By Emery Styron
Crystle Christner, manager of the State Theater in Washington, foresees a busy spring. While she waits for Guinness World Records to certify the theater’s claim as “the oldest purpose-built cinema in operation,” Ms. Christner will be responsible for daily movie showings, overseeing the final touches to the State’s sparkling renovation, and helping Michael Zahs stage a silent film gala 35 years in the making.
The gala will highlight the theater’s historic role in film. Mr. Zahs, a retired junior high history teacher, is having a hand-cranked projector restored and an airship built for a showing of rare films from the estate of Washington cinema and aviation pioneers, Frank and Indiana Brinton. A movie by early French filmmaker Georges Méliès may draw film experts from Hollywood and France – not to mention fans of “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s 2011 Oscar-winning picture depicting Mr. Méliès’ story.
A documentary film crew and a potential Guinness award ceremony could add even more challenges – but Ms. Christner shows no signs of being overwhelmed. She said it’s all part of the job when you manage a theater with a marquee that reads “Motion Pictures Since 1897.”
The State’s long history
A Washington Evening Journal advertisement from 1897 displayed in the State’s lobby invites readers to see “All the latest views, including McKinley’s inauguration” on “The greatest attraction ever in the Graham… The 19th Century Marvel, The Famous Edison Kinetoscope.”
“Graham” refers to the 1893 Graham Opera House Building that houses the State.
A copy of the ad is part of the evidence Washington resident Dani Kane submitted to Guinness on behalf of the theater. The Graham was originally an opera house, but Guinness advised applying for “oldest purpose-built cinema” because the building was modified to show movies when the new entertainment form emerged, Ms. Kane said.
A variety of operators have shown films at the Graham through the years, but a 2010 fire threatened to end its run. Main Street Washington Executive Director Sarah Sadrakula credits current owner, Des Moines-based R.L. Fridley Theatres, for saving a building “that needed a lot of love.”
The fire was started by a cigarette in an upstairs wastebasket and caused heavy smoke and water damage. Rumors circulated that Fridley was going to build a multiplex out on the highway, but the company never considered another location, said Vice President Brian Fridley.
Main Street Washington raised $14,000 with a gala, and funneled $26,000 in grants from the Washington Riverboat Foundation to kick-start the State’s renovation. The community’s help was appreciated, Mr. Fridley said, adding that state and federal historic tax credits ultimately made the $750,000 project feasible.
Fridley returned the State’s interior to its 1946 look with paint, Art Deco lighting and a new stage curtain, while updating its technology with digital projection, a 3-D compatible screen and a Dolby Surround sound system. The company also re-carpeted, installed rocker back seats with cup holders, refurbished the lobby and concession stand, and reopened the balcony for the first time in decades.
The theater’s new marquee is the last major piece of the renovation. Davenport’s Lange Sign Group modeled it from a 1940s photograph to enhance the building’s historic look. A lighting ceremony was held in October.
“The community is loving it,” Ms. Christner said of the improvements, adding that she believes a single-screen, downtown theater suits Washington just fine.
“People here like old things,” she said, pointing to the State’s 1948 popcorn machine. “We sell a crazy amount of popcorn. Even if they’re not coming to a movie, people walk in off the street to buy our popcorn.”
The Brinton connection
Michael Zahs bought three pickup loads of goods from the Brinton estate in 1981. In the dusty boxes, he found treasure: “magic lantern” projector slides, posters, ledgers and 150 early films from the Brintons’ years of traveling the Midwest staging entertainments.
Mr. Zahs has spent decades having the films preserved and copied by the Library of Congress and University of Iowa’s Special Collections and Archives department, all while trying to convince the world of their significance.
The public is at last beginning to appreciate the Brinton legacy, he said. Though often ridiculed, the Brintons made a good living showing slides and movies for 10, 20 and 30 cents a ticket, and left community organizations hundreds of thousands of dollars via the Brinton Trust. The Brinton Film Collection, housed at UI, has put Washington on the movie map.
The State’s and the Brintons’ intertwined story will be told in “Saving Brinton,” a documentary produced by Iowa City’s Northland Films, due out at year-end. The Northland crew will film at the gala, Mr. Zahs said.
Meanwhile, Hills Bank and Trust is underwriting a recreation of a Brinton airship.
“Frank Brinton was experimenting with heavier-than-air flying machines while the Wright Brothers were still in school in Cedar Rapids,” Mr. Zahs said. The Brintons used aircraft to attract viewers to their shows. If all goes well, the four-propeller craft will be finished in time for the gala, tentatively scheduled for May 8-9. Mr. Zahs plans to fly it inside the auditorium “just like Brinton did.”