The Clayton Theater: A Slice of Americana In Coastal Sussex

by Dave on November 7, 2010

by James Diehl

A few weeks before Christmas in 2004, Joanne Howe, members of her family and her employees grabbed handfuls of bells and waited anxiously as moviegoers exited the historic Clayton Theater after a showing of “The Polar Express.”

Hordes of children soon came filing out of the historic movie house, each one handed a tiny bell and asked if they believed in Santa Claus after watching the film. The jolly man himself was also waiting just around the corner.

It was a night the theater owner will never forget. It’s also Howe’s favorite part of the job and just one of the things that makes the old single-screen movie theater on Dagsboro’s Main Street such a special place to spend an evening.

“It’s real important to us that we make it fun; it just adds a little personal touch that people don’t get at the big movie theaters,” says Howe, a native of Baltimore and 25 year resident of the Eastern Shore. “It’s so nice to see a mother, father and the kids come out to the movies.”

The historic Clayton Theater was constructed just three years after the conclusion of hostilities in World War II, opening less than a year later in February of 1949. The first showing was Universal’s “One Touch of Venus” starring Robert Walker and Ava Gardner.

Thousands of movies have been featured at the theater since – all have been shown on the original 1948 projectors that still dominate the upstairs of the theater today.
Dagsboro’s gem of a theater is the last of its kind in Sussex County, a reminder of how life used to be in Delaware’s southernmost county. It’s a link to the days when people would dress in their Sunday best for a night out with friends or loved ones at the movies.

Those days are long gone, but Howe still does her best to keep the Clayton a family-style theater. Nearly all of the movies the theater features are geared toward families – Walt Disney films are always a huge hit.

The theater itself is run in a family atmosphere. Howe’s husband, Ed, her brother, Steve, and her 82-year-old mother, Vera, all help run the historic old structure.
“I tell my mother all the time that I’m so glad she could be here to share this with me,” says Howe. “I was raised in a close knit family and we always did things together, and I like that we can help keep families together and give them something they can do as a family.”

Howe purchased the Clayton in December of 2000, less than a year before her father passed away. But she still remembers her dad, each and every time she looks up at the larger than life marquee that still dominates the outside of the 62-year-old building.

“The first time I drove through here, I noticed the theater because my father’s name was Clayton,” remembers Howe, a huge smile creeping onto her face. “I was immediately attracted to it for that reason, and because it was an old single screen movie theater. You just don’t see them around anymore.”

Attending a showing not long after, Howe noticed something else that immediately got her attention – a poster behind the counter promoting a film entitled “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” where Clayton Baker fought during World War II.

After learning the date the structure opened in 1949 – Feb. 2 – she felt being a part of the theater was meant to be. So, when it came up for sale, she bought it almost immediately.

“Feb. 2 just happens to be my birthday, which was yet another coincidence we found,” Howe says with a chuckle. “Now, I just love the nature of the business; it’s so much fun dealing with all the local people who come through. I just enjoy running this old theater and helping preserve a piece of local history.”

Opening less than four years after the end of World War II, the theater has special meaning to members of the so-called “greatest generation.” In that vein, on Monday, Nov. 15, a free showing of “Vanishing Voices of World War II; Southern Delaware’s Humble Heroes” will be held at the historic movie house.

Though not officially open yet to the public – it should be sometime in 2011 – the theater’s historic balcony will be opened to the public for this special showing.

To learn more about the Clayton Theater, visit, call 732-9606 or just come by for a movie any Wednesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

As Howe likes to say: “We’ll see you at the movies!”

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