Clayton gets its marker, and brings us all together

Date Published: 
July 18, 2014

Some words are simply synonymous with others, for one reason or another.

Think “peanut butter” and “jelly.” Or “Batman” and “Robin.” Or “Bethany” and “totem pole.” Now, before you pull out the crayons to write in an angry letter, I know it’s not technically a “totem pole” that greets visitors as they enter Bethany Beach, but that’s what people say, so the words have indeed become attached to each other, no matter how loud you scream that...

But I digress.

For me, when someone mentions “Dagsboro,” my mind immediately goes to “Clayton.”

The Clayton Theatre is unquestionably a landmark for the town, serving as the last single-theater establishment in the state of Delaware, while recently celebrating its 65th year of providing family entertainment to the entire community. It’s marquee has long been the bright light that dominates the night sky as one drives through Dagsboro after dark, and many locals have shared stories with me over the years that included the theater as the setting.

This past Monday I had the opportunity to witness the unveiling of a Delaware Historical Marker being placed at the Clayton, and the event drew an impressive crowd. Sandie Hancock Gerken, the daughter of one of the original owners and author of “Memories of the Clayton Theatre: A Look Back,” was in attendance, along with the other “Clayton girls” who grew up at the theater, as were various town, county and state officials.

Dagsboro Councilman Brian Baull shared the story about how he and his wife, Amy, were visiting historic markers throughout Sussex County when the idea occurred to them — why not look at what it would take to have the Clayton recognized for its historical significance in conjunction with its 65th anniversary?

“It’s amazing what one email can do,” Baull said to me and our publisher, Susan Lyons, after the presentation.

Indeed, Baull sent off an email to the Delaware Archives, shared Gerken’s book to offer historical backing, and contacted state Sen. Gerald Hocker and state Rep. John Atkins to try to find funding for the marker. The rest, he said, just came together.

Of course, people coming together is why the historical marker has a place to sit right now.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Clayton appeared to be on the endangered species list. Film studios announced in January 2013 that they would be making the switch from providing theaters with their choice of 35 mm film or digital formats to only working in digital. The Clayton was not equipped for such a switch, and owners Ed and Joanne Howe were faced with a price tag of more than $100,000 to make the switch. Like most of us, the Howes did not have $100,000 just lying around to make the conversion.

As is often the case these days, social media took over fairly quickly. Atkins said it was Facebook where he first saw the news about the Clayton’s uncertain future, and a grassroots campaign began almost immediately to save the theater. There were fundraisers at fire halls, private donations, classic movie nights, T-shirt sales and proceeds from Gerken’s book. People jumped in with both feet to save, well, a building that showed movies.

But I think we all know the Clayton is much more than that. As Susan said to me one day, “This is personal to a lot of people. Anyone who grew up around here has memories of the Clayton.”

Hocker shared some of those memories during Monday’s ceremony, talking about when he and his now-wife, Emily, would go to the Clayton when they were younger.

“She used to meet me at the movies here, before she was old enough to date,” said Hocker, laughing at the memory. “I’m sure there are others here that met their spouse here at the Clayton Theatre, and probably got their first kiss right in there.”

“I’ve seen a lot of movies in this movie theater,” said Atkins. “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.”

The history of the theater is indeed impressive, and the personal antecdotes is what led to its survival. While everyone gathered outside of the theater on Monday morning to unveil the new marker, I began to think about how many more personal stories were being made today, and how those tales will, hopefully, be shared as the Clayton celebrates its centennial anniversary.

The historical marker tells the tale of the building that sits there today, and will forever commemorate the people who kept that marquee humming for more than six decades. It is well-deserved and fitting for a place that both holds so many personal memories and serves as the iconic image of Dagsboro.

But it will be the story of how a community rallied together to save the Clayton that will live in my mind forever, and that memory will certainly make me smile every time I see a family or young couple walk through its doors in the future.