Dover’s pioneering businesswoman Muriel Schwartz dies at 100

DOVER — The greater Dover community mourned the death Thursday of pioneering theater owner and civic leader Muriel Schwartz, who celebrated her 100th birthday in July.

For decades, the Schwartz family operated the iconic Capitol Theater in downtown Dover, now the site of the restored Schwartz Center for the Arts.

Kent County businesswoman Muriel Schwartz still was making regular visits to her Dover office in the Landmark Building on the corner of State and Division streets when she was 95. At one point, Ms. Schwartz owned as many as 15 movie theaters from Wilmington to Ocean, City, Md. (Delaware State News file)

Kent County businesswoman Muriel Schwartz still was making regular visits to her Dover office in the Landmark Building on the corner of State and Division streets when she was 95. At one point, Ms. Schwartz owned as many as 15 movie theaters from Wilmington to Ocean, City, Md. (Delaware State News file)

Ms. Schwartz’s reach extended far beyond the theater and arts community and her push for founding the now-Greater Kent Committee beginning in 1986 still resonates today through the area’s civic progress.

“Muriel brought several business leaders together to form an entity — originally the Greater Dover Committee — that would exist for no other reason than to improve the quality of life for the people of greater Dover,” said Frank Fantini, a past president who was on the original steering committee to form the organization. “She did more than drive it, she germinated it.”

At their peak, Ms. Schwartz and her stepmother Reba owned and operated more than a dozen movie theaters from Ocean City, Md., to Wilmington, continuing a family tradition started by Muriel’s father George Schwartz, who came to Dover in the 1920s and opened the Capitol Theater.

“In a lot of ways they were the movie entertainment industry in downstate Delaware for the greater part of the 20th century,” Mr. Fantini said.

The Schwartz family transformed the Dover Opera House into the landmark theater, which became a cinematic gathering spot for decades in a still growing community.

By the time Gary Wallick was a teenager in the 1970s, a lifetime of memories had been formed at the Capitol. He said there was no question who was running the show, literally.

“(Muriel) and (Reba) had ushers and support people, but they were always in the ticket office,” he said. “You always knew who was in charge.”

After Mr. Schwartz died in 1942, his daughter and her stepmother filled the void and moved forward. Two women thriving in the business world was rare in the 1940s, Mr. Fantini said.

“It may sound trite now, but they had reputations for being two great businesswomen who were running a regional corporation at a time when women were rarely in such a position,” Mr. Fantini said. “They were truly pioneers.”

As an adult Mr. Wallick joined the original Schwartz Center Board of Directors after participating in Friends of Capitol Theater committee efforts to purchase and erect the structure he now describes as “definitely a jewel in the crown as far as development in downtown Dover goes.”

Respect of others

Ms. Schwartz also took a cutting edge approach to film presentation, showing the adult film “Deep Throat” in 1972 despite being dissuaded beforehand by then-Mayor Crawford Carroll, as the story goes. Legend has it that she was arrested, but charges were later dropped and a city ordinance changed to allow adult films.

Friends with Ms. Schwartz since 1979, Dolly Ingram quickly saw the respect she earned from others.

Muriel Schwartz gets to work to help break ground at a 1978 expansion of Kent General Hospital in this photograph by Gary Emeigh that originally was published in the Delaware State News. At the time she was president of the KGH board. (Delaware Public Archives)

Muriel Schwartz gets to work to help break ground at a 1978 expansion of Kent General Hospital in this photograph by Gary Emeigh that originally was published in the Delaware State News. At the time she was president of the KGH board. (Delaware Public Archives)

“There are few women who have achieved the position of high respect and esteem she enjoyed for so many years in Dover,” Ms. Ingram said.

“We all loved her and anyone who knew her would never forget that feisty lady.”

A strong personality was evident at all times, Mr. Wallick said.

“On one hand she was very direct, and you always knew where you stood with her,” he said. “She told you what was on her mind.

“On the other hand, she had a great sense of humor.”

Ms. Ingram remembered that people liked to be around Ms. Schwartz because of her positive nature.

Ms. Schwartz was the first president of the then-Greater Dover Committee that was re-named the Greater Kent Committee as the entity’s reach expanded into Central Delaware.

“She really involved herself in worthwhile civic projects,” Ms. Ingram said. “I feel the people of Dover were greatly enriched through her family’s efforts, and continue to be enriched today.

“She liked being a part of Dover.”

Ms. Ingram said she and her husband Vernon chaired the first fundraising efforts as the Capitol Theater transitioned into the eventual Schwartz Center for the Arts that debuted in 2001 as a cost of $8.5 million.

“She was delighted that it would evolve into something other than a building that would crumble down, and was very involved in the whole project of bringing a performing center for the arts here,” Ms. Ingram said.

Loved her work

Well into her 90s, Ms. Schwartz would arrive at her office at the corner of State and Division streets to work the phones, read the Wall Street Journal and Variety entertainment trade magazine, Mr. Fantini said.

“Muriel loved to go to work, read (publications) and talk to people on the phone, even when she no longer owned property,” Mr. Fantini said.

“I can’t think of anyone in their 90s who was as current as she was.”

Ms. Schwartz often commiserated with local business owner Karl Dorzback, owner of the Dinner Bell inn, on the mechanics of owning and operating a successful enterprise, Mr. Fantini said.

“She loved the details of being an active business owner,” he said.

Ms. Schwartz was part of a generation growing up in Dover as a small town of 5,000 where personal relationships were evident throughout the community.

“She came from a different place than those of us who arrived in Dover many years later,” he said. “A lot of those people are no longer here, and she was part of an era that no longer exists due to the way the city has grown.”

New Year’s Eve parties at Ms. Schwartz’s home on North State Street overlooking Silver Lake were for years a meeting spot for an array of community leaders and officials, Mr. Fantini remembered.

Ms. Schwartz was also the first woman president of the Kent General Hospital board, among other civic engagements.

Dover City Council President Dave Bonar said he knew Ms. Schwartz as “an astute businesswoman with a storied personality who always had the best interests of Dover in her heart.

“She was a well-educated woman who traveled widely and experienced the joys of the business and entertainment worlds. She provided countless patrons with a great cinematic experience.

“In its heyday, the Capitol Theater was a delightful place to go and see movies.”
Ms. Schwartz had lived in the Pinnacle Rehabilitation and Health Center in Smyrna for approximately two years before her death.

Graveside funeral services will be held at 2:30 p.m, Sunday in Lakeside Cemetery at 558 N. State St. in Dover.

Arrangements are being handled by Torbert Funeral Chapels in Dover. Letters of condolence may be sent and guest book signed at www.torbertfuneral.com.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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