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Longest-Running Film in History Highlighted in New Park Exhibit


(Top): The Kolb Studio in about 1912; one of the wooden boats used by the Kolbs' on their river trips is displayed outside. Kolb brothers photograph GRCA #07731 courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park. (Bottom):  Exhibit poster courtesy of the Grand Canyon Association.

It's said to be the longest-running movie in history, and it played daily in a national park for sixty years. A new digital version of highlights from the film is part of a just-opened exhibit that includes other intriguing glimpses into the past. Do you know which park is home to this movie?

You'll find the answer near the head of the Bright Angel Trail, not far below the hulking mass of the El Tovar Hotel and the sprawling Bright Angel Lodge. There, on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a rambling building clings to a seemingly precarious perch on the face of the canyon itself.

The site is more secure than it appears, since the structure has rested on this rocky shelf blasted out of the cliff more than a century ago. Emery and Ellsworth Kolb began construction on their photographic studio and home in 1904, predating the designation of Grand Canyon National Park by more than a decade.

The building was expanded and remodeled over the years to its present five stories and twenty-three rooms, but has remained basically unchanged since 1925, and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Restored in recent years, the Kolb Studio is currently operated by the non-profit Grand Canyon Association, and houses a bookstore and space for changing exhibits. The latest display, The Amazing Kolb Brothers - A Grand Life at Grand Canyon, opened this week and runs through September 4, 2012.

It's an appropriate time for the exhibit, since 2012 marks both the 100th anniversary of the Kolb Brother's "Big Trip" down the Colorado River through the Canyon, and the Arizona statehood centennial.

The two Kolb Brothers weren't the first to test the rapids of the Colorado River, but they were pioneers in use of a movie camera to record their exploits. After completing a series of river trips, they embarked on a transcontinental tour to promote their movie, then returned to the Canyon, where the film found a permanent home at their studio.

Ellsworth Kolb later moved to Los Angeles, but Emery remained at the park, where he ran the movie daily from 1915 until his death in 1976. The Grand Canyon Association says that makes it the longest-running movie in history, and although a recorded narration was added to the movie in 1932, Emery Kolb continued to introduce the film in person.

The movie may have been a draw for tourists, but the bulk of the Kolb's work consisted of still images, including photos of many parts of the canyon rarely seen by most visitors, and thousands of keepsake photos of people making the popular mule rides into the Canyon. A capsule history of the Kolbs by the Association notes, "It was not an idle boast by Emery to say he had 'taken more pictures of men and mules than any other living man.'"

That was no small feat in the days when cameras were bulky, images required heavy glass plates, and developing photos required clean water...and the closest source for many years  was at Indian Gardens, four and a half miles down the steep switchbacks of the Bright Angel Trail.

The Kolbs' relationship with the Fred Harvey Company, the park's major concessionaire, and with the NPS itself, was sometimes a rocky one; not everyone appreciated the rambling structure perched on the face of the canyon. Whether or not you appreciate their building, the brothers are an integral part of the history of the park. They were among the first to use photography to document and promote the wonders of the Grand Canyon and to commemorate the visits of Americans to a national park.

In the later years of his life, Emery Kolb became perhaps a bigger attraction that his beloved movie, and thousands of tourists continued to visit his studio to see him present his personal introduction to the film. He died in 1976 at the age of 95, and is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in the park, along with his wife Blanche and his brother Ellsworth.

An Association spokesperson notes the goal of the new exhibit on the Kolb Brothers "is to share their stories with the thousands of park visitors who will visit Kolb Studio, allowing them the opportunity to view the Grand Canyon through the eyes and camera lens of Emery and Ellsworth."

Included in the exhibit will be a digital version of highlights from the Kolb's film of their historic river trips. This version, running about 10-15 minutes, will be available for viewing when the Studio is open. Winter hours for the Kolb Studio and free exhibits will be 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily.

If you're in the park on Wednesday, January 4, 2012, you're welcome to attend a reception at the Studio from 10 a.m. to noon, marking the opening of the new exhibit. Most of us won't have a chance to visit the Canyon within the next year or so, but if you're interested in the exhibit, you can view some of the content online at this link.


When I was at Albright in 1968, Emery Kolb was still presenting some of the introductions to this film.  But he also was driving GRCA rangers nuts every morning.

It seems that the Park Service had set up a one-way traffic loop around the railroad depot area and Emery would have none of it.  Every day, he drove to the Post Office in what I remember as a rather battered blue sedan of some kind.  He simply ignored the one-way signs and drove against traffic.  It was said that he had proclaimed, "I've been driving to the Post Office every morning for ?? years and I'll be hanged if I'm gonna take the long way!"

So, every morning when it came time for Emery's daily trip, a couple of rangers were assigned to block traffic so Emery could go get his mail.

Kudos to NPS for respecting one of the cultural icons of the Grand Canyon, eventually.
Visitors occasionally still do take Emery's route :).

I'm glad the Park Service is honoring this pioneer. In the early summer of 1976, I took my "bicentennial tour' of the western parks, and I was so fascinated by the Kolb movie so much I went back to see it again the next day. I think it was introduced in person by Mr Kolb himself. I didn't realize until today that he died a few months later, in Dec 1976.
The movie wasn't there anymore when I returned in the mid 80s, and I've often wondered about it. It was such an incredible production considering the time in which it was made. Wouldn't it be nice if it was available online somewhere, along with Mr Kolb's taped narration...

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