Exploring Dodge City’s Earliest Movies

Movies have a long history in Dodge City – one that stretches back at least 125 years, in fact. Some of the earliest showings of movies in Dodge City occurred in 1897, though the cinematic landscape of the time was extraordinarily different. Movie theaters did not exist yet and many of the earliest films – which largely composed of documentaries and recordings of operas – were shown at local locations such as Kelly’s Opera House. The language used to describe movies was also entirely different. For example, an early newspaper article appearing in The Dodge City Democrat in 1897 refers to an upcoming motion picture show as a “Scientific Opera” made possible by Thomas Edison’s new invention, the Vitascope. Describing these shows as “scientific operas” likely heightened the sense of technological wonder and novelty about them.

An illustration of Kelly’s Opera House, likely the first business in Dodge City to present a movie.

Although we typically think of silent movies when we think of early films, this article from 1897 also suggests the presentation of an early sound film, which Edison had experimented with from 1895-1915. These early attempts at creating sound films stand out mostly as oddities today, as sound film did not become typical for filmmakers until around 1930. Still, newspaper articles like these show how the new technology inspired audiences at the time: it was as if entertainers and opera singers from Europe or New York were really there in Dodge City. These advertisements did not suggest simple magic lantern shows, but something close to a real live performance of an opera.

An interior photograph of the Dodge Theater

Movies were presented to audiences in Dodge City as “unusual attraction[s]” as far 1909, and by 1915, Dodge City was home to a short-lived cinema called The Elite Theater. By the 1930s Dodge City was home to a thriving filmgoing community, with cinemas such as the Crown Theater, the Cozy Theater, and the Fox Dodge Theater – a movie palace which once welcomed Hollywood stars such as Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, and Humphrey Bogart for the world premiere of the 1939 film Dodge City.

A crowd gathers around the Dodge Theater to attend the world premiere of the 1939 film Dodge City

Interested in learning more about the history of Dodge City? Visit the Kansas Heritage Center, the public library’s research center and archives, or contact us for research assistance at kansasheritage@dcpl.info.

One Comment on “Exploring Dodge City’s Earliest Movies

  1. Love this! Thank you for sharing this bit of history with us.

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