BEST BETS: Schwartz Center closing headlines bittersweet 2017 in local entertainment

Actress Vivica A. Fox stands with co-star Paul Anthony on the red carpet as the film “Jason’s Letter” premiered at the Schwartz Center for the Arts in June. The majority of the movie was filmed in Dover earlier this year. (Delaware State News file photo)

When the book on local entertainment in 2017 is written, it will be led by the sad chapter of the Schwartz Center for the Arts closing its doors after an almost 16-year run.

After rumors were heard around town for a few weeks prior, the news officially broke on June 8 that the venerable Dover theater would be ceasing operations on June 30.

“While ticket sales have increased significantly, overall revenue has not been enough to sustain the business. With looming cuts to art and education funding within the state and the overwhelming cost of overhead on the building, we are forced to close the theater,” board president Tracey Miller said in a press release.

“The theater has done well this last year but has run out of money and time. The board of the theater has worked tirelessly this past year to find a way to keep the nonprofit solvent and relevant.”

The 550-seat Schwartz Center on South State Street is owned by Wesley College and Delaware State University.

Wesley President Robert Clark and David Sheppard, general counsel for Delaware State University, said in interviews this summer that while both institutions were committed to leasing the building to an arts group, they were not in positions to continue subsidizing the venue.

The center’s final event was the June 11 premiere of “Jason’s Letter,” a movie filmed mostly in Dover that featured city officials such as Mayor Robin Christiansen and City Councilman William Hare.

The red carpet event featured stars of the film, including Vivica A. Fox and Joseph Gannascoli of “The Sopranos.”

At the event, Mayor Christiansen vowed that it would not be the Schwartz Center’s final bow. He planned to pull community members together to brainstorm ways to bring the performing arts center back.

“We’re going to get some people, some ‘rain makers’ in a room and figure this out,” Mayor Christiansen said.

“Today showcases what can be done in Dover. We’re going to get some more movies here and try to become the Hollywood of the East.”

In September, Dover City Council President Tim Slavin, who has corraled community interest in reopening the theater, outlined an action plan for getting there. In November, a working group met in a public charette, or meeting of stakeholders, with an ultimate reopening celebration eyed for May 4, which is the Friday of the Dover Days Festival in 2018.

Mr. Slavin has said that while many issues must be figured out, a common theme is clear.

“One thing we did come away with: There’s always an option to simply do nothing. We agreed that the ‘do nothing option’ is not an option. This community wants this building back open. It’s good for quality of life,” he said. “It was really a wonderful moment for Dover. We’re just going to keep the momentum going.”

The theater did reopen for one weekend in November when the Children’s Theater staged the holiday production “A Dickens Christmas Carol.”

Per an agreement with the theater, the Children’s Theater was responsible for all operations during the shows on Nov. 17 and 18, which included ushering and cleanup duties.

The first Battle of the Schwartz Lip Sync Contest raised $65,000 for the Schwartz Center for the Arts in February. (Submitted photo)

The second Battle of the Schwartz Lip Sync Contest was to be held at the theater in February but those plans were postponed last week as negotiations for reopening are continuing.

The inaugural version, which raised $65,000 for the Schwartz, was held on Valentine’s Day weekend this year.

Dr. Kenny Vu, a family physician in Dover, took home the prized belt at the end of the night as community notables and groups performed free-wheeling skits while lip-synching to popular songs in front of judges and a raucous sold-out crowd.

A Delaware Symphony Orchestra brass quintet concert that had been previously scheduled for the Schwartz Center this month was instead held at Central Middle School in Dover.

All profits from the event went toward efforts to repoen the Schwartz. Rosemary Twilley, a local arts advocate whose Kent County Fund for the Arts raises money for local arts organizations, underwrote the costs of bringing the quintet to Dover.

Firefly fervor

This year’s sixth annual Firefly Music Festival at The Woodlands of Dover International Speedway featured a record five headliners — Muse, Bob Dylan, Twenty One Pilots, Chance the Rapper and The Weeknd and catered more toward hip-hop, pop and electronica music fans in 2017. It was the first “fan curated” Firefly where surveys

Davey Havok lead singer of the band AFI leaps on the the Firefly main stage in June. (Delaware State News file photo)

determined the music lineup, food and attractions, among other things.

