Theaters focus on getting moviegoers to return

The iconic Clayton Theatre, a Main Street landmark in Dagsboro since the late 1940s, is among the theaters in Delaware that recently reopened. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

DAGSBORO — Dahria Kalmbach began working at the Clayton Theatre in downtown Dagsboro as a 16-year-old high school student.

Now 20, she still works there.

Tuesday was her day off. And where was she?

“Here … at work,” said Dahria, with a chuckle.

She accompanied her mom, Andrea Kalmbach to see “Mamma Mia” — one of the movie classics Clayton owner Joanne Howe is showing during the theater’s reopening.

“On her night off, she is coming to see the movies,” said Ms. Kalmbach.

With social distancing and public safety protocols in place, the historic Clayton Theatre, dark since mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic struck, reopened its doors with movie entertainment June 19.

Notable blasts from the past — “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Jurassic Park” — were the first films to grace the screen in the long-awaited revival of the last first-run, single-screen movie theater still in operation in Delaware.

Wearing her Clayton Theatre employee mask, Dahria Kalmbach, right, on a night off from work takes in “Mama Mia” with her mom, Andrea Kalmbach Tuesday night at the historic theater in Dagsboro. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

As expected, business has been slow. Ms. Howe attributes that to ongoing apprehension and concerns brought on by the pandemic.

“It has been a very slow opening. I am anticipating it being slow for a little while,” said Ms. Howe. “And I am hoping that more and more people will hear that we are open and be willing to come out and give us a try, because we are trying to maintain all of the protocol that we need to keep everybody safe.”

It’s a similar scenario at the Rehoboth Beach Film Society’s Cinema Art Theater, which reopened June 5. Cinema Art Theater has about a half-dozen films going on in a two-screen theater on Truitt Avenue behind the Lewes Wawa.

“We deal with a much older clientele who are at that very susceptible age,” said Rehoboth Beach Film Society executive director Sue Early. “Even though the governor is allowing us the 60% seating capacity, we’re still only doing 25% because we are trying to get people to feel that it is safe enough to come out. Our seats are washable. They are not cloth. They get cleaned in between films. But our attendance, unfortunately, is very, very low.”

Savanna Sykes mans the ticket booth as Joanne Howe, owner of the Clayton Theatre, stands outside the Dagsboro theater that reopened June 19 after a three-month shutdown during the coronavirus crisis. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

Only 25 seats in CAT’s main theater are available for admission for each screening, while only nine seats in the secondary JEMS Theater will be available for purchase.

Ms. Early understands the public’s concern and apprehension. “When you hear there are spikes in 26 other states, it’s a little bit scary,” she said.

For those preferring to remain in the comfort of their homes, Ms. Early said Cinema Art Theater has a movie-streaming offer.

“You go online, and you click the film that you want to see that we’ve listed as ‘streaming,’ and it brings you to a link that you register for and you pay. The fee is determined by the distributor, but it can be between $8 and $12. But if you have two or more people in your home, that’s quite a bargain … when you can’t get out of the house and you’re looking for entertainment, definitely,” Ms. Early said.

Clayton Theatre concessions/staff prepare for an evening movie showing at the Dagsboro landmark. From left, Leah Mitchell, Sarah Aleman and Veronica Culver. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

“The challenge is you need to understand the technology. It’s not that difficult but sometimes people, they don’t see themselves as computer savvy. But it is very easy. We even had ‘How to Do It’ videos. We send out a weekly email, and we had these videos on it to show people.”

Frequent sanitation and safe social distancing are as much a part of the show at the Clayton as the fresh hot popcorn, ice-cold soft drinks and concession goodies.

“We’re keeping separation in the auditorium. Every other row is blocked off. There are three seats between families. We’re doing the same up in balcony,” said Ms. Howe. “We have hand sanitizer. We have masks available if anybody doesn’t have one. We ask that people wear a mask coming in and moving through the theater, and once they are seated and having their concessions, they can take it off and enjoy the film.”

“We haven’t been really busy yet, so we have been able to maintain the 6-foot distancing in the lobby,” Ms. Howe said. “But if we start to get busy, we have trays that we are going to serve people at their seats to try to get people moving with their concessions faster. We’ve been wiping down seats between shows.”

In addition, the Clayton now has online ticketing available, “which we didn’t have before. That cuts down on people having to transfer money here at the theater,” said Ms. Howe.

The 7 p.m. showing of “Mamma Mia” followed “Shark Tale” and “The Muppet Movie” on Tuesday.

“We just thought by breaking it up a little bit, it would make it more interesting for people to come to the movies, to see something maybe they hadn’t before or something they really liked and want to see it again,” said Ms. Howe. “Or maybe they have never seen it on a big screen, period. Just seeing it on the big screen and having the whole movie experience is totally different, and I think more fun.”

For now, it’s three shows a day, three different movies.

“We’re going to be showing classics now,” said Ms. Howe. “The studios aren’t bringing out any features until the end of July. They want to wait until the majority of the theaters are open. Right now, we are playing these, and we’re hoping people will come out and see a good movie and enjoy an evening out.”

For the classic movie showings, the Clayton’s price is right: $5 admission.

“We took over in 2000. That was our first year, and we had our regular features back then that were $5,” said Ms. Howe. “We were running a few weeks behind with the movie titles then. Now, we’ve become more first-run on the break with a lot of our films.”

In reopening, Ms. Howe and staff are seeing both some familiar faces and newcomers.

“There was a couple in our first night, they had just moved to Millsboro in February. So then, of course, in March, everything shut down, and they have been waiting for us to open so they could come check it out. That was pretty cool,” said Ms. Howe.

Another couple, Jack and Dawn Timmons of Dagsboro, has frequented the Clayton on many occasions prior to and during their 44 years of marriage.

“We like to support local business,” said Mrs. Timmons. “And our grandson, Kyle, works here. He’s not working tonight, but he works here. (Ms. Howe) is so fabulous with her young people; I mean second to none.”

“I’m 66, … and I first came here, oh, back in the early ’60s,” said Mr. Timmons.

“Two years ago, we brought the grandkids, and they wanted to sit up there in balcony. We did. But it’s for young people,” said Mrs. Timmons.

A Dagsboro landmark on Main Street since the late 1940s, the Clayton Theatre was built by brothers-in-law Pete Hancock and “Skeet” Campbell in the post-World War II movie theater boom. On Feb. 2, 1949, after a year of construction, the Clayton Theatre opened with the romantic comedy “One Touch of Venus,” starring Ava Gardner and Robert Walker.

Dahria Kalmbach has a special love for the Clayton. “Mom misses it,” she said. “I missed our Monday Classics this year.”

For more information on the Clayton Theatre, visit

Current movies showing at Cinema Art Theater include “The 11th Green,” “Hope Gap,” “Babyteeth,” “Miss Juneteenth,” “Sometimes Always Never” and “Driveways.” Many other movies are available via streaming. For information, visit

At Atlantic Theaters’ The Movies at Midway in Rehoboth Beach, there is in-theater viewing and a virtual cinema option. Effective June 1, all theater seats were $6 each. Cash is not accepted at Midway. For showtimes, visit

Speaking for the theater world, Ms. Early hopes the community at large comes out to show its support.

“We just ask people to support their local theater,” said Ms. Early. “It’s tough times, and we hope to build and make it through. Two hours or an hour and 45 minutes away from your home in an environment that is cleaning, disinfecting and implementing safe practices — it is a good opportunity to just get out for a couple of hours. And the theaters could definitely appreciate their support of the community.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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