Hopes brimming to revitalize Millstone Theatre

Work is progressing at the Millstone Theater, the former Ball Theatre which owners intend to open as a performing arts venue. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

MILLSBORO — While the hopeful finish line is at best several years down the road, Eric Clarke and Dr. Julie Hattier are committed to opening the Millstone Theatre.

Not as a movie theatre, as it reigned as the historic Ball Theatre in Hollywood’s golden era, but as a performing arts center.

“Performing arts; not a movie theatre,” says Dr. Hattier. “We may have movies, like B-run old movies, but never first run. It’s not our goal. The Clayton does that. We don’t want to interfere with the Clayton; it is an awesome facility.”

If or when that long-awaited opening day arrives, the Millstone’s first performance will likely be The Great Zucchini.

That’s right, the couple’s beloved canine rescue will usher in the revitalized Millstone Theatre. She’s trained to jump through hoops, perform tricks and entertain in the brick building that for more than three decades played to moviegoing audiences in America’s Golden Cinema Era.

And by then, the building built in the late 1930s by Walter “Huck” Betts, Millsboro’s link to Major League Baseball, as the Ball Theater, may have a certified niche in history with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

“That is our goal. And then it will be forever documented,” said Mr. Clarke.

Madeline Dunn, National Register Coordinator/Historian for the State of Delaware Historical and Cultural Affairs, is collaborating with Mr. Clarke and Dr. Hattier on this monumental effort.

The former theatre has in many ways stood the test of time. It still features its slanted floor, original seating both on ground level and upstairs balcony/mezzanine, art-deco trim and sidelights, curtain, unique brickwork, wallboard and other time-period amenities.

Dr. Julie Hattier and Eric Clarke are co-owners of the Millstone Theater (former Ball Theater). An effort is underway to request the theater, built by former major league pitcher Huck Betts, be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Because these types of design over time have disappeared across America’s landscape, it gives the Millstone some of its unique integrity, Ms. Dunn said.

“Elements that make the Ball Theatre/Millstone Theatre so incredible architecturally eligible for listing in the National Register,” said Ms. Dunn, in a presentation at Millsboro town council’s May 7 meeting.

Mr. Betts built the theater in 1937. It operated as a movie theater into the 1970s It was leased for several years until it was sold by the Betts. Clarence Elmer Prince owned it from January 1974 to January 1986 when the church has had a program to date.

In the mid-1970s, the theatre was also the venue for several bands.

Ms. Dunn says National Historic Register listing takes a tremendous amount of research.

“Not only do you have to deal with site specific information, but you have to tie it in with the development of the community and the county,” she said. “We’ve made a lot of progress and it has been a tremendous amount of work. The owners of the theatre have been responsible for pulling that incredible information. When one is developing a National Register nomination they not only rely on arch-able information but on the oral history. A lot of people have great stories to tell …”

“This is back in the days. You can still see the gum on the floor, and gum underneath the seats,” said Mr. Clarke. “We feel really lucky that this place is still intact like it is. It has never closed. It always has been open. People have been meeting here and assembling since the day it first opened. Yeah, it closed as a theatre and then was immediately occupied by a church. It has had assembly here until today and it still going on.”

Their intended use for the theatre building is a community gathering venue, showcasing music, dance, comedy, plays, local artists, talent shows, maybe an occasional movie and in general a place for people to congregate and have meetings.

For years it has been, currently is — and will continue upon opening as the performing arts center — to be the home for the United Church of Deliverance, out of Salisbury, Md.

“Because of the renovations, we limited the church to another section down below,” said Mr. Clarke.

“We will still serve the church. It has been here a long time,” said Dr. Hattier. “They love the room that Eric fixed up for them.”

Main priority

Ms. Hattier and Mr. Clarke say people often ask, “‘What are we doing, and when will we open?”

“Our efforts are to get this recognized on the historical list. That is the endeavor,” said Mr. Clarke.

Extensive research is being undertaken through various archives resources: public libraries, archives in Dover and Georgetown and by word of mouth. “There are people that are coming out of the woodwork. People that had been married here, their first dates, sitting on their grandfather’s lap,” Mr. Clarke said.

Zucchini jumps through hoops for Millstone Theatre co-owner Eric Clarke.

“I’ve done research in Georgetown where all of the deeds passed,” Dr. Hattier said.

“Something else that has impressed me is the work that the owners have done in reaching out to the community,” said Ms. Dunn. “And how cool is it to have that magnificent curtain with the chain, documented as made locally.”

