Best Bets: New book chronicles history of Delaware movie theaters

In 1946, the former Temple theater in Dover showed the Western “The Conquest of Cheyenne.” The cinema was on Loockerman Street in the area of the Army-Navy store.
Photos reprinted from “Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware” by Michael J. Nazarewycz
(Arcadia Publishing, 2019)

A couple of years ago, Michael Nazarewycz had a revelation. Growing up in Claymont in the 1970s and 80s, Mr. Nazarewycz spent much of youth in one movie theater or another.

“But one day it dawned on me that those theaters I went to are all gone,” said Mr. Nazarewycz, who now lives in Middletown.

“Tri-State, Branmar, the old Christiana Mall Cinema — they are all gone.”

A former film reviewer and blogger, he originally set out to write a piece detailing the movies he saw at these now-shuttered theaters while describing the venue and detailing seat count, screen count and when they closed.

“But then I started thinking about ‘What did I miss? What theaters didn’t I go to? What about those?’,” he said.

“Then as I started to get into it, I started to find stories about them that I never knew, such as Tri-State (in Claymont) being one of only 45 theaters to initially show ‘Star Wars’ or Clint Eastwood disguising himself and going into see ‘The Gauntlet’ at the Branmar Cinema (in Wilmington).

“As I found more and more of these stories, I knew they had to be told. So I approached The History Press about a book that talked about a span from about 1976 to 1993 in the history of theaters in New Castle County.”

However, the publishing company had other ideas.

“They suggested I do a book about the history of movie theaters in the whole state. They thought it would be manageable since we are so small and it would be a better sales opportunity for them to market it across the state,” he said.

“Of course I said yes and the number of theaters grew from 60 to 150 instantly.”

Thus “Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware” was born. The 208-page softcover book is a compendium of stories told chronologically of the people, places and buildings that have made up Delaware’s cinematic scene for the last 150 years, starting with the opening of the Middletown Opera House, which later became the Everett Theatre, in 1868.

It will be released Feb. 18 and can be ordered through Amazon.com.

The book is loaded with photos and tales that are sure to bring back memories for any longtime Delawarean.

The whole process took Mr. Nazarewycz about 20 months, starting in July of 2016.

“There was a joke around my house where every time I discovered a theater that I didn’t know existed, I would shout ‘I found another one’,” he said.

Michael Nazarewycz

“The Public Archives (in Dover) had a lot of neat stuff. They had a picture of a theater in Bethany Beach that I hadn’t come across so that was a nice find. There are lots of historical societies across the state. I’ve made a lot of friends from the historical community throughout this journey.”

Original seats from the venerable Clayton Theatre and original tickets from the old Lewes Auditorium were just some of his finds throughout his time researching the book.

Instead of writing chapters on specific towns or theaters, the book is written chronologically, starting from the late 1800s to today.

“I looked at a couple of samples of books from other cities, which encapsulated stories of the theaters themselves. But I knew I wanted there to be themes,” Mr. Nazarewycz said.

“So I presented the advance of technology as one overarching theme — from magic lanterns to silent films to sound on up until today. There is also a theme about segregation, adult films, things like that. And the best way to represent them would be as a narrative rather than stories about the individual theaters. I didn’t think flipping through 17 different entries would capture it well enough.”

Throughout his research, Mr. Nazarewycz, 50, was surprised by a few things. Chiefly among them was the sheer amount of theaters that have existed in Delaware.

“The number surprised me as well as the number of name changes. But I always considered it one entity. So if a theater went from the Earl to the Colonial to the Elaine, it was still one theater,” he said.

“I was also pleasantly surprised by the amount of usage these theaters got from the community, whether it was a political rally or a community event. It wasn’t just entertainment.”

Another thing that took him by surprise were the number of theaters that burned down, such as the Smyrna Opera House on Christmas night in 1948. Fifty years later, the campaign started to rebuild it into the performing arts center that stands today.

“I started to compile on Excel the number of fires at each theater. I’m not sure if it was the nitrate stock of the film or the poor safety rules, but they were common enough that I had to keep track of them.”

Not only are the theaters talked about but also the people who owned and operated them.

Notable to downstaters, Reese Harrington and Muriel Schwartz are two of them.

