A Theatre Restored

by Dave on August 22, 2009

By Paige Lauren Deiner

For half a century the Milton Theatre was a fixture in the community. People went on first dates and shared first kisses when the lights dimmed. Boys cheered on John Wayne and girls wept for Scarlett O’Hara. On Saturday nights townspeople filled almost every one of the theatre’s 430 seats.

Built in 1905, the theatre ushered in the new waves of cinema, from silent movies to talking pictures, to color feature length films. A storm in 1962 kept the theatre silent and empty for more than 40 years.

The week of the storm, Elvis Presley’s movie “Blue Hawaii” debuted at the theater.

“It was the last (new release) movie to ever play here,” said Office Manager Ryan Morris, 22.

After the storm “Blue Hawaii” still remained on the marquee, but instead of a queue of theater goers impatiently waiting to see the King, people rowed through the streets of the town, rescuing those who had been trapped by the noreaster that became known as the “storm of ’62.”

As Miltonians struggled to dry out from the storm, the Milton Theatre remained bathed in six feet of marsh water. The putrid smell from the overflowed Broadkill River permeated the seats, stained the walls, and weakened the flooring.

“It devastated the theatre,” said J. Ches Warrener, executive director of the Milton Theatre.

For four decades the theatre remained dark and in disrepair. Tree branches grew through the roof. The once glorious balcony fell onto the moldy, rotting seats below. A man began parking his used cars in the theatre.

In 1998, a group of civic-minded Miltonians decided to save the theatre. Three years later, after countless hours of fund raising and rebuilding, actors retook the stage although the theatre was still a work in progress.

“The theatre didn’t have heat,” Warrener said. “They told people to bring their own blankets.”

In the eight years since its reopening the theatre has undergone major renovations. Tom Sweeny, the artistic director, and Morris rebuilt the stage. This past spring contractors redid the restrooms.

“Originally there were only two bathrooms,” said Warrener. “That was a problem during intermission.”

Now there are six restrooms and the theatre has both heat and air conditioning. In time, and with additional funding, Warrener wants to rebuild the balcony.

But the biggest changes have happened outside the doors of the theatre, the once darkened storefronts now have new stores. Irish Eyes opened up across the street and Miltonians once again walk the downtown.

“It’s brought business life here again,” Warrener said.

Warrener and Morris hope that the community will continue to see the theatre as a focal point of the community. The town now holds its city council meetings in the theatre. Next March a couple will marry on the stage and every weekend movies or acts play on the screen or stage.

“It’s bringing people together,” Warrener said. “It gives them a sense of ownership in the community.”

Click here to visit MiltonTheatre.org and learn about the event schedule, ticket buying and becoming a sponsor of the Milton Theatre.

This article first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, July 9, 2009.

Comments on this entry are closed.

[CoastalSussex] on Twitter[Coastal Sussex] on Facebook[Our] RSS Feed[Our] Email