Although unconfirmed by organizers, there was anecdotal evidence for a reduced crowd size at this year’s festival. Prior to the June weekend, organizers said they were expecting to reach close to 90,000 attendees — like they did last year. However, a tour of the festival grounds at peak traffic hours showed that number to be optimistic.

Cycle rickshaw driver Matt Soha noticed right away when the festival started that he was spending a bit more time curbside waiting for fares than he had in previous years.

“I don’t know exactly yet how much I’ll make over the whole festival,” he said. “But there definitely seems to be less people here overall from last year and the year before.”

Music fans noticed it too, especially during the main headliners who would have ordinarily filled the viewing areas to capacity.

“Twenty One Pilots filled out the main stage area pretty well when they were playing, but during some of the other big acts like Bob Dylan there were big gaps in the field — a lot of people had room to roll out full-size blankets and lay down not too far from the stage,” said Lance Barkley of Philadelphia.

New attractions this year featured a portable stage called The Rambler, which was a Humvee tricked out with equipment to act as a mobile stage to showcase impromptu pop-up performances throughout The Woodlands; a multi-level bar and patio called The Fort, made of recycled materials; a jellyfish-inspired art installation in the pathway; and all-important flushable toilets.

Fair fodder

This year’s Delaware State Fair drew about 288,000 visitors in 2017, an increase of 25,000 from the year before.

The first few days of the fair saw some of the hottest temperatures of the year, but the weather cooled down by the end of the fair’s run.

Country musicians Jon Pardi and Chris Lane opened the fair July 19 at the M&T Bank Grandstand. Throughout the next 10 days, Darius Rucker, comedian Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias, Rascal Flatts, Christian artist Crowder and Brantley Gilbert performed, with close to 50,000 attendees.

Meredith Schiff, 8, of Harrington with her cow before the Dairy Cattle Show in the Quillen Arena at the Delaware State Fair in July. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

More than 3,100 goats, pigs, sheep, horses, ponies, rabbits and poultry, along with two giraffes and 12 camels were also present at the fair.

More than 4,000 people attended July 22’s craft beer festival, which featured a performance by Foghat along with four other classic rock acts and more than 25 brews.

Casino concerts

Dover Downs’ Rollins Center and Harrington Raceway and Casino’s Exhibit Hall saw national acts come through for concerts.

Comedian Steven Wright had to cancel a January show in Dover due to illness but made up for it with an April appearance that featured the legendary surreal jokester performing 90 minutes of scattershot humor to an appreciative crowd.

Fellow comic and former talk show host Arsenio Hall performed standup at the Rollins Center in September.

Dover Downs saw musical groups En Vogue, The Guess Who and 38 Special along with Aaron Neville’s holiday show earlier this month.

Down in Harrington, country musicians Ronnie Milsap, Joe Nichols and Jo Dee Messina played the Exhibit Hall stage as did classic pop groups Herman’s Hermits and Three Dog Night.

For Ms. Messina, it was her last concert before taking a break to undergo cancer treatment.

Festival fervor

Kicking off the 300th anniversary celebration for the city of Dover, the 84th annual Dover Days Festival was successful as ever in May.

The mother of all Kent County community festivals kicked off on the traditional first Friday of the month on Legislative Mall with local band 33 1/3 performing and Mayor Christiansen with members of Dover’s City Council cutting Dover’s 300th birthday cake. Fireworks capped off the night at dusk.

Revolutionary War soldier re-enactors march in the Dover Days parade in May. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Despite a threatening forecast, thousands avoided the rain to line State Street for the nearly hour-long parade before heading to The Green and Legislative Mall to see the unusual blend of modern and colonial, which included the array of re-enactors, games, demonstrations and contests.

Other events produced by Kent County Tourism, the Amish Country Bike Tour in September and October’s Delaware Wine and Beer Festival at the Delaware State Fairgrounds met with much success.

Cecilia Grace members,Tessa, left, and Cecilia Sugarman perform on the Odd Fellows Stage during Smyrna’s at Night in June. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

In Smyrna, Gable Music Ventures’ Smyrna at Night continued to draw a large crowd throughout the town in its fourth year. The free music and food festival attracted an attendance of approximately 4,000 people.

