the first steps towards what we now recognize as “cinemas,” but this origin story is more complex than that.

A brief history of cinema

The Lumière brothers are credited with inventing cinema in the way we commonly acknowledge it today, when they projected a series of short films on December 28 1895.

A rival projection system by the German Skladanowsky brothers known as Bioscop was actually the first to draw a paying crowd, and some historians consider their screenings – held at Berlin’s Wintergarten theater – the first cinema shows to ever take place. The theater was destroyed in 1944, and was originally built as a variety show venue.

The Skladanowsky brothers held screenings at the Wintergarten theater in Berlin © Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images

Around the same time in America, Thomas Edison was using his own technology to display moving pictures to viewers via one-person booths known as Kinescopes. The format would later be known as “nickelodeon” theaters and would see a collection of these booths placed together in storefronts. Edison wasn’t convinced that people would want to sit together to watch films, and to be fair this was when the concept of “cinema” was hard to comprehend beyond poor-quality flickering images lasting no more than a few seconds at a time.

Due to this confusing mix of origins, as well as a variety of disparate qualifying factors, the title of “first movie theater in the world” is one that is up for constant debate. Here are the main contenders.

The oldest continuously operating movie theater in the world

Recognized by the Guinness World Records as the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the world, the State Theatre in Washington, Iowa, has been screening films since May 14 1897. The venue was handed the award in 2016 and remains open to this day.

The first screenings were to packed crowds, with the auditorium having a capacity of 783 seats. Many of the earliest showings were of imported French films, and the State Theatre thrived under the stewardship of a local husband and wife duo. It was first opened as the Graham Opera House, before being converted to show movies.

Serving a local population of less than 10,000, the cinema underwent an extensive renovation nearly a decade ago due to fire damage, but maintained many of the original features it has displayed for over a century.

The oldest purpose-built movie theater

For this title, we turn once more to the Guinness World Records and again find ourselves in a rather unexpected destination in the US. The Plaza 1907 is a small but popular cinema in Ottawa, Kansas. As its name suggests, the venue was opened on May 22 1907, and that date is important as it means the theater beats out a rival in Denmark by only two days.

A number of other cinemas across Europe have tried to dispute this record and claim to be older than the Plaza 1907; however, there is documented evidence from local newspapers and photographs that the cinema was under construction as early as 1905. The cinema was also closed for a period during the Great Depression, but was never used for any other purpose.

This record will once again come up for debate as thousands of cinemas around the world, including all such establishments in North America, have closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The world’s first cinema

The Eden Theatre in La Ciotat on the southern coast of France was one of the first theaters that the Lumière brothers chose to screen their films. The apocryphal tale of cinemagoers fleeing an auditorium in terror at the sight of a train coming towards them from the screen is supposedly from an early showing at the Eden itself.

The Lumière brothers showed their films at the Eden Theatre © Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

The Lumière family had a house in the picturesque town of La Ciotat and actually shot a number of short films in the area. The Eden opened in 1889, predominantly as a theater and music venue, but closed in 1982 when the then owner was tragically killed by robbers. The cinema would open intermittently to host small film festivals, but was fully boarded up in 1995.

When nearby Marseille was named European City of Culture in 2013, local campaign groups were finally given the money to renovate and reopen the cinema. The Eden now operates as a three-screen cinema and a museum to the work of the pioneering brothers who popularized the medium.