“You also have a building that represents change in technology over time because during the 1950s the screen had to be replaced so that the CinemaScope movies could come in and be shown right here in the Millsboro area,” said Ms. Dunn.

Fascinating findings

“It is such an iconic piece. What I hadn’t realized with what Madeline had done with the state, she shared there were 460 people in this town when this was built. This seats 478. I hadn’t looked at it from this perspective that this was something so big and grand,” said Mr. Clarke.

“This is where people got that information; the news reels. All of our indications are there was Monday through Saturday, two shows a day. They never ran on Sunday,” said Mr. Clarke. “It is really interesting and fun to take a look back in the rear-view mirror of what was happening then and how they did it.”

“People came every Saturday to get the news. News reels were so important to the community,” Dr. Hattier said.

Their research has uncovered interesting historical tidbits.

Like popcorn, for example. Dr. Hattier researched that topic. “Originally, theaters thought popcorn was for circuses in that era. So, they were too good for that,” she said. “Actually, popcorn became popular in the 40s when there a sugar restriction for candy in World War II. That is when popcorn hit its heyday. And the reason it was the yellow popcorn it was so inexpensive and the yellow popcorn pops bigger. So, you get more bang for your buck.”

“Huck Betts was never into popcorn,” said Dr. Hattier.

“His theatre was too grand for popcorn,” Mr. Clarke said.

Focus of town’s vision

The revitalization project coincides with efforts of the town, they say.

“This ties right in with the town’s vision. In October the streetscaping will start to happen; this side of the street, sidewalks, lamps, lights all the brick work,” Mr. Clarke said. “And at that point we would be in line to change the façade on the front and give it a theatrical feel again (a marquee).”

“We are excited for what the town is doing. They want to put emphasis back in the downtown. Everything is expanding so much. People are craving for something to do. We see that as kind of being on the front side of that wave to support something like that. We hope the time is right,” said Mr. Clarke. “We’ve got a lot of dreams, and we have the right building. We have the right support, I think. Even before we purchased the building we went to them with a whole vision to see if that would fly for them.”

“This is a different feel. That is what we trying to retain,” said Mr. Clarke. “The last thing we want to do is change this. If you change it, we might just as well do a new building somewhere.”

The former Ball Theatre in Millsboro is now the venue for a church group and will continue to be once it becomes a performing arts center.

Why Millstone?

Passionate history buffs, Dr. Hattier and Mr. Clarke are members of SPOOM (Society for the Preservation Of Old Mills). They are a couple hours shy of being certified “millers.”

“We own a grist mill in West Virginia. That’s also one of our projects,” said Dr. Hattier.

So, mill and Millsboro – Millstone seemed to be a natural fit.

“A funny story for Julie and I, the name of the grist mill that we have in West Virginia is called the Ball Grist Mill,” said Mr. Clarke.

“Isn’t that weird?” said Dr. Hattier. “That was their last name.”

“So, here we do this project and it’s another ‘Ball,’” said Mr. Clarke.

Memorabilia galore

The theatre’s entrance lobby features a red-carpet treatment. Walls showcase scores of memorabilia: photos, movie posters, advertisements and other artifacts on the theatre and related history.

Of course, there’s an homage to Mr. Betts, his history in the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Braves and several minor league teams. And there Huck’s signed stamp, which pre-dates the baseball card era.

There is a poster of County Music Hall of Famer Tex Ritter, father of “Three’s Company” star, the late John Ritter.

“Tex Ritter, he performed on stage here. We have testimonials and witnesses on that,” said Mr. Clarke.

“I am excited about our resources here. We’ve got Salisbury University. We’ve got the University of Delaware. And they’ve got audio-visual college programs. So, we’re hoping to tap into some of that,” said Dr. Hattier. “I think once we build it, it is all going to come together. So, this is our Field of Dreams.”

“People want a place to perform. Our objective is to put a green room out in the back where we install some of the equipment, a place to come and go from the stage versus coming through the front,” said Mr. Clarke. “Julie and I have a lot of interest in history. We like music. We love theatrical shows. We have a lot of knowhow on how to do things. There’s nothing better than to have some real live shows in our own house. That is what is driving us. It’s not that we have a band or anything like that.”

They hope to enlist the Hispanic community in their efforts, possibly showcasing Latino music and bands. “I think this place would sell out,” Mr. Clarke said.

“We have a design ready to go. You could motor through this if you had a barrel of money. But that is not us,” said Mr. Clarke.

“Hopefully, three years, but we don’t know yet,” said Dr. Hattier.

“We’re optimistic. We don’t have any opposition,” said Mr. Clarke. “Everyone loves the project.”

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