Our Town: A theatre that’s in the record books

The State Theatre is just part of movie history that brings worldwide attention to Washington, Iowa
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Published: Jul. 13, 2023 at 6:31 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON, Iowa (KCRG) - There could be an argument that the film capitol of the world is not Hollywood but Washington, Iowa.

After all, some say the state has the best movie-going audiences.

“Iowa is the most entertaining state in the United States,” explained historian Michael Zahs.

Zahs has immersed himself in several aspects of Washington, Iowa history, including its role in the infancy of cinema.

That starts with the State Theatre near the heart of downtown Washington.

“It’s very nice to have the Washington Theater still here,” said Brenda Myers, the manager of the State.

It was once the second Graham Opera House and it became rich in film history years before Hollywood’s rise.

“Most towns this size would have no architecturally designed buildings,” said Zahs.

The Guinness Book of Records says movies have been shown here since 1897.

That makes the State, the world’s longest continuously operating cinema in the world.”

And some of the most oldest movies still preserved found their way to the big screen at the State.

Those movies, from the late 1870′s and into the 1900′s are part of an amazing collection of more than 140 original films from Washington, Iowa residents Frank and Indiana Brinton.

“He showed his movies here,” added Zahs.

The Brintons started as traveling entertainers in the 1800′s and also managed the State Theatre when it was an opera house.

They were the earliest collectors of films, magic lantern slides, and equipment like these very early, very dangerous projectors.

And the directions to operate the early projectors needed to be followed carefully.

“You crank with one hand and there was a fire door that you open with your other hand and if the film caught fire you’d drop the fire door, put out the fire, and then in the instruction book and it says when you get the fire put out, open the fire door again and continue with your program,” said Zahs.

Zahs discovered and preserved what is now believed to be the only collection like it in the world.

The Brinton’s saved everything.

“It’s the most documented traveling entertainers in the history of the United States.”

Their films are so fragile and combustible they must be carefully stored at the University of Iowa’s Special Collections library, not so far from the State Theatre where they were once shown.

But these days, it’s the Hollywood blockbusters people come to see in this theatre.

So, is this still a great place for date night?

“Yeah,” said Myers.

“I’d say there’s a lot of date nights here. Yes.”