‘Jason’s’ Letter’ premiere closes book on Schwartz Center

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

DOVER — A movie’s opening served as the closing act for the Schwartz Center for the Arts on Sunday afternoon.

The first showing of “Jason’s Letter” — about 75 percent of which was filmed in Dover in January — was indeed a bittersweet experience.

Out-of-town cast members and visitors hadn’t heard of the venue’s financially fueled demise which was announced Thursday by the theater’s board of directors, and expressed immediate disappointment.

Actor Jamol Manigault, who plays the title role in “Jason’s Letter,” is all smiles. (Special to the Delaware State News/ Jon Lloyd Jr.)

“What a shame, what a shame,” said Joseph R. Gannascoli, who played mobster Vito Spatafore in HBO’s hit series “The Sopranos” and was cast as a school principal in Sunday’s film.

“This is a very intimate place to be. It’s got so much character. What a shame.

“What is this (expletive) world coming to?”

Just as surprised was Deborah Washington, who traveled from Philadelphia to watch her younger cousin on the big screen as part of the “Jason’s Letter” cast. Her eyes grew wide when told of the farewell performance of which she was about to be a part.

“Oh, no, is that so?,” she said. “It’s a beautiful venue. It’s so sad and you don’t want to see it go away.

“It seems like this can be used for other things. They need to try marketing, outreach, social media, something. The area around it is gorgeous, I can’t believe it can’t be used for something.”

The audience filled about 90 percent of the floor-level seats for the movie that started about 30 minutes late, and received a rousing round of applause as the closing credits were shown.

The film, which stars Vivica A. Fox, Michael Pare and Quinton Aaron, centered around a fictional Delaware town — Hayden Heights — and its uneasiness between mostly black residents and white police officers due to unarmed shootings (or killings as some described in the movie) and a 12-year-old boy’s solution for stopping the violence.

It the show’s climactic final few scenes, Dover Mayor Robin R. Christiansen and Councilman Bill Hare were featured several times and acted with thoughtful looks on their faces as the boy promoted his plan. Mr. Christiansen even had a brief speaking part as he and Mr. Hare rushed out a doorway after another shooting.

Mr. Hare described taking part in the film during a 12 1/2-hour work day as “fun. I think it will be fun when it comes out and I can record it or get the DVD and show to the grandkids.”

Karen Wallerr Martin interviews actor/producer Brian Hooks Sunday afternoon. (Special to the Delaware State News/Jon Lloyd Jr.)

Though the 550-seat Schwartz will close on June 30, Mayor Christiansen vowed that it would not be the last show ever there. He planned to pull community members together in the next couple weeks 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,” Mr. 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,”

With a red carpet, several cast members and camera crews conducted interviews and the well-dressed audience certainly enjoyed a small touch of big-time entertainment.

For one afternoon at least, all was right at the Schwartz.

“It’s so bad that it’s going away,” Dover resident Cari Fielder said while standing outside the center on South State Street.

“I’ve talked to some of the volunteers here and this is definitely a bittersweet experience. This is one of the biggest events that’s been held here and to think it’s the last is said.”

Whether the film, which has yet to find a buyer, entertained or not, Dover’s Lloyd Wheatley said before the showing that just being at the Schwartz was “an experience within it self” and noted the nostalgia, popcorn smell and everything associated with a site that opened as the Dover Opera House in 1904.

From left, actors Paul Anthony and Claudia Jordan, director Terrance Tykeem and actors Vivica A. Fox and Jamol Manigault. (Special to the Delaware State News/Jon Lloyd Jr.)

History of the Schwartz Center for the Arts

• The building at 226 S. State St. that holds the Schwartz Center for the Arts was originally constructed in 1904 and known as The Dover Opera House. George M. Schwartz expanded it into a movie theater in 1923 and called it The Capital Theater.

• After flourishing for years, the theater in the 1970s fell into a state of disrepair. In 1982, the doors were closed.

• After an intensive statewide fundraising campaign, The Friends of the Capitol Theater raised enough money to develop an extensive modernization and expansion project, with repairs to the auditorium and lobby.

•In November 1997, the Friends group unveiled a capital campaign at a gala event attended by more than 200 people. Frank A. Fantini, then-president of the Friends group, announced a $3.3 million dollar capital campaign driving the project. Plans included a control room, elevator, marquee, box office, three dressing rooms, classrooms and offices. The late John W. Rollins and his wife, Michele, donated $1 million toward the project, and the auditorium is named for the donors.

• In July 1998, the General Assembly approved $1.3 million for the project, with community redevelopment funds set aside in the state’s bond bill.

Moviegoers Shani Benson, left, and Alexis Huttie pose on the red carpet. (Special to the Delaware State News/Jon Lloyd Jr.)

That money joined $1.2 million the Friends group had garnered in grants from philanthropic groups, including the Longwood Foundation and Delaware Community Foundation. A variety of sources, including corporate and private donations, ultimately made the project possible.

• In 1999, then-U.S.-Sen. William V. Roth announced a $500,000 grant for the theater. Funding came from a targeted grant program under the Economic Development Initiative, part of the FY 2000 VA-HUD Appropriations bill.

•The $8.5 million facility reopened in October 2001 under the name The  Schwartz Center for the Arts.

•On a late October Friday night, the doors to the former Capitol Theater opened to the public for the first time in 19 years after four years of renovation work. Approximately 600 people attended the opening.

• In 2004, a strategic alliance was formed to collaborate the resources of Wesley College, Delaware State University, and The Friends of the Capitol Theater, to maximize usage and position the historic venue as the premiere performing arts center in central Delaware.

• In January 2007, the relationship was formalized with the three entities becoming equal partners in the operation, management and programming of the Schwartz. The agreement created a new 501(c)(3) organization with a board, that oversees fund-raising and philanthropic activities.

• In October 2011, the Schwartz kicked off its 10th anniversary season.

• In 2015 the Schwartz launched an entertainment series designed to inspire a rebirth in the Schwartz.

• In 2016, Wesley College and Delaware State University ceased providing monthly financial support to the nonprofit group, but continued to provide the facility rent free. A new working board was seated.

• On Aug. 10, 2016, Sydney Arzt, the final executive director of the theater, announced her resignation after an 18-month stint.

• On June 8, the board of directors announced that June 30 would be the last day of operations for the Schwartz Center for the Arts.

• On June 11, the film “Jason’s Letter” premiered at the theater, marking the final event.

— Compiled from Delaware State News archives and the Schwartz Center for the Arts website.

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