Twenty-eight acts performed in nine venues in Smyrna. Headliners included international blues musician and saxophonist Vanessa Collier; Nelly’s Echo, who performed on Season 3 of “The Voice”; and Dover’s own Hoochi Coochi.

The 39th annual June Jam to benefit a number of worthy causes went off in Houston this summer with headliner kRush paying tribute to the legendary progressive rock band Rush.

Fordham and Dominion Brewing in Dover held its two annual big festivals, R2Hop2 in April and Cheesetoberfest in October.

Destination Downtown Dover continued to bring folks to Loockerman Street for its History, Heritage and Hops and OktDoverFest mega block parties.

The Delaware Friends of Folk’s Delmarva Folk Festival went with a local flavor in its 26th year this September. It was headlined by the blues band Bad Juju doing a rare acoustic set.

The Central Delaware Blues Society held its annual Roadhouse Bluesfest over the summer at Jonathan’s Landing in Magnolia with featured headlining artist blues great Joe Louis Walker.

The society’s annual contest to send one band to the prestigious International Blues Challenge in Memphis early next year saw local blues band Barrelhouse get the spot.

The shows must go on

On local stages, the Kent County Theatre Guild scored a bit of a coup in 2017.

Ashleigh Summers performs in the opening scene of Kent County Theater Guild’s production of “Sister Act”. (Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Its musical production of “Sister Act” sold out the six-show run before the first note was even sung in September. It’s the first time in recent memory that has happened with the longtime Dover theater group.

“I have a feeling the two biggest factors are that the quality of our shows has really gone up the past few years and even more of a factor, in my opinion, The Schwartz Center closing is a blow to our community, but I think it’s helped our ticket sales,” said director and board president John Muller at the time.

Other shows staged at the Guild this year were the Neil Simon comedy “Fools,” the musical “Johnny Guitar,” the family comedy “Over the River and Through the Woods” and the mystery “Strictly Murder.”

In 2017, Milford’s Second Street Players performed Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” the musical comedy “Nunsense A-Men!” “Grease,” the spooky “The Canterville Ghost” and the holiday spoof “The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of A Christmas Carol.”

And finally …

The Dover Air Force Base held a wildly successful two-day open house in August dubbed Thunder Over Dover.

The free event (which included a preview day for military families), featuring displays of classic airplanes, was highlighted by a thrilling performance from the United States Air Force Thunderbirds.

Maj. Alex Turner flies upside down over Maj. Witt Collins during the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds show at Thunder Over Dover at Dover Air Force Base in August. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover counted among its exhibits a look at the early works of acclaimed photographer Ansel Adams and “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Tom Golden Collection,” a show that covered much of the careers of the partners in art as well as in marriage from the early 1960s to the present.

Scott Brown and Autumn Schneider won this year’s Dancing with the Delaware Stars competition in January at Dover Downs. (Delaware State News file photo)

The eighth annual Dancing with the Delaware Stars took place in January at Dover Downs Hotel and Casino’s Rollins Center. This year’s event raised close to $200,000 for Mom’s House and the Greater Dover Boys and Girls Club and was won by Scott Brown, managing partner of RF Book Associates & Wealth Management Group, and Autumn Schneider, founder of the Diane Drulis Dance Foundation.

Dover Public Library’s Comic Con continued to draw thousands for costume contests, anime programs, discussions and more.

Acclaimed gospel singer Yolanda Adams headlined the Delaware State University President’s Scholarship Ball at Dover Downs in December.

The 31st Annual Southern Delaware Heart Ball was held in April at the Maple Dale Country Club in Dover.

The theme of this year’s event was Passage to India. Indian food, dress and entertainment helped to emphasize the theme.

That’s a wrap on 2017. Next week we’ll look at what’s in store for 2018.

Now Showing

New in theaters this weekend is the Matt Damon sci-fi comedy “Downsizing,” the comedy “Father Figures,” the sequel “Pitch Perfect 3,” Dwayne Johnson in the remake “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in the musical “The Greatest Showman.”

On DVD and download starting Tuesday is Idris Elba and Kate Winslet in “The Mountain Between Us,” the remake of “Flatliners” and the horror sequel “Jeepers Creepers 3.”

Reach features editor Craig Horleman at chorl@newszap.com

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