“I was 12 years old when the Clayton opened for its very first movie, ‘One Touch of Venus,’ in 1949. I believe I rode my bike there from my home on Clayton Street,” recalled Joe Kollock Jr. “The Clayton Theatre was new and modern, with bright light bulbs under the marquee. It was so bright. For little old Dagsboro, getting a movie theater was a big deal.”
In “Memories of the Clayton Theatre: A Look Back,” Kollock and many others share their heartfelt memories of the single-screen theater that was opened on Feb. 2, 1949, by Alvin “Skeet” Campbell and Elwood “Pete” Hancock.
Earlier this year, Sandie Hancock Gerken, daughter of Pete and Marian Hancock, began collecting memories from the community about their experience with the theater.
“Joanne Howe [the theater’s current owner] told me about the Hollywood studios decision to convert motion pictures to digital and doing away with the 35mm film altogether,” she recalled. “It’s much less expensive for them to do that, but it’s very expensive for all theaters — but especially for the single-screen and drive-in theaters, it’s an outrageous expense.
“I got to thinking, ‘What if? What if she can’t afford to buy the equipment? What if it closes for the first time since I can ever remember?’” Gerken said. “I thought, ‘I know I have a lot of memories, along with my sisters and cousins,’ and I wanted to get those written down. Plus, I knew my friends, and of people who met there, got married and are still together… I wanted to collect and preserve as many memories as I could and put it in a book form for everyone and share them.”
“I’m a little overwhelmed by the response,” Gerken acknowledged. “People really seem to want it. I know a lot of people who gave me memories really want to read it.”
Gerken put their memories, along with her own memories and those of her sisters Jane and Beth and cousins Joanne and Lucinda — known as “the Clayton Girls” — into “Memories of the Clayton Theatre: A Look Back,” a 165-page book that shares various memorabilia, memories and the theater’s history.
Hancock and Campbell got the idea to open a movie theater in Dagsboro, which was built in 1948, from Reese Harrington, who owned a theater in Harrington called The Reese.
“He kind of encouraged them to go into the movie business. Most towns had a movie theater of some description back in the ’30s and ’40s. So they followed his advice and went into business together, built the movie theater, and they operated it,” said Gerken. “The first movie was Feb. 2, 1449, ‘One Touch of Venus’ with Ava Gardner. They retired from the movie business in 1973, when they sold it. It’s had four additional owners since then.”
Tickets to shows at the Clayton originally cost 50 cents for adults and 20 cents for kids. In the late 1960s, the price would rise to 60 cents for adults and 40 cents for kids. Today, tickets cost $8.50 for adults and $6.50 for kids.
“Even now it’s a bargain,” added Gerken.
Each copy of the new book costs $20, and Gerken said she will be donating the proceeds from the first 100 copies sold to the Clayton Theatre for its fundraising efforts.
“Just since yesterday I sold 48 copies,” shared Gerken. “I hope to sell all I have printed, and it’d be nice to go for another printing.”
Photographs appear throughout the book, from images of the theater to the people who worked and attended films there. In the book, Gerken was able to print memories shared by more 120 people who contributed.
“Most people were saying they have three favorite memories: First, they remember my dad, Pete Hancock, and my uncle, Skeet Campbell, patrolling the isles with their flashlights to keep order and to keep the kids’ noise down,” she said. “The second most common memory was of the popcorn machine. It was an old Popcorn Sez vending machine, where you put your dime in, pulled out your paper bag and put it under the hopper, where it would dispense the popcorn. People said it was the best popcorn they’ve ever eaten.”
Gerken said that a bag of popcorn from the Sez cost 10 cents.
“It didn’t pop the popcorn — it just kept it warm,” she said with a laugh. “It came in this great big box. My dad would make us playhouses, cut windows and doors out in them,” she recalled of what happened to the boxes afterward.
Gerken said that many people she talked to also mentioned the live stage shows that were held at the theater in the 1950s.
“In 1954, a Grade B movie actor named Lash LaRue came to perform a show. He did a live stage show with his bullwhip, and he called people up out of the audience, which was mostly kids, and whipped cigarettes and straws out of their mouths and hands. Can you imagine? With no parental permission!” she said with a laugh.
“I remember my Uncle Skeet went back into the closet and pulled out old cardboard movie posters in the aisles and up front for people to sit on. Lash autographed photographs of himself, which people remember getting.”
A number of memories also revolve around the Clayton Cut Rate Luncheonette, once located in one of the storefronts connected to the theater.
“It was mostly a soda fountain, but there were patent medicine drugs, cosmetics, and it was just the general drugstore/soda fountain combination. Popcorn was the only thing you could get in the lobby, but you could go next-door and get your fountain Coke or other sodas and milkshakes, candy and chips — whatever you wanted.”
Gerken said that Abbott’s Ice Cream from Philadelphia, Pa., which has since gone out of business, was served at the Cut Rate and was a favorite of the patrons there.
“It was a wonderful ice cream. They had a flavor called Orange Ice that the closest thing I could say it was like would be a very fine granita. It wasn’t a sorbet or a sherbet. That was very, very popular.”
Gerken’s mom was the Cut Rate’s cook, serving sandwiches and soups to patrons.
