In 1948, Pete Hancock and Steve Campbell, along with their wives, decided to build a movie theater in Dagsboro. The Clayton Theatre screened its first film on Feb. 2, 1949, with the curtain opening on “One Touch of Venus,” starring Ava Gardner.
Sandie Hancock Gerken, one of Pete Hancock’s daughters, reminisced this week about those early days.
“The building has two stores on either side. They had the Clayton Cut-Rate, which was a discount drug store with a soda fountain,” she recalled. “My two sisters and my two cousins and I — this was our babysitter, our first jobs, our everything.”
More than 60 years later, the Dagsboro landmark and social hub is now in a struggle to survive. Earlier this year, Joanne Howe, the Clayton’s current owner, announced that the theater must raise more than $100,000 in order to transition from film projection to digital cinema, since many movie studios are making that switch by the end of the year. That enormous expense is threatening the theater’s existence.
Gerken said the theater was a big part of her family’s life, and she’s determined to help support it.
“It has been in continuous operation, showing first-run movies since 1949, and we want to continue doing that. We have to try to help Joanne Howe try to raise the funds so we can continue this family entertainment tradition.”
Gerken’s plan to help preserve the Clayton’s memories and support its fundraising efforts is to assemble, publish and sell a book of Clayton memories.
“I’m compiling a book of memories — not just ours as a family, but from other people who went to the Clayton to see movies, to socialize and have family entertainment through the decades that it has been operating,” she said. “Not so much now is it a social life, but back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, this was a major form of entertainment and socializing. We went to the movies to meet friends. It’s an important part of history of the area we live in.”
Gerken said she aims to have memories submitted to her by April 30, and following publication of the resulting book, all proceeds would go toward helping the theater switch over to the digital format. A raffle for a new car and the ongoing Monday Night Classics film showings at the theater are also part of the fundraising effort.
“I’m doing it mostly as a selfish thing, to preserve the memories, as much as we’re trying to preserve the Clayton,” she said, adding that she’s already received some memories from the public.
“I really want to preserve the memories the most. There are people who have said, ‘Oh, I’d love to have a booklet like that.’ So I’d like to make it available for sale. I thought, if there is a change and money can’t be raised and the Clayton has to go dark for the first time in over 64 years, then I would like to have all the memories preserved.”
Recalling the theater as it was when she was younger, Gerken said tickets were 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for kids. On Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, first-run dramas or most popular movies were shown. Wednesdays and Thursdays were reserved for double features, usually horror or science fiction movies. Fridays and Saturdays were special days for kids, featuring mostly Westerns.
“There was always a newsreel that ran before the movie, because that was the way you got most of your news, besides the newspaper. There was a cartoon, as well as previews before the movies,” she said.
“You had to go next door to the soda fountain to get your drinks and candy and whatever you wanted to take into the movie. But inside the lobby there was an old-fashioned tall popcorn machine. It was loaded in the top, with a glassed-in area with already popped popcorn. You’d take a bag and put it in on the chute, put your dime in… Ten cents for a bag of popcorn! … I can still smell that popcorn. That’s probably the best memory I have of that.”
The theater didn’t only show movies — it would also bring in live performances to entertain the public.
“I can remember that on Thursday nights, every so often, they would have a live stage show with local country-Western singers. The one that came most often was Henry Lewis and his band; he was from Millsboro. Every so often somebody like Gabby Hayes from the movies came.
“Lash LaRue, who was at the time a semi-famous cowboy, he came and spent the night there at the theater,” she recalled, noting that she still has an autographed picture of LaRue. “He did an entertainment show there with a whip. He put a cigarette or a straw in a local boy’s mouth and threw his whip and cut the straw in half. That was interesting. Of course, it was kind of neat to get an autograph of somebody who was famous.”
Gerken and her sisters, Jane Hancock McComrick and Beth Hancock Bunting, and cousins Joanne Campbell Birely and Lucinda Campbell Hern, all worked at the theater when they were young.
“My first job was delivering posters with our dads. My uncle had the northern route — Millsboro and Georgetown areas — and my dad the southern, like Ocean View, Bethany, Selbyville. Dad drove, and we ran into places of business and took the old poster and put the new one up,” she said.
“The second job was cleaning the theater on weekends, where you swept up all the popcorn and the cups. I think we got $2 for that, and that was pretty good. And we had to work at the soda fountain and learn how to make shakes and all the different kinds of drinks, like cherry Cokes and chocolate Cokes and cherry smash and that kind of thing. We gradually worked our way up to being able to sell tickets in the box-office. That was the big grownup job that we got to do.”
Gerken said it’s amazing how the community has rallied together to support the single-screen theater and that she hopes it will continue.
“The really neat thing — particularly with the Monday Night Classics — is such a grassroots effort of people who are saying, ‘I have lived here all my life. We’re supporting this. We don’t want the Clayton Theatre to close. We haven’t come very much, but now we’re going to.’ You take something for granted, and then when there’s a chance it’s not going to be around, people rally around.”
Although Gerken’s family sold the theater in 1973 when they retired, she said the Clayton remains a special place for her and her family.
“It’s very important to me and my cousins that the movie theater stays open and that the movie magic in Dagsboro keeps going. I don’t want it to go dark. It doesn’t just belong to Dagsboro… it’s the surrounding communities. It really is a treasure that still exists.”
Those who wish to share their memories and stories can contact Gerken by writing her at 31708 Train Lane, Dagsboro, DE 19939 or emailing her at email@example.com. She may also be reached by calling (302) 732-6835.