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It took the village of Dagsboro to help save Clayton Theater

DAGSBORO—Through an outpouring of community support—and a little Hollywood-styled luck—the Clayton Theater managed to upgrade its movie projection systems by converting to digital technology on March 7, allowing the 65-year-old movie house to continue to show first-run films, like its current showing of “Son of God.”
On many levels Joanne Howe had a horrible 2013. When we last we checked in on Howe it was February 2013 and she seemed optimistic, but a little shaky, and why wouldn’t she? She had lost the love of her life, her husband Ed, late September in 2012 and had found herself facing an industry upgrade-or-lose edict in January 2013.
When the Howes moved to the Eastern Shore they landed in Berlin, but moved to Dagsboro when an opportunity arose to buy the Clayton in 2000. Ed was a developer and the couple thought running a neighborhood movie theater “would be a fun venture,” she said. Besides, Howe noted, since her dad’s name was Clayton, “I thought that was pretty cool.”
It is obvious to see that the Howes tried to retain much of the building’s original elements. The art deco design embellishments of the theater are evident from the outside marque to the interior wall covering, lighting and paneling features of the 350-seat theater.
There have been some essential modern conveniences added. The seating includes comfortable chairs, complete with cup holders; the lobby is decorated with vintage movie posters, which are also for sale; speakers were added; and the concession stand is stocked full of the usual popcorn and movie munchies. It is also very clean.
The theater showed movies in 35 millimeter celluloid film on the original MotioGraph projector that came with the building, which was built in 1948, but the new era of cinema was going digital. Film manufacturer Kodak was in bankruptcy and Fuji was no longer making 35 mm film stock.
So the major studios last year alerted their affiliated theaters they would no longer be printing film in the 35 mm format and that a conversion to the new digital technology would be necessary. The news hit the nation’s 2,000 to 3,000 small town theaters like Howe’s hard because it meant making an $85,000 investment to update equipment. It was clear some venues would not survive the conversion.
Howe began a “Save the Place” campaign to try to raise the funding needed for the upgrade at the Clayton.
 Then a series of miraculous events occurred.
Howe announced she would be showing movie classics to save her theater, which she said received widespread coverage by the local media. As a result, on the first night of the campaign 200 people showed up. Sandie Hancock Gerken, a daughter of the family that originally owned the theater compiled a commemorative book, “Memories of the Clayton Theatre: A Look Back,” and printed 350 copies so the proceeds could benefit the effort.
Two local bands, the Buddy Holly tribute band “Oh Boy!”, and the blues, and rock and roll band Skinny Leg Pet, held benefit concerts from the theater’s stage that Howe said had audiences “literally dancing in the aisles.”
The Dagsboro Volunteer Fire Department sponsored an event that raised $10,000 for the theater. In addition, Howe sold t-shirts, held special events, literally pulling out all the stops to try to raise the funds necessary to purchase the needed equipment. “By the end of the summer we were halfway there,” Howe said.
Many of the studios have helped the small movie houses too. As the end of 2013 neared they announced they would continue to print on 35 mm until they expended their inventories. “The decision to continue to use the film stock remaining gives small theaters a little more time,” Howe said. “They were making the elimination at a slower pace to hopefully get people like us in,” she added.
By November, Howe said, “I could see we were getting really close to our goal.” Close, but not exactly.
Then in February the digital projector manufacturer made an astounding announcement. It had managed to streamline its production process, creating a smaller and significantly less expensive digital projection system. The price of the new projector, according to Howe—$6,500.
“We didn’t need a full-blown system,” she said. She did not need the add-on to show 3-D features either, since the patrons she asked did not express much interest in 3-D movies. “They don’t like wearing the glasses,” she said. But what she did add was a feature that would allow hearing impaired movie-goers to hear, as well as see, all the action with special headsets.
“I know Ed would be thrilled to hear this new system,” Howe sad. He had developed a problem with his hearing. “He liked sitting in the back, but was forced to sit in the middle” of the rows of seats so he could hear what was going on, she added. She paused when she was reminded that the new system might be viewed as a tribute of sorts to her late husband, because it would allow him to sit wherever he wanted without missing a thing.
Now the new equipment is installed and the conversion is complete.
With the new technology Howe said she can offer special screenings, including DVDs and PowerPoint presentations for corporate meetings or selected reserved movie events for organizations and church groups. She can reserve sections of the theater for groups or party events, including the 75 seats in the upstairs balcony. She said she can even show simulcast broadcasts, which she is considering doing for the next Super Bowl.
Howe said this summer she wants to show Warner Bros.’s remake of the sci-fi classic “Godzilla,” which is scheduled to premiere in May.
Howe became emotional as she reflected over the challenges, uncertainties, and ultimately triumphs that occurred in less than a one-year span of time. “We’ve been so blessed,” she said. “I always had faith,” she said as she lightly dabbed at her eyes. She stopped for a moment and then also admitted there were times “I had my doubts throughout.” She credited Gerken and her family for helping keep her spirits up when the goal seemed too formidable. “They really inspired me and helped me have a more positive outlook,” Howe said.
“I can’t thank everyone enough for their support and encouragement over the past year,” she said. To show her gratitude she held a special screening of “Saving Mr. Banks,” as a thank you gesture for her supporters. The community effort will now allow her to “Continue to give people the best entertainment for the best price,” she said.
On Monday evenings the doors open at 6:15 p.m. and the movie begins at 7 p.m., for the “Clayton Classics” series, which cost $4. The theater is closed all day on Tuesdays. Regular-priced tickets for adults are $8.50 and $6.50 for children, senior citizens and matinees. Matinees are shown at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The theater can also be rented for special events.
The theater is located at 33246 Main St., in Dagsboro, Del. The theater telephone number is 302-732-9606, and the box office telephone number is 302-732-3744.