Dagsboro’s Clayton Theatre first opened its doors in February of 1949 with a showing of “One Touch of Venus,” starring Ava Gardner. The theater 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.
Harkening back to its origins, beginning next week, the vintage theater will begin holding “Clayton Classics” to help raise funds to purchase a new digital projection system, showing classic films.
On Monday, Jan. 14, “Casablanca” will be shown at 7 p.m. Tickets will cost $4 per person. On Jan. 21, a showing of “The African Queen” will be held, followed by a showing of “The Maltese Falcon” on Jan. 28. The Clayton Classics series will continue every Monday night through Memorial Day.
“The theater has been using the same projector since it opened in 1949. They are the original MotioGraph projectors and they run 35mm film, which has been the standard in the film industry all these years,” said Joanne Howe, who owns the Clayton.
“Over the past couple years, the studios want to switch everything to digital, because it costs them a lot less money to produce the film and send it out to theaters,” she noted. “Most of the studios announced that, at the end of 2013, they are no longer going to make film — that they are going to have everything digital. And if you don’t switch over, you won’t be able to get film anymore.”
Howe and her husband, Ed, purchased the theater in 2000, a few years after they moved to the area.
“We had gone to the theater several times and really loved it,” she explained. “I was drawn to the theater because it was named the Clayton, and that was my father’s name and I thought that was so cool. When we first went into the theater, behind the counter there was a big poster from ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima,’ which was a John Wayne film. And my father had fought in Iwo Jima,” she noted, adding that she hopes to show that film in February.
Howe said that, to upgrade the theater with a new server and digital projectors, along with an upgraded ventilation system, would cost between $80,000 and $100,000. That doesn’t include the new screen they may have to install to work with the new projector.
“For small theaters like ours, our profit margins are slim to none. We are trying to raise the money through fundraisers, and other things we’re trying to come up with, to purchase the equipment,” she explained.
“The other wrench that has been thrown in is that Kodak has announced they are going bankrupt and Fuji Film has announced they are no longer going to make film. Now, neither one of them has given an end date to that, but they’re the two companies right now that make all the film stock for the film industry. This could be closer than we think… It could happen sooner than the end of 2013.”
The single-screen theater is not eligible to receive the subsidies offered to many theaters making the switch, because they do not get enough films on the break. So Howe must pay for the improvements herself or raise the money.
“We are taking donations at the theater. Anybody that is interested in donating can come to the theater to donate or send a check to the theater, and make it out to the ‘Friends of the Clayton,’” she said.
Howe is also in the process of organizing some fundraisers, with the help of the Dagsboro Volunteer Fire Company. She also hopes to hold a fundraiser at the theater, complete with auction items, raffles and, of course, a movie.
“We are still in the process of putting all of that together. The community support has been great. There have been a lot of people who have come out saying they want to help.”
In 2009, when the theater turned 60, the Howes upgraded the seats, painted the walls, hung new tapestries and installed a DVD projector for pre-movie entertainment.
“We’ve put a lot of heart and soul into the theater,” she said. “My husband and I have always enjoyed film. When we bought the theater, it was just exciting to be able to preserve the piece of theater. I love the hometown feel of the theater. I love that we have regular customers.”
The Clayton is the last single-screen theater in Delaware that is still being operated as a movie theater, and Howe hopes to keep it around for years to come.
“There used to be one in every town… We’re the very last bit of film history in Delaware, and I’d hate to see it lost over having to buy this equipment, but it’s just a huge investment,” she said. “The Clayton has been here now for over 60 years and has been a landmark in Dagsboro. We hope to preserve that landmark and want to continue to see it meet the digital age and charge ahead with it.”