“Once the S&J Drive-In opened down the street, that became the place to eat your lunch and dinner, and for kids to hang out after a movie,” she explained. “So they stopped having lunches, but they did have at one time a hotdog machine that was like a laminated board with prongs sticking out of it. You’d put the hotdog in the bun, put it in a wax paper bag, stick it on the prongs and turn it on, and it’ll electrocute the hotdog. That’s a very unusual thing, and people remembered that, ‘that very weird hotdog machine.’”
But, according to Gerken, many kids went to the Cut Rate after school and after the movies to share Cokes and other goodies.
“My dad invented different drinks. He had one called the Clayton Special, which was pretty much a chocolaty drink that was fizzy. He made zips, chocolate zips, vanilla zips, lemon zips, which were flavors with milk and a little carbonated water to add some fizz to it.”
Gerken said she remembers many “episodes of mischief” created by moviegoers, many of which involved animals.
“At one time someone brought a pigeon into the movie theater and let it loose. It made its way up and sat in the window where the film came out and sat in the ray of the film light. A guy brought a snake in one time, a bag of birds — just for fun. No bad intent or anything, they were just little mischief kinds of things.”
Even though Gerken’s family hasn’t owned the theater for decades, she still gets nostalgic for her childhood at the theater.
“I don’t like to say buildings hold memories, because the memories are in your own heart, but there’s such a familiarity with the building. And I do feel, even though it has been such a long time since my family had ownership of it, a sense of belonging there,” she said.
“My two sisters and my two cousins and I, we kind of grew up there, lived there maybe more than our houses when we were very young kids. It was our playhouse, our babysitter. We rode our bicycles down the aisles, pretended we were movie stars on the stage. We just had a great time. We’d turn the lights off and play scary games… It was really a lot of fun. It was a good place to grow up.”
The Clayton Theatre’s current owner has been trying to raise money since the beginning of the year to help offset the cost of installing new digital projection equipment that would replace the two original 35mm MotioGraph projectors. Aside from holding fundraising benefits, selling T-shirts and receiving donations, the Clayton has been holding Monday night Clayton Classics, showing classic films for $4 per person.
“With the Clayton Classics that Mrs. Howe has been showing for the fundraising efforts, that feeling of togetherness and camaraderie, it ends up being a social event, as well as going to see good old movies,” she said.
“We tend to think of them as being more primitive. But there are some excellently done, and very well directed, black-and-white movies. I fell in love with Humphrey Bogart. Then they showed Jimmy Stewart, and I fell in love with Jimmy Stewart. And then there was John Wayne.”
After a summer hiatus, the Clayton Classics have resumed. On Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. and Oct. 2 at 2:30 p.m., the theater will present “Zulu,” and in the month of October the theater will be showing classic horror films to celebrate the Halloween season.
“I’m really looking forward to that,” said Gerken, who noted she hasn’t missed a Clayton Classic yet. “Sci-fi and horror movies are my favorite genre. I was really surprised when I heard they were going to show ‘The Birds.’ I told my husband, who had never seen it, ‘It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen!’ And when I watched it, it wasn’t scary at all! Except in the parts when the birds were gathering on the telephone wires in the playground and there was complete silence.”
Gerken said that not much has changed in all those years, when one is sitting inside the theater, sharing the magic that movies have to offer with other viewers.
“It was a big thing to have back in 1949. It was the place to go. There weren’t many things for young people to do until it was summer and beach time, unless you had school or church activities. Going to the movies — it was a place to meet your friends and meet new friends, laugh. It was a social event as much as it was to go for the entertainment.
“Today, having the last remaining small family-owned single screen movie theater left in the state of Delaware is a unique thing. It’s still operating after almost 65 years,” she said, marveling. “It is a different experience to see a motion picture in a larger auditorium, on a bigger screen. I feel there’s more of a family feel when you’re in there, where everyone is experiencing this movie together. I don’t feel that when I go to the multiplex. People laugh at the same time. They clap at the end.”
In the history section of her book, Gerken shared an invoice from the National Screen Service Corporation of New York, N.Y., dated Jan. 25, 1949, listing the exact wording for the handbill to be presented to the patrons of the newly opened theater.
“To the People of Dagsboro and its Surrounding Communities: It is with a great deal of pride that we present to you your New Clayton Theatre. It is our wish and hope that you will come here often to find enjoyment and entertainment. We guarantee to give you the best pictures available and that this theater will be the center of entertainment for this entire community.”
And for nearly 65 years the Clayton Theatre has done just that. Gerken said she hopes that the Clayton will continue to serve the community as a place to entertain and make memories for years to come.
“I really hope that the Clayton will stay in business for generations to come. I have collections of memories from my childhood right up through my grandchildren’s childhood memories. I’ve had people say, ‘I’ve gone there. My parents went there. And now my grandkids are going there.’ I’d love to see more generations enjoy movies at the Clayton Theatre.”
Copies of “Memories of the Clayton Theatre: A Look Back” may be purchased at the Clayton Theatre’s box office, Wayne’s Barbershop immediately adjacent to the theater, Jayne’s Reliable: Furniture and Sundries and from Gerken, who may be reached at (302) 732-6835 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Clayton Theatre is located at 900 Main Street in Dagsboro. For more information, to find out the latest showings or to donate, call (302) 732-3744 or visit www.theclaytontheater.com or www.facebook.com/pages/The-Clayton-Theatre.