The Dagsboro’s Clayton Theatre this week unveiled its new Delaware Historical Marker, celebrating the theater’s 65 years in business, along with its unique nature and its historical impact on the community.
“It literally started with a question,” said Dagsboro Councilman Brian Baull, who was instrumental in getting the historical marker placed for the theater. “My wife Amy and I decided one day to go out and look at a bunch of historic markers throughout Sussex County. We wound up by Seaford and the Maryland-Delaware line, and looked at a bunch of them along the way.
“On the way back home, I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we got one of those for the Clayton celebrating its 65th anniversary? I wonder what you have to do.’”
With that thought, Baull sent an email to the Delaware Archives, and, he said, “the stars aligned.”
After providing the theater’s history — courtesy of “Memories of the Clayton Theatre: A Look Back,” written by Sandie Hancock Gerken, the daughter of one of the original owners — Baull said he also contacted state Sen. Gerald Hocker and state Rep. John Atkins to find funding for the marker.
“We appreciate everybody who has been involved in this,” said Baull.
The theater first opened its doors in February of 1949, with a showing of “One Touch of Venus,” starring Ava Gardner. It was built by brothers-in-law Alvin Cambell and Elwood Hancock, and named after U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Sen. John M. Clayton of Delaware. Today it is the only single-screen theater in the state of Delaware still showing first-run movies.
Hocker and Atkins both attended the unveiling of the marker on Monday, July 14. Hocker spoke fondly of spending time at the Clayton during his formative years, and even teased his wife, Emily, about their shared time at the theater.
“She used to meet me at the movies here, before she was old enough to date. I’m sure there are others here that met their spouse here at the Clayton Theatre, and probably some got their first kiss right in there,” he said with a laugh.
“We met here many a night. I can see her face turning red. The one thing we all talk about was Skeet Campbell’s flashlight. We all talk about that. Believe me — Emily learned how to kiss with one eye opened. I had a lot of friends that got thrown out of this theater.”
Hocker also said that, over the years, he had become acquainted with the theater’s most recent owners, Ed and Joanne Howe, who purchased the theater in 2000.
“I remember very clearly the day that Ed told me he and Joanne were going to purchase this theater. I was excited, because I knew they would keep it going and I knew they would do the kind of job it took to keep the Clayton Theatre part of history and continue that.”
Atkins said he, too, has fond memories — both recent and past — of the Dagsboro theater.
“I’ve seen a lot of movies in this movie theater,” he said, recalling growing up in Millsboro but traveling to the theater to see movies with his older sisters. “I continue to bring my boys back here very often when they show movies they want to see. We were here about six weeks ago, and for the first time my little boys got to sit in the balcony. That’s something they had never experienced.”
Dagsboro Mayor Brad Connor said that he has bonded with many people over the Clayton, including a senator from Wilmington while trying to get funding for the town’s sewer system.
“All I said was ‘Dagsboro,’” recalled Connor. “He comes out and says, ‘Dagsboro! That’s that movie theater — the Clayton. Come on in here.’ He started telling me about his kids, and we talked for 20 minutes about this theater. That man helped me because of this movie theater. We connected over this movie theater. That got me in the door… I’ll never forget that.”
“I feel like it’s time for another book of memories of the Clayton, because people all over the state must have memories of going to this movie theater,” Gerken added.
Gerken was joined by her sisters and cousins, Lucinda Campbell Hearn, Beth Hancock Bunting, Joanne Campbell Bireley and Jane Hancock McComrick at the event.
“On behalf of the ‘Clayton Girls,’ as we call ourselves, I want to express our appreciation to the local citizens and lawmakers who have made it possible for this historic marker to be placed here at the Clayton Theatre today,” said Gerken. “The five of us girls literally grew up here, and we spent a good part of our lives here in this building with our parents.
“We are pleased to have witnessed the Clayton going into the digital age. Today, we are just very happy and grateful to be here and see this marker.”
Gerken added that she and her family were excited to see the theater recognized as an important site in the history of Delaware.
“Our parents would be very proud and in total amazement that this movie house continues to have such a significance in our community. For the five of us, this is a momentous day.”
In January 2013, film studios announced that they would be making the switch from providing theaters with films in their choice of 35mm film or digital formats, to solely offering them digital films. At the time, Howe estimated that the conversion to a digital projection system could cost the single-screen theater more than $100,000.
“I did have a lot of faith that it would all come together. I just didn’t know how,” said Howe at the dedication.
Many people in the community reached out to Howe, including Atkins, who read about the theater’s efforts on Facebook and arranged for a visit from Delaware Economic Development Office Secretary Alan Levin.
“We sat in [Howe’s] office and asked her what we could do. I was as determined as she was not to let this place fail over a $100,000 piece of equipment. We gave her three or four different options, and she turned us down on all of them. She decided to do it the old-fashioned way, through hard work and raising money. I went to the governor and said I was determined that he wasn’t going to let this small business fail…
“It not only serves the community of Dagsboro, but you’d be surprised how many people visit this movie theater from Millsboro, Selbyville, Gumboro and Frankford, and the surrounding areas. They even come from the beaches in the summertime to experience what it’s like to sit in a 65-year-old movie theater. Hopefully, there’ll be a centennial marker placed in the future.”
In just 14 months, the community came together to help Howe raise the funds to convert the theater to a digital system — holding bake sales, selling T-shirts and holding classic movie nights.
“Now that we’re digital — how exciting is that?” said Howe. “It’s unbelievable — the picture, the sound. It’s been a huge change. I had no idea. The first time Charlie, our projectionist, and I clicked on that projector, our jaws just dropped. We could not believe how much different the picture was, and the sound. It’s been wonderful.”
“This is a private enterprise, but the public has been so involved in making sure it stayed the ongoing successful enterprise it has been over the past 65 years,” added Hocker.
“We have the best community and the best people that I’ve ever met, who said, not only ‘Can we do it?’ but ‘We will do it.’ And we did do it,” concluded Connor.
During the ceremony, Sussex County Councilman Vance Phillips (5th District) presented Howe with a proclamation honoring the theater for its “resilience over the years and its caretakers’ willingness to adapt to market chances and the evolving technology in the entertainment industry, [which] ensures Delaware’s only single-screen first-run theater will continue to delight audiences for generations to come.”
“A lot of small businesses face a lot of difficulty in these challenging times,” added Phillips. “What this family has done, the risk that they take, is the testament of the enduring spirit of Sussex County businesspersons.”
Although the theater can now show digital films, one of the Clayton’s original MotioGraph projectors will remain in the projection room, to show 35mm film when available. The other projector is now on display in the theater’s upstairs hallway, surrounded by clippings and photographs related to the theater and its history.
Howe said it was extra-special having the Clayton Girls at the event to share in the commemoration of a local treasure created by their parents.
“It’s such an honor to be able to carry on this tradition and to have the families here of the original owners. They’re all still here and able to see this happen to honor their parents and the work they did. That’s really exciting.”