Curtain falls on Schwartz Center

The Schwartz Center in Dover will cease operations on June 30. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — A week after the board president for The Schwartz Center for the Arts said leaders were weighing their options for the future, Tracey Miller announced Thursday that the downtown Dover venue will close 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,” Ms. 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.”

Ms. Miller was unavailable for an interview Thursday.

The 550-seat Schwartz Center has operated for less than 16 years in the building at 226 S. State St. that is owned by Wesley College and Delaware State University. It is operated by the nonprofit The Friends of the Capitol Theater Inc.

Wesley President Robert E. Clark II and Delaware State President Dr. Harry L. Williams issued a joint statement Thursday afternoon about the closure: “We appreciate the efforts of Tracey Miller and her board, who over the past year have tried to re-energize community support and maintain the viability of the Schwartz Center. Both of our institutions are proud of our association and support to the Schwartz Center for the Arts over the last 10-plus years, and remain committed to supporting the arts and the revitalization of downtown Dover.”

DSU spokesman Carlos Holmes said, “There are no plans at this point in terms of what’s going to take place with this building. We’re not there yet, nor is there a time frame.”

The last event that Delaware State University held at the Schwartz was a jazz ensemble concert for Black History Month in February 2013.

Mayor Robin Christiansen said Thursday city leaders would meet with the Schwartz board in the next two weeks to “see what we can do to salvage a large part of Dover history.”

On Sunday. the film “Jason’s Letter” will premiere at the Schwartz Center for the Arts. It will be the last event for the theater. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

The theater originally opened in 1904 and offered vaudeville shows. In its years under ownership of George Schwartz, it was primarily a movie theater but served as the site of political conventions.

Under his daughter Muriel Schwartz, the Capitol Theater was a movie theater until 1982 when it went dark. In 1994, civic leaders began a fundraising effort to reopen the center.

The center’s grand reopening was on Oct. 19, 2001. Country artist Rosanne Cash, a friend of the John and Michelle Rollins who had donated $1 million to the center, performed.

“I’ll tell you what, I am shocked and hurt and a little bit disappointed — but that’s not without hope. When I say hope, I, as a child, was fortunate enough to go to the old Capital Theater. The theater, ever since it was originally the Dover Opera House, has been a major part of downtown Dover for many, many years,” Mayor Christiansen said.

“The state of Delaware, the citizens of Dover, Kent County, Delaware State University and Wesley have put too much money into revitalization of the Schwartz Center for the Arts and we owe it to those folks to see what we can do in regards to the future of the theater.

“Downtown Dover is losing one of its greatest assets with the closing of the Schwartz. All we can do now is keep moving onward and upward with revitalizing our amazing town, and work towards a day we can reopen those doors.”

Ms. Miller said in her prepared statement that the 14-member board considered ways to salvage operations.

“We have contemplated everything from turning the center into a school during the week and sponsoring entertainment on the weekends to only being open once a quarter for large shows like the Lip Sync Battle or a community ballet,” she said. “The money just isn’t there to sustain us through down times. I believe this is a huge loss for the community as well as the state. It is my hope that someone or some entity finds it important enough to support the arts, culture and entertainment needs of the city and steps up to reopen the center.

“The important life-changing opportunities that come from the arts and cultural centers aren’t free but are certainly worth the investment. To be able to continue our endeavor it would have required substantial and ongoing support from the city, the county, the state as well as and especially the community.”

The center’s last event is to be Sunday’s premiere of “Jason’s Letter,” a movie filmed mostly in Dover.

State Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, whose district includes the Schwartz Center, said he was disappointed by the news. The General Assembly granted the Schwartz $12,500 in the current fiscal year, as well as that amount in both fiscal years 2015 and 2016 and $10,000 in fiscal year 2014. Prior to that, the center had not been funded through grant-in-aid spending since before 2006.

“I’ve always believed that the Schwartz had the potential for being a primary focal point of the arts in Kent County and for any number of reasons it just never reached that potential and is now, as a performing arts center, going out of business altogether,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think the people in charge ever found their “exact correct niche.”

The center tried movies, live performances, music, comedy and more. “Nothing ever clicked perfectly,” he said.

Arts advocates react

As news of the Schwartz’s closing circulated in the community, arts advocates and tourism leaders voiced their dismay that the historic building would be shuttered at the end of this month, though many said they weren’t surprised.

Wendie Vestfall, executive director of Kent County Tourism, said she was aware of the center’s struggles as it lost funding and knew that its closing was possible as the organization had spoken to community members about possible action to save the Schwartz.

“The Schwartz Center was such a key focal point for the arts here in downtown Dover. They had really great programming and were a great partner to us as well with Dover Days,” she said of the themed shows and movies that coordinated with the annual festival in May. Like it did for Dover Days, she said the Schwartz planned programming that complemented the Dover Public Library’s Comic Con event in August.

“There’s just not enough (funding) to go around for everybody and they kind of fell victim to that,” Ms. Vestfall said.

She wasn’t aware of any particular groups interested in taking over the historic building, or what owners Wesley College or Delaware State may plan for the facility, but she said its closure would leave a void.

