The opening of The Clayton Theatre in February 1949 caused quite a stir. It would be one of the biggest events of the decade in the small town of Dagsboro – Gov. Elbert Carvel and state and local officials were in attendance as the John M. Clayton School Band performed on opening night.
The romantic, comedy musical “One Touch of Venus,” starring Robert Walker and Ava Gardner, was the first film to grace the screen in the 530-seat theater. Its managers were Alvin “Skeet” Campbell and Elwood Hancock, brothers-in-law who hired family members to operate the theater.
Several relatives still live in the Dagsboro area. Sisters Jane McComrick and Sandie Gerken have been regulars at Clayton Classics on Monday nights over the past month. Other relatives in the area include Beth Bunting, another sister, and cousins Joanne Ireland and Lucinda Hearn.
McComrick said opening night was so frantic and busy that the front doors were torn down and her mother's new shoes had the straps ripped off by people trampling on her. She said she started working at the theater as soon as she could see over the counter. “There are a lot of memories in this building,” she said.
The Clayton was one of many small-town theaters in Sussex County, and Delaware, long before the days of rated movies and multiplexes. It's outlasted all the others as the last remaining single-screen, first-run theater still operating in the state.
But The Clayton has come to a crossroads – technology has caught up to the theater. Owner Joanne Howe said she has to switch to a digital projection system, which is the standard for all movie theaters across the country. That switch could cost as much as $75,000 to $100,000, Howe said.
Howe said studios have told her that she has to the end of the year to make the conversion. “So we are under the gun,” she said.
Stepping back in time
Going to a movie at The Clayton is like stepping back in time; not much has changed over the past 64 years. The outside of the building looks essentially the same, but inside Howe has done renovations – including new balcony seats – since she and her husband Ed, who recently passed away, purchased the building in 2000.
The bright neon Clayton light has provided a beacon on Dagsboro's Main Street for decades. The same two Motograph 35mm movie projectors have been rebuilt several times, but they are still in use. Projectionist Charlie Thorns, who has worked at The Clayton for 29 years, has somehow been able to keep the projectors running. Thorns has movies in his blood, working in projection rooms since he was 8 years old.
“He's been a real blessing,” Howe says.
Fundraising efforts are under way
The theater is the midst of a fund-raising drive to Save the Clayton, and people are turning out on Mondays for Clayton Classics to show their support of the iconic theater. On Feb. 11, more than 225 people filled the theater and its balcony to watch “The Philadelphia Story.”
Area civic organizations and individuals are also donating funds to help the effort. The Dagsboro Fire Department is hosting a St. Patrick's beef and brew from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday, March 15, at the fire hall behind the theater. A '50's Night is scheduled for April and a 5K run is being planned for May.
March will be dedicated to John Wayne films, starting with “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” on Monday, March 4. All seats are $4 and the doors open at 6:15 p.m. with the shows starting at 7 p.m.
Movie studios are converting to digital to save money and provide higher-quality movies. Instead of shipping 70-pound containers with 35mm movies on reels, distributors will be able to ship a 1-pound hard drive. There will be no more splicing, mounting and threading film, and an unlimited number of first-run films can be produced at a low cost.
Howe said it costs a studio about $1,000 to make and ship a first-run print to the nearly 4,000 movie theaters in the country. She said the new hard-drives will cost about $10 to produce and ship.
The new technology also allows theaters to show 3-D films. As many as 70 percent of all theaters in the county were expected to covert to digital by the end of 2012. Howe said adding 3-D to the system is an additional cost of $15,000 to $20,000 and is not part of immediate plans.
The Clayton is open Wednesday through Saturday during the winter months and seven nights a week during the summer season. Go to theclaytontheatre.com for more information.
UPCOMING CLAYTON CLASSICS
Feb. 18: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a 1939 political drama starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur and directed by Frank Capra.
Feb. 25: “Winchester 73,” a 1950 western starring James Stewart, Shelly Winters and Rock Hudson.
March 4: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” a 1949 western starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford.
March 11: “The Quiet Man,” a 1952 romantic comedy, drama starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara and directed by John Ford.