Mr. Harrington, who owned theaters in the Wilmington area, also opened The Reese in Harrington. It was home to the first 3D-movie showing (“Hiawatha”) in the state and the biggest screen downstate for a period.

The Ball Theatre in Millsboro was in business from 1938 to 1974 and is currently being restored.

“He was a true visionary. Way ahead of his time,” Mr. Nazarewycz said.

The Schwartz family were true pioneers in Delaware movie theaters. They owned cinemas up and down the state. In 1917, George Schwartz began an empire that started with the Temple Theater on Loockerman Street in Dover, where the Army-Navy store now stands, Dover’s Capitol, Smyrna’s Strand and Middletown’s Everett. After he passed in 1942, his wife, Reba, and daughter Muriel took over the business, expanding both north and south.

The family stayed in the business until 1979.

Muriel Schwartz famously screened such risky films such as the X-rated “Deep Throat” and the horror film “The Exorcist.”

“She was a smart business woman and a champion of showing more adult fare and really got into the center of all of that controversy back then,” Mr. Nazarewycz said.

As word has gotten out about the book, he is starting to run into folks connected with that bygone era. They have started to share more tales with him.

“I spoke with the husband of Huck Betts’ granddaughter recently,” he said.

Mr. Betts, a former professional baseball player, owned The Ball Theatre in Millsboro, which was in business from from to 1938 to 1974 and is currently being restored.

Not having the space in the book to interview people directly, Mr. Nazarewicz is looking to start a website where he can share more of the knowledge he gained during his research.

Many of the movie palaces of yesteryear are now being replaced by gigantic multiplexes showing 10 and 12 films under one roof. Many are showing the same one, noted Mr. Nazarewicz.

“That’s the business model they have to follow these days. But it’s funny. They are now putting recliners in the theaters. So they are trying to model the home experience. It used to be homes used to try to be more like the theater experience. But times change I guess.”

Steffi and Tim at State House

Tonight, Delaware Friends of Folk will present the next event in their 2018-19 Old State House concert series, inside the Old State House on The Green in Dover.

The featured artists for the evening are the Dover-based duo of Steffi and Tim.

First meeting at a study abroad trip to England in 2008 while students at the University of Delaware, Steffi Holmes and Tim Plimpton compared musical notes and then spent time performing together as a hobby until marrying in 2013 and forming the duo Steffi and Tim.

The two spent hours while in Newark in the school’s practice room just hanging out and performing together. Mr. Plimpton who was a trombone major, is equally adept on the piano while Ms. Holmes is an accomplished singer.

Currently, Ms. Holmes, a Dover native, is the Catholic director of music ministries at Dover Air Force Base and a private voice and beginning piano teacher while Mr. Plimpton, from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is part of the music faculty at Wesley College and also praise and worship leader at Wesley United Methodist Church in Dover.

The two have written dozens of songs; Ms. Holmes writes the words while Mr. Plimpton does the music. Their originals run the gamut from blues to easy listening. When not doing their own songs they perform standards such as “My Funny Valentine”, “Body and Soul”, and other tunes from the great American songbook.

The series is produced in cooperation with the First State Heritage Park and is supported by grants from several local businesses. The concert is free and open to the public. The-one hour performance will begin at 7:30 pm. Seating is limited.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

As we told you last week, Second Street Players will present “To Kill A Mockingbird,” dramatized by Christopher Sergel from the book by Harper Lee, today through Sunday.

Curtain is at 7 p.m. for the Friday and Saturday shows and 2 p.m. for the Sunday shows.

Due to renovations at the Riverfront Theater all performances will be held at Milford High School, 1019 N. Walnut St.

Tickets are $17 and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com or by calling the box office at 800-838-3006. For more information please visit secondstreetplayers.com.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was first published in 1960. The novel by Harper Lee was immediately successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has since become a classic of modern American literature.

The plot and characters are loosely based on the author’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.

Now Showing

New in theaters this weekend is the Liam Neeson action film “Cold Pursuit,” the animated “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” the horror film “The Prodigy” and Taraji P. Henson and Tracy Morgan in the romantic comedy “What Men Want.”

On DVD and download starting Tuesday is the Queen film “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the romantic comedy “Nobody’s Fool,” the Gary Hart film “The Front Runner” and the Vincent Van Gogh biopic “At Eternity’s Gate.”

Reach features editor Craig Horleman at chorl@newszap.com

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