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.
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].
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.
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