Delaware movie theatre celebrates 65 years

 (Brian Drouin/ NewsWorks)

(Brian Drouin/ NewsWorks)

The future is bright for the 65 year old Clayton Theatre thanks to a recent fundraising effort that helped the theater transition from film to the digital age.

The Clayton Theatre showed its first movie in 1949. Now, 65 years later, as film studios are moving away from 35mm film, the Clayton was in dire need of money, or the lights would go out for good. Following a major fundraising effort, this year The Clayton is going digital, and it’s future is looking bright.

How it all started

The Clayton Theatre is last remaining single-screen theater in Delaware, showing first-run (new) movies. But how did it all get started?

As many great things do, it all started with an idea, says Jane McComrick, daughter of one of the founding fathers of the Clayton Theatre. “My father, which was Pete Hancock and my uncle, which was Skeet Campbell, thought about investing in some beach property. And then, they decided that a drive-in movie might be in order, and finally it came down to a movie house. And so, in 1948, the construction started.”

Sandi Gerken one of Pete Hancock’s daughters was a little younger when construction on the theatre began. “I was born in 1946, so I was 2-years-old when they started the building. Uncle Skeet had a friend whose name was Reese Harrington, and he had started a movie theater in Harrington, Delaware in 1946. And he kind of convinced him that the movie business was a good business to go in, and at that time, it really was.”

Growing up at The Clayton

For three and their cousins, affectionately knows as “The Clayton Girls”, there were many wonderful memories of their childhood spent in The Clayton Theatre. Sandi remembers, “I was almost three and my next cousin was not yet born, she wasn’t born until May of 1948, so she and our younger sister Beth, who was born in 1950, really learned to walk up and down these aisles. We were here as much as we were home. Yes, this was home.”

“We would come in and turn on the lights, get on the stage and sing the songs that Rosemary Clooney and Patty Page and some of the singers at the time were singing. We’d go upstairs to the bathrooms, and we’d walk down the stairs as if we had on these beautiful sequined gowns and introduce each other. On rainy days, we brought our roller-skates and our bicycles and rode down these aisles.”

“We had wonderful times playing in this movie theater, and like Jane said, it was the place to come. This is where everyone gathered. This was where you met your friends from school on the weekend. Sat with my first boyfriend here. Had my first kiss here. Dates brought me here. “

Jane remembers opening night, “I can remember coming inside the walls when they were partly up, and I remember coming to opening night, I was five, going on six, and the crowd was such that they broke the hinges on the doors, and also, trampled my mothers shoes, and finally my grandmother took me home so I didn’t get to see One Touch of Venus the first time.”

The new owners

Fast forward a few decades, and current owner Joanne Howe and her husband happened to drive by. “We were driving by the theater one day. We didn’t even know it existed, and were so shocked to see it. We loved movies. We loved the old theater. It was named ‘Clayton,’ which happened to by my father’s name. In 2000, I saw online that the theater was up for sale. We came over and looked at it, we just fell in love with it and we purchased the business.”

Talking with Joanne, you get the sense that their coming to the theatre was more than just chance. “It was like destiny. The theater was named ‘Clayton,’ which was my father’s name. Behind the concession stand, there’s a big original poster from the Sands of Iwo Jima, with John Wayne, which just so happens that my father fought on Iwo Jima. The daughters of the original owners came by to see the film, and they brought me a copy of the original flyer from the day the theater had opened on February the 2nd, and I just looked at them in shock and said, ‘This opened February 2?’ and they said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘That’s my birthday.’ So, there were all sorts of little connections along the way that just made us feel like we were destined to take over the place.”

The theatre needed a little love, so Joanne and her husband went to work sprucing things up. “We put in a new screen. We relit the Marquee on the front of the building; the whole Marquee hadn’t been lit in like 20 years. So, we were able to find…a gentleman who happened to be the apprentice of the person that put the original neon on the building. And he came in and was able to replace just a few pieces and we were able to get the whole thing up and running, so that was really exciting. We did some painting, and over the years, we’ve made a few adjustments. We put in new draperies on the walls, put in new seats. But basically, the theater is pretty much the same it was when it opened in 1949.

The next phase

The Clayton may have stayed mostly the same over the years, but one big feature is finally changing. Movie studios are going digital, that means they will not be supporting the current standard 35mm film any longer.

Every movie theatre in the country that wants to show new films needed to upgrade or close. Joanne needed to work hard to come up with the money to upgrade. “We worked all of 2013 to raise the funds to help us switch over to digital projection. We’re still using the original projectors from 1948. We’ve been able to keep them maintained; our head projectionist, Charlie Thorns, has been able to keep them maintained for us for the last 30 years, which has been wonderful.”

Sandi Gerken says, “I’m so excited about with the Clayton going into the digital age, when Joanne first told me about three years ago, that by the end of 2013 the Clayton was going to have to go digital or go dark, that kind of scared me a little bit, and we kind of started a grass-routes effort and got people in all the surrounding communities involved in it. Even though our family does not own this anymore, I still feel some kind of sense of home here. I would hate to see it close up, or become anything else but a movie house.”

The future is looking bright again for The Clayton, Joanne says, “There’s so many opportunities with the digital film coming in, because you can broadcast other things besides films, so I’m anxious to see if that’s something that we’d be able to do in the area here.”

“I just love the nostalgia of it all. I love the people that come in. I mean, you very rarely have people come in, in a bad mood. Everybody’s happy to be here. Everybody’s enjoying themselves, and we all have great stories and share a lot of good laughs together.”

Jane McCormrick agrees, “Makes me feel very proud that this stayed in the community, that people still like to come here. It’s just an awesome thing to think that this has been here for over 65 years out of my life, and you know, I was five when it started, it’s just been my life.”

The installation of the new digital equipment is set to take place in about a week. The future is bright and the theater is in good hands with Joanne at the helm. “It’s a great experience for the whole family. Our prices are very reasonable. We have a great concession stand, a lot of different candies you don’t see at concession stands anymore. And our popcorn is freshly made, it’s hot, it’s just a fun experience.”

You can get more information about the Clayton Theatre on their website.


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