Washington's wonder

The State Theatre stands as the 'Longest continually running movie theatre in the world'

By TJ Rhodes
Posted 4/17/24


There is a stark difference between the silver screen and a flatscreen at home.

There is an even further divide between an old movie theater and one newly built.

The lights …

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Washington's wonder

The State Theatre stands as the 'Longest continually running movie theatre in the world'



There is a stark difference between the silver screen and the flat one at home.

There is an even further divide between an old movie theater and one newly built.

The lights dim, the curtains rise, and the acoustics match each thump of a character’s step.

Movie buffs and theatre geeks alike: rejoice. The State Theatre, featured prominently in Washington, still offers the homey, inviting theatre experience of old, with two floors of seating in the one theatre hall, while introducing quality-of-life improvements for all customers, whether they have top billing, appear for a cameo or are an extra.

The space was originally named The Graham Opera House, and it hosted many theatrical plays and events. In 1897, they began running motion pictures and never stopped, allowing them to earn the “longest continually running movie theatre in the world” title, verified by The Guinness Book of World Records in 2016.

The State Theatre’s prominence shows how transformative the medium was, and still is, proving some things never change.

In the century-plus that followed, business ran smoothly with just minor inconveniences. 

One was the constant shift of ownership in the 1900s. In 2001, the State Theatre was purchased by Fridley Theatres, an Iowa-based company that owns 18 theatres – 17 in Iowa and one in Nebraska – giving the State Theatre the consistency it deserved.

Another inconvenience was the fire of 2010. The fire started in the projection room, and although it was contained rather quickly, smoke and water damage spread throughout the building. The theatre remained closed from November of 2010 to April of 2011 for repairs. A gala reopening ceremony marked a return to the big screen.

Positive results did come from the wake of the fire. During restoration, larger, more comfortable theatre seats replaced the old ones, and the bathrooms were improved.

Following was another landmark project which began in 2013. The Graham Opera House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. This allowed Fridley Theatres to access tax credit programs for an exterior renovation, completed in 2014, to reflect the theatre’s appearance from the 1940s, according to Washington’s official city website.


Enough history. What about today?

Manager Brenda Myers has been with the State Theatre since 2021, and she adores the job.

“I’m from Washington; I love our town. I love the theater, it’s beautiful,” Myers said. “It just feels good when you come in here.”

Myers previously worked at Mercy Hospital but wanted to do something different, so she applied for the State Theatre job. She described the theatre business in great detail.

Most importantly, the movies. Fridley Theatres is in charge of what is played, sending a list each Monday. Because of the sole theatre hall, scheduling conflicts ensue. The theatre usually has a small list of showings for this reason.

Fridley Theatres must also be aware that the State Theatre is almost exclusively supported by locals rather than tourists or Iowa residents outside of Washington. Newly released movies carry a contract of three weeks, making them undesirable from a business standpoint. When new releases do find their way to the theatre, Myers noted that the first two weeks can be busy but the third is usually slow.

Movies that have been out for a while only have a one-week contract, making these films much more intriguing for a small-town movie theatre.

This is how films are selected.


The importance of concessions

Something synonymous with movie theatres are the concessions.

A movie theatre relies on concession sales to stay afloat. This is why concession prices remain “high,” according to public perception. This connection is likely how the symbiotic relationship between movies and popcorn was born.

“Most of your money that you make from your films go back to the companies,” Myers said. “The main thing that the theater makes its money off of is our concessions, no doubt. Everybody loves our popcorn.”


Renting out a movie theatre

The State Theatre does not run movies 24/7. Buffer periods exist, and during these times people can rent out the space.

If they choose a current film, they’ll pay a $50 rental fee and must have a party of 50 or more, paying an additional matinee rate per person. If they choose a film not currently playing, they must pay $750. $50 can be removed if the concessions remain open. Disney and Fox products are not available for rental events.

But that’s not all. The space can be used for birthday parties, meetings, video games and more. These additional options start at $450 for two hours and an additional $100 for each hour that follows.

No matter the event, a minimum of 10 days is required to book the space.

Myers hopes that people renting out the space become more creative, especially signaling the idea of a wedding.

“I think it’d be so cool to have a wedding here,” Myers said. “Somebody [could] rent it out on a Sunday morning and [the ceremony could] be up on the stage. I just think that’d be so cool [and] perfect for a movie buff.”

Despite the State Theatre’s prestigious title of the “longest continually running movie theatre in the world,” it’s not the oldest theatre ever. That title belongs to The Vitascope, which opened in 1896 and was operational in Buffalo, NY, for two years.

So, the State Theatre may not be the oldest, but it’s outlived countless movie theatres in its time and is still kicking, providing a unique movie experience for locals and tourists alike.

The State Theatre is located at 123 E Washington St., Washington.  For movies and showtimes, visit fridleytheatres.com/movie-theater/Washington-state.