A small hometown movie theater survives with a little help from friends

A small hometown movie theater survives with a little help from friends
The Clayton Theatre in Dagsboro is still going after more than seven decades in operation. Photo by Michael Short

By Michael Short

For 73 years, families have been coming to the Clayton Theatre in Dagsboro.

The theater is the last single-screen movie theater remaining in Delaware. In an age of multiplexes, the Clayton continues to draw patrons to its location on Main Street nestled between the Town Barber Shop and Petals and Treasures Florists.

Generations of families have come here since the very first show "One Touch of Venus" with Ava Gardner and Robert Walker opened on February 2, 1949.

There are few strangers at The Clayton Theatre. "They know us, and we get to know them," said owner Joanne Howe. "It's a hometown theater and you just don't see that much anymore."

"We discovered this little theater," she said. She and her late husband Ed bought the theater in 2000 when the coincidences became too great to simply ignore. Her father was named Clayton. The lobby had a poster for "The Sands of Iwo Jima" and her father had fought in World War II at Iwo Jima. The theater had originally opened on Feb. 2, which is her birthday.

"There were so many interesting little coincidences," she said.

"We loved going to the movies, but we had no idea what we were doing. My husband used to say he liked to be in show business," she said. "We meet the greatest people, and everybody is happy. We've made a lot of good friends."

In a small town like Dagsboro, she said, a movie theater becomes a social hub where people share stories and meet old friends. "They met up at the theater and it's nice," she said.

There are old movie posters in the lobby featuring stars like Irene Dunne, Clayton Theatre memorabilia for sale and of course, the concession stand with Sno-caps and buttered popcorn. The lobby is sometimes decorated like the Halloween decor featured in October as Clint Eastwood's "Cry Macho" played inside.

They often play "Groundhog Day" on Feb. 2 and occasionally bring back "One Touch of Venus" for extra-special anniversaries.

In addition to movies, there are sometimes concerts and benefits like the upcoming Sean Reilly concert on March 13 called "Sinatra 101."

There's even a small lawn in the front, prompting Howe to joke that "You don't see that many theaters now with lawns. It's theater on the green."

Named in honor of Delawarean John M. Clayton, the Clayton Theatre was first owned and operated by Alvin “Skeet” Campbell and wife Marjoria, with brother-in-law Elwood “Pete” Hancock and wife Marian, according to the blue historical marker on that front lawn.

John Middleton Clayton (July 24, 1796 – November 9, 1856) was a lawyer and politician from Dagsboro, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. He was a member of the Whig Party who served in the Delaware General Assembly and nationally as a U.S. senator and U.S. secretary of state.

Constructed in 1948 by W. Benjamin Dorey, a contractor from Millsboro, "the Clayton held its grand opening in 1949 with Governor Elbert N. Carvel and other state and county officials in attendance," according to the marker. "The theatre building was constructed from concrete in the popular Art Deco style and faced with formstone, a kind of stucco which was colored and shaped on the building to resemble natural stone. The interior of the Clayton originally sat 530 people and was furnished with the latest air-cushioned seats and projection equipment."

When Joanne and Ed Howe bought the theater, it was still using that same projection equipment. That was fine until about 2013 when studios stopped making 35 mm films and the Clayton was required to update and get digital projection equipment.

It wasn't cheap, but the town pitched in to help. The fire department held a fundraiser and there were benefits like shows by local groups Skinny Leg Pete and Oh Boy, a Buddy Holly tribute band.

"Everybody rallied around. It was very humbling," Howe said.

In its first few years, “blue laws” prohibited the showing of films on Sundays, so the Clayton ran movies six days a week. Tickets cost 50 cents for adults and 20 cents for kids. "In September 1949, a referendum on the law was held and passed, and Sunday shows began running later that fall. The Clayton also hosted appearances made by traveling country and western acts, as well as live stage shows and local talent. Though the theatre underwent various renovations during the 20th and 21st centuries, its architectural integrity has been largely preserved as evidenced by the neon “Clayton” sign and marquee," according to the marker.

Ed Howe died in 2012, but Joanne continued to run the theater and keep their shared love of the business alive. "We were both happy to be in show business," she said.

The theater hummed along just fine in an age of multiplexes until 2020, when COVID-19 derailed so many small businesses. "It's been tough for theaters  … There's a lot of challenges."

Those challenges meant the theater played classic movies for most of 2020 because no new films were being released. The Clayton closed Nov. 1, 2020 and reopened on Memorial Day 2021. It was still tough and the theater even tried selling curbside popcorn, candy and sodas while local favorite DJ Sky Brady spun records and employees dressed like buckets of popcorn.

Slowly, Howe said, things are starting to return to normal. Disney's "Jungle Cruise" attracted good crowds when the theater ran it last year and people are returning to the theater. The Clayton has taken health issues seriously and taken safety measures, she said.

Those restrictions have begun to relax. Per the theater's website, unvaccinated patrons are asked to wear a mask while moving through the building, but can take masks off at their seats to eat snacks. The theater had closed every other row of seats during the pandemic, but all seats are now open. The theater does still request a two-seat distance between families, and also asks people to use hand sanitizer whenever possible.

The mask mandate which was reinstated this winter and then lifted again on Feb. 11 was the latest challenge, but Howe remains confident that the future is bright. "Slowly, but surely" people are coming back, she said.

On Feb. 4, the Halle Berry feature "Moonfall" opened. On Feb. 18, "Uncharted" is scheduled to open. The Clayton website says the theater offers a "rare opportunity to see first-run movies in a charming hometown atmosphere … Bring the family and enjoy the hometown experience."

There are shows nightly at 7 p.m. and matinees at 3 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"We've been working hard to create a nice atmosphere where people are comfortable," Howe said. "We're open. We're safe.”

"The big screen is back," she said.

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