Out of the ashes, a (new) theater

I’ve recently run across multiple comments, in official documents and social media, about one of our town’s treasures, the Milton Theater, that create a misleading impression of its history. The confusion begins with the state marker in front of the building.

Delaware State Marker in front of Milton Theater

The plaque correctly states that the building housing the Milton Theater was built in 1914. It was then the largest commercial building in Milton, and was owned by Ida Fox, who operated an ice cream parlor and confectionery store, most likely in the adjacent building. Her son William operated a movie theater on the premises, so silent films were being shown in Milton well before 1919. That was the year that William Fox died, and mother Ida took over the management of the theater. She continued to do so until 1930, when she sold the building to the Milton Fire Department.

After its acquisition by the Milton FD, the former Fox Theater was at various times called the “Community Building” or the “Fire Department Building.” Movies continued to be shown there on the second floor. A free matinee for children was scheduled for December 23, 1938, but never took place; on December 22, a fire of “undetermined origin” effectively gutted the building[i].

The Fox family’s building is the large one at the center; note the three tall windows on the second floor. Their placement, compared to three bricked-over indentations in the photo of the present-day theater, makes a case that the front wall pf the old building was saved. The building at right survived the fire of 1938 but not the wrecking ball that came decades later. The gable-roofed building on the left probably sustained damaged to its upper section and was rebuilt as a two-story brick structure with a flat roof, possibly adjoining the theater building without a partition. The main building lost its hipped roof and gabled dormer in the fire, and all were replaced with a simple flat roof (Milton Historical Society)

This is the one fact that the state marker omits, and leads one to believe that the present theater building is the same as the one built by the Fox family in 1914, which is simply not true. Subsequent articles in the Milford Chronicle in the months of January to April, 1939, describe the rapid rebuilding process that led to the reopening of the theater in May of that year. They describe the clearing of debris, tearing down of damaged or unstable walls, erection of steel framing for the second floor, and pouring of concrete foundations for new walls. The theater section was placed on the first floor of the new building, along with space for fire equipment, while the second floor contained a recreation and meeting room and space for apartments. This is a complete reconstruction, not damage repair.

Milford Chronicle, February 24, 1939
Milford Chronicle, March 31, 1939
Today’s Milton Theater (photo by Phil Martin)

One should be careful in reading these reports, however. It seems unlikely that the theater would only occupy the first floor, especially if the theater was being touted in the press as one of the most modern movie houses in Sussex County. A photograph from the Delaware Public Archive of the interior of the theater, taken in 1956, clearly shows a balcony and thus a two-story theater. Another story, from the Wilmington News Journal of December 10, 1952, reports of smoke and water damage from a fire in the projection room and balcony, also supporting the idea of a two-story theater. I have not been able to find a report of the theater being converted from one floor to two, and my best guess is that it was always a two-story movie house. If anyone has knowledge of a conversion form one to two stories, or remembers the experience of watching a movie or stage show in the theater during the 1940s, please contact me through this blog.

One aspect of the new building adds to the confusion; there are what appear to be three bricked up openings in the wall facing the street. Even in 2015, the authors of the survey that would expand the borders of the Milton historic district[ii] expressed puzzlement over the bricked up openings in their comments on the theater building. There is, however, a possible explanation.

Photographs of the original building show show an ornate roofline very different from the plain rectangular appearance of the front elevation in the new building. The photographs of the old building also show three tall windows, corresponding to the same bricked up openings in the current building. I have not been able to find any documentation to prove this, but I believe that the front wall of the old building was salvageable and was retained during the reconstruction. Bricking up the windows of this wall was necessary if the entire space was to be used as a theater.

I propose, then, that one piece of the old structure – the front wall – remains standing today, although considerably altered. The plain, flat roof devoid of ornamentation gives the front of the theater a geometric simplicity. Everything else inside the theater was added during or after the reconstruction.

[i] Wilmington Morning News, December 23, 1938, Page 1, Column 6

[ii] Morrissey, Sheppard, and Emmons, Milton Historic District Re-Survey Report, May 2015

8 thoughts on “Out of the ashes, a (new) theater

  • Marcella Hudson

    Hi Phil, my mother Connie Darby born 1936 and grew up in last house on Dollar Lake Drive. She has a very early memory of going to the theatre on a school trip to see A Christmas Carol play with John & Ethel Barrymore acting. She started school a year early so she thinks 1943 or 1944. It had a marquee but was still red brick. It was a 2 story theatre, the balcony was for ‘colored’ people at that time.
    She remembers it was a quarter to go see the old B&W cowboy movies there. TV was in town and there weren’t as many first run movies coming around.

    • Phil Martin

      This makes the case for a two-story theater from the get-go, which makes more sense to me than what was written in the newspaper article. Thank you so much for this information!

  • William T. Jones

    I know that the openings that are on the front of the current Milton theater were not bricked up in the 1950s and early ’60’s. The Scott family who operated the theater at that time lived in an apartment there. The original marquee was much larger and substantial than the one that is there today. The family used to have chairs on top of it where they could sit out outside. There was a lip around the structure when provided a protective ledge.

    I’ll have to see if I can find my History of Milton book which was published in 2007. I believe that there is a picture of Federal Street flooded after the storm of 1962 (?). That flood did a lot of damage to the structure which resulted in the balcony that was once in the auditorium rusting out which requited its removal When segregation was the rule, African-Americans sat up there.

    • Phil Martin

      I found a photo of the theater in the Delaware Public Archive taken during the ’62 flood, looking north on Union Street from just below the Collins store. The three tall windows in the larger building are bricked up. The windows in the smaller part of the building to the left of it are not, although they are today; is that where the apartment was? The Scotts could easily get out to the marquee from there. Here is a link to it: https://www.capegazette.com/node/23907#&gid=1&pid=8 What do you think?

  • Robert M Carey

    I attended many movies and stage shows at the theater in the 40’s. In the late 40’s I sold popcorn there and my father ran the projectors and then became the manager. The balcony was there, and as Marcella Hudson says, it was for ‘colored’ people. I and my brother worked alternate nights selling popcorn and were paid 25c a night and got in free for movies and shows, so I probably saw more than most kids.

    • Phil Martin

      Thanks so much for adding some human interest to the story. I used to go to Saturday matinee shows in NYC in the early 60’s, a double feature with a cartoon short in between, for 50 cents. These were big theaters filled with rowdy kids, and the matron had to be on her toes to keep popcorn from flying around the theater.

  • Joan Carey Walls

    I remember in the late 50’s when our father still ran the projector ,by then on weekends I recall. I would be able to go up in the booth where the projectors were and watch as copper tubes were then burned to run the films. He would have to watch for a little white circle to appear in the corner of the movie screen which indicated it was time to change the reel as the film was on several reels depending on how long the movie was. I also filled in a couple of times to take tickets and later briefly worked the concession stand.The balcony was still there and used at that time. So I also saw a lot of movies,sometimes sitting right by the projector! I also remember sometimes the reel would break and the movie would stop and the audience would boo and stomp their feet until Dad would fix it and start up again. Dad would say “wait for the credits”. “Remember those names”. “Those people also helped to get the movies made”. Of course back then there were much fewer names in the credits than there are now. But I still sit and wait and read the credits!! Thanks Dad.

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