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The oldest movie theater in Central New York is still showing movies

ONONDAGA COUNTY, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — The oldest movie theater in Central New York that’s still showing movies is the Manlius Art Cinema in Manlius.

The Manlius Cinema, which was called the Strand Theatre at the time, opened in 1918, competing against two other Manlius theaters, the Star Theatre of 1912 and the Marion Theatre of 1914.

The theater started with silent films and added sound in 1931 when it was renamed the Seville Theatre.

The theater went through many name changes in its 100 years of operating, including being renamed the Seville Theatre, London Theatre, Colonial Theatre, Billings Theatre, F-M Theatre and finally the Manlius Art Cinema in the ’80s.

Although it’s still standing today, the theater was rebuilt after a large fire in 1940 that destroyed almost the entire building. When it was rebuilt, it was extended to its current length of 100 feet and the same width of 17 feet.

Eight years after the fire it was sold for $20,000 and renamed Colonial Theatre, but 12 years after that it became the Billings Theatre and another 10 years later the F-M Theatre.

Finally, in 1985, a major renovation was made to move the center aisle to the left so that two people could sit on the far left and five or six on the right. At the same time, it was assumed the theater was renamed to its current name.

After 82 years, the theater went digital in 2012 and is now a digital Dolby independent theater. To this day the theater is not only the oldest in Onondaga County, but in the region.

In the ’90s, Nat Tobin took over the little theater and became its longest owner. In 2018, he celebrated 100 years of Film at the Manlius Art Cinema with his wife, Eileen Lowell, having been running the cinema for 26 years, striving to continue the establishment’s legacy.

“I couldn’t find a more rewarding thing to do with my life than to run this theater, to show good films to people that appreciate good films,” said Tobin in 2018. “To me, it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to be a part of the community and to be able to show these films.”

Tobin credited his “loyal audience” to the lasting success of the cinema, but also raved that they must have a good experience to want to keep going back.

Before the showing of each film, he gave a monologue and welcomed everyone, which is “…a way to connect with people, and enlighten them with some stuff that they might not know about the film we’re about to show.”

To the community’s surprise, just last year, in December 2022, Tobin revealed he was retiring after 30 years.

After surviving the pandemic and dealing with the many challenges the last few years presented, Tobin said he was happy to say that the Cinema is alive and well and was put in good hands with Dan Chapman and Joe Ori, owners of neighboring business A.W.Wander.

Tobin left a heartfelt message on the Manlius Arts Cinema Facebook Page about leaving his proprietorship at the cinema and said it’s been an honor for him and Eileen to be able to bring audiences films that were, “Sometimes important, sometimes funny and sometimes just a quality night or afternoon out.”

Since taking over the cinema, Chapman and Ori have brought it into the 21st century, transforming the inside and outside while still keeping its original layout and vintage charm. Throughout the year they’ve repainted it, added new signs, remodeled the bathrooms and installed some new lighting inside.

Cult classics creep into the Manlius Cinema this Halloween season
Courtesy of Cyndi Kelder of a neighboring business, Mrs. Kelder’s Cakes.

“Joe and Dan have what it takes to bring this theatre to the next level. And I look forward to watching it become an even bigger part of the community,” said Tobin in his heartfelt post last year.

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