A historical marker on the front of Schwartz Center for the Arts traces its history back to 1904. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

“With the closing of the Schwartz, you’re seeing more and more tourism attractions taken away from Kent County and central Delaware. We are always looking for unique things to promote and the Schwartz Center was one of them,” she said. “It really kind of took you back to the golden years of Dover when it was a movie theater. They had great spaces for events and the bands and the movies that were shown there. It really put you back to a different time and was perfect for downtown Dover with its historic buildings.

“To go see a show there was always a great experience,” she said. “We’re certainly optimistic that something else will take its place but sad that we are losing such a gem in downtown Dover.”

Rosemary Twilley, who established the Kent County Fund for the Arts in 2005, said, “It’s a huge blow to the arts community. It will be missed. I know they have been having some difficulty for the past couple of years and I’m sorry that they weren’t able to get past that.”

Ms. Twilley’s fund has become a source of income for various arts organizations in the county. She said grants for 2017-18 will total $24,000 for a number of local organizations.

She points to the economy as a huge reason why the Schwartz and other arts organizations are suffering.

“Money for the arts is being cut through the state budget as well as nationally. It’s symbolic of the way things are today. Arts organizations have to find ways of doing more with less.”

She said the Schwartz has always been a source of pride for Dover.

“I’ve heard people remark time and time again what a nice facility we have here in Dover. With the Sheraton Hotel closing a few years ago, we are running out of big spaces to hold events. So many different groups will have to look for other venues. I’m just so sorry to hear this.”

Longtime local musician Sol Knopf called the closure “heartbreaking.”

“We’ve seen these things happen before with the economy being what it is. The World Cafe Live at The Queen is one example,” he said.

The Wilmington theater closed its doors last month and will reopen in the fall under ownership of entertainment company Live Nation.

“I’ve always found it strange that people will spend hundreds of dollars for these music festivals. But unless it’s a big-name act or the ticket prices are around 20 or 25 dollars, it’s been hard to get people out to see a show,” he said.

Mr. Knopf, who grew up in Dover and now lives in Smyrna, last performed at the Schwartz in May with his Songwriters and Storytellers show. He said the performance drew about 100 people.

“Performing at the Schwartz was a dream come true for me. Even as a child, before I became a musician, I always had the feeling that I would be on that stage,” he said.

“It was always magical to go to the theater as a kid. Just to see that red velvet curtain come up before a movie was something special. Playing there twice was absolutely magical for me.”

After a break of five years, the Dover Symphony Orchestra returned to the Schwartz Center with a concert in October of 2016.

Orchestra president Nancy Pikulik said the return was a successful one.

“It’s a real shame. We looked forward to coming back,” she said.

“It’s a beautiful facility and I’m sorry that something couldn’t be worked out. We really need good performance spaces in this area.”

Up until 2011, the Schwartz was the full-time home for the orchestra.

“Our patrons loved it. It’s an elegant, enjoyable place. Our conductor Don Buxton was consulted when it was first brought back on how to adapt for it for the orchestra. Parking is a problem there but our performances were always well-attended,” Ms. Pikulik said.

The symphony also utilizes the Calvary Assembly of God in Dover and Dover Downs’ Rollins Center for its concerts.

Jan Crumpley, owner of Parke Green Galleries on State Street and The Green, a block from the Schwartz, said the closure is “terrible.”

“I’m really disappointed they can’t remain open,” she said. “It’s so important to our community. It should be the heart of our community but won’t be anymore.”

Ms. Crumpley is also a member of the popular Irish band Celtic Harvest, who performed at the Schwartz a few times over the years. She was also a member of the pit band for a local production of “The Civil War” musical earlier this year.

“It was always a wonderful place to perform. The folks who did the sound and lighting and everyone was great.”

Like Mayor Christiansen, she too discussed the historical impact of the theater.

“It was Dover’s opera house as far back as 1904. This is part of Dover’s heritage,” said Ms. Crumpley who owns an extensive postcard collection that once belonged to Muriel Schwartz.

Lucas Mayfield, aka Amillion the Poet, a hip-hop artist and rapper from Dover, performed at the Schwartz in February.

“I will forever be indebted to the Schwartz Center for blessing me the opportunity to have the (theater’s) first contracted hip-hop concert. It’s also the place I received the key to the city,” he said.

“I grew up watching theater there that provided good memories. I wish there was more I could do personally and more we could do collectively as a community to keep the doors open.”

Community challenges

Ms. Miller said last week the biggest challenge for the Schwartz Center was attendance, despite efforts to broaden the appeal of shows and provide what the community wants.

She said then, “It’s still tough to get Dover out to shows unless it’s a community-based show, like ‘The Nutcracker’ or ‘Seussical’ or The Children’s Theatre shows. We’re just like any other small community theater in the country. We depend on the community,” she said.

In February, the center held The Battle of the Schwartz,” a sold-out lip-sync contest showcasing local celebrities, that organizers reported raised $64,700.

That was after a successful online fundraising campaign in summer 2015. While the Schwartz Center led all nonprofits in the Do More 24 fundraiser last year, generating $9,398 from 86 donors, this year it garnered just $252 from three donors.

More than 200 Delaware nonprofits participated in the United Way-sponsored online fundraiser on June 1 that raised a total of $122,179 from 1,652 donors..

Staff writers Mike Finney and Matt Bittle contributed to this story.


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