Milton Theatre long a focal point for town

October 7, 2010

As Milton Theatre organizers continue their effort to raise money to buy the building back, some in town are remembering a time decades ago when the theater was among the town’s most popular destinations.

Martha Jane Donovan-Burke, 66, of Milton, remembers going to the theater in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“My mother took me there to see ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ The place was packed,” she said of the 1952 movie staring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds.

Raising money to buy building
Milton Theatre supporters have made more than $130,000 in pledges and donations in an effort to buy back the property, and theater officials say fundraising efforts are their top priority.

“By the time the deed is recorded with the new owner, we plan to be in a position to make an offer and buy the theater back,” said Deanna Duby, secretary of the Milton Theatre board of directors.

The deed will be recorded 30 to 60 days from Sept. 21, the date of a sheriff’s sale.

Mortgage holder Delaware Community Investment Corp. (DCIC) purchased the theater for $282,500.

In November, Milton Theatre parent company Milton Development Corp. defaulted on a mortgage of more than $1 million owed to DCIC.

The nonprofit organization was unable to pay a $6,000-a-month mortgage on the theater property and a nearby Victorian-era home it had purchased in 2006 for about $600,000. The theater group had planned to keep a rear lot that was part of the home parcel but resell the home.

The home did not sell, however, and the theater board was unable to meet the mortgage, forcing the sale of both properties. Officials said the theater board does not plan to buy back the home.

DCIC bought the home at the sheriff’s sale for $137,500. Calls to DCIC have not been returned.

Duby said the theater is getting outstanding community support. “The fundraising is reaching out to broader audiences all the time, and we’ve been happy with the response so far.

“We have every reason to believe we’re going to pull together enough money because a lot of people want the theater to go forward,” Duby said.

Theater board member Libby Zando said the organization is working with several local businesses that have joined the fundraising effort.

“Bethany Blues is helping us on Wednesday, Oct. 13, with 10 percent of the proceeds for the theater if a coupon is used,” she said. Coupons will be available outside the Route 1 restaurant.

Zando said Abbott’s Grill in Milford is hosting a brunch Sunday, Oct. 17, with 20 percent of the sale of featured artwork and 10 percent of brunch sales going to the theater. A print by renowned Delaware artist Edward Loper will also be raffled at the grill.

“We’re trying to work with businesses on different things besides just asking for donations. We’re doing things that might not be monetary immediately but develops business for everybody and creates cash,” Zando said.

Ellen Passman, theater board president, said the facility is booked through Saturday, Oct. 23.

“We don’t want anybody to have the impression that we’re closing our doors and life will not go on,” she said.

For more information on Milton Theatre events and fundraising efforts, call 684-3400 or go to For information about Abbott’s Grill call 302-491-6736. »

Donovan-Burke also remembers seeing a scary movie there in 1956, during Milton’s 150th anniversary celebration.

“I don’t remember what it was. It was something like Green Slime or The Blob,” she said. After seeing the film she said she was so scared she ran three blocks home in record time.

She said theater-owner Ed Scott also operated a luncheonette called Scottie’s. “That was a frequent gathering spot for everyone. The snack bar had cherry cokes and hamburgers,” Donovan-Burke recalled. Medford King of Milton worked in the theater when he was a teen. He was an usher and also did a few other jobs. “I got 50 cents for Saturday night, and I got to go to movies free all week. That was a big deal then,” he said.

A friend suggested he get a job there because he hung around the theater so much. King, 82, has lived in Milton most of his life.

“Saturday nights when it started getting full, people would be looking for a seat and I’d say ‘There’s some down here,’ and they’d follow me down, sit down and that was it,” King said.

He never ushered during the week because there weren’t many customers. He said he didn’t carry a flashlight to get people to their seats because there was enough light to get the job done. For the three or four years he worked at the theater, he said he remembers getting only one tip – 50 cents.

King said downtown Milton is much different now than it was when he was young. He worked in the theater during the time of racial segregation. “In the balcony it was blacks on the right and whites on the left.”

The town had two hardware stores, including one that sold furniture, a grocery store and clothing stores. Today’s theater is also much different from the theater of his youth.

“They had a big marquee up there. That’s a cheap one compared to the one they used to have,” he said.

King sometimes changed letters on the marquee, putting up the name of new movies and their stars.

“The fire hall was right there,” King said pointing to a section of the building that now serves as a lobby entrance.

“Right in the middle, where the double doors are now, was where the girls sold tickets. I remember the girls who worked there. There was Pearl Betts, she lived right across the street from me. I played with her when we were kids, and there was Norma Spencer,” he said.

King said Scott bought a popcorn machine and he helped make and sell popcorn. “That was a big deal then. I just poured the popcorn in and then poured the oil in and turned it on. You could hear it popping all over the place,” he said.

He said he doesn’t remember the titles of any movies he saw, but he knows many were cowboy films.

King said when he was working there, the theater was a busy place. “People really went to the movies then. Nothing else to do.”

October events support the theatre

• Band Jam to Save the Milton Theatre on Tuesdays from 7-11 p.m., starting Oct. 5. Donation is $5 for public; $10 for musicians. Doors open at 6:45 p.m.

• Jazz Jam to Save the Milton Theatre on Thursdays, starting Oct. 7. Tickets are $5 for public; $10 for musicians. Doors open at 6:45 p.m.

• Oh Boy! A Tribute to Buddy Holly, 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 9. Tickets: $20, general admission; $18, seniors; $18, students (18 and under); and $18, military

• Teen Night with movie and DJ, 7-11 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15. Admission $5

• Jazz and Art followed by Signorello and the John Blount/Dave Tucker Big Band, 7 p.m. Art show in lobby (proceeds of sales benefit theatre) followed by performance. Tickets: $18, general; $15, seniors; $15 students; and $15 military

• Showing of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22, and 11 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23. Bags of props will be sold to support the theater

Participation encouraged

Milton Theatre timeline

Building built following 1909 fire that destroyed most of downtown Milton

Prior to use as a theater the building was a boarding house

Building was the Milton Garage around 1915

First reference to the building’s use as a theatre dates to the 1920s when it was called Ida Fox’s Theatre

Small building attached to the theater was second home of the Milton Fire Company. Fire company later purchases the Fox Theater and building housing the company

In late 1938, a fire causes significant damage to the theater

In May 1939, building rebuilt and fire company leases it to E.M. Scott. Scott reopens building as a theater with a seating capacity of 434

Scott family operates theater into the 1960s

Floodwater caused by Storm of 1962 damages building. After repairs, films are shown into the mid-1960s

Beginning in the 1970s, after closing as a theater, a portion of building becomes Roxie’s Restaurant

In 1998, Milton Development Corp., doing business as Milton Theatre, buys building and in 2000 begins restoration

In 2006 Milton Development Corp purchases nearby house and lot

In 2009 Milton Development Corp defaults on loan; theater goes to auction Sept. 21

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