Plans for ‘revitalized’ Millstone Theatre: Performing acts and National Register listing

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

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 movie-going 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.

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.

Work is progressing at the Millstone Theater, the former Ball Theatre which owners intend to open as a performing arts venue.

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 heatre 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.

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.

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

“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.

“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 street scaping 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.”

Zucchini takes a seat at the Millstone Theatre. When it opens, she may be the first act.

The Great Zucchini!

The Millstone Theatre is Zucchini’s home away from home. She accompanies Ms. Clarke and Dr. Hattier in their revitalization efforts.

“This is her place. She is going to be the first act: The Great Zucchini,” said Ms. Hattier.

And yes, the little dog is named after the squash.

“She was a rescue. My daughter rescued her in Virginia. They have a campground, and a camper said that this starving puppy had come out of the woods,” Dr. Hattier said. “There was a bunch of huge zucchini squash on the porch; my daughter was trying to get rid of them. She didn’t know what to do with the dog, so she tied her up by the big zucchini, and she just curled up and just looked like a black zucchini laying there. That is how she got her name. Our dog of 16 years had died. Eric didn’t want another one. But my daughter said, ‘This dog was destined for you guys.’”

“This is her place,” said Dr. Hattier. “She’s got toys scattered all around here. She’s Boston terrier/poodle on three sides; on the other Jack Russell.”

Zucchini literally performs for peanuts. Her performance reward: Planters peanuts.

“She’s a good sport for us,” said Mr. Clarke. “I would say she’ll be the first act when we ever open; pet tricks, jumping, hula hoops. This is her home. She is real friendly to people.”

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 homage to Huck 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 Threes Company star, the late John Ritter.

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

Build it, they will come

“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.

Side passion

Work on the project revitalization is their passion and is budgeted around their other work. Mr. Clarke is a merchant seaman. Dr. Hattier works in dermatology.

“We’re both still working so it’s a side passion at this point,” said Dr. Hattier.

“Certainly, we’d like to move along faster than we are,” said Mr. Clarke.

Huck Betts

Born in Millsboro in 1897, Walter McKinley “Huck” Betts was a pitcher for Philadelphia Philllies from 1920-25 and the Boston Braves from 1932-35. His last major league appearance was Sept. 27, 1935 with the Braves.

His Ball Theatre was built in 1937 on the site of the Centennial Hotel. “The hotel, they moved it, picked up and moved it over by the railroad tracks. Later it got torn down,” said Mr. Clarke. “He built this and the place next door. That became the shoe shop for his brother. It had a little retail on front side, a tax office, a few things over the years. They sold candy out of the lobby. But no popcorn in this place.”

Hurdles and challenges

Times have certainly changed since the 1930s, 40s and 50s. There’s ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and modern-day code compliance.

Mr. Clarke and Dr. Hattier purchased the theatre building in 2016.

“Believe me, there is a lot of hurdles. It starts out with electrical, the planning, lots of different compromises, and then there are things, like people don’t fit in these chairs anymore!” said Mr. Clarke. “When we took over the building it really hadn’t had any maintenance for a long time. There were a lot of leaks. Basically, the front end and back end. So, we replaced all of the rafters, re-studded them into the walls and put a new roof on it to secure the building.”

When the new roof went on, the ceiling had to come down.

“We had to tear out the ceiling so that they could inspect it,” said Mr. Clarke, noting that uncovered huge steel beams. “The unique part is the steel. Had this project taken place a year, two or three years later this probably wouldn’t be here because these steel beams wouldn’t have been accessible. These big beams are rare.”

“Because of World War II, all of steel and metal went into the war effort,” said Dr. Hattier.

The structure features real heavy timbers. Once a sprinkler system – if needed – and wiring are completed, plans are for a nice architectural ceiling.

“We have to put fire retardant fabric on the walls. We have nice corduroy material,” Mr. Clarke said.

Efforts are ongoing to turn the former Ball Theatre in downtown Millsboro into a performing acts center and community gathering venue.

Water, plumbing, sprinklers

Issues with plumbing/water must be addressed as well as State Fire Marshal requirements, which could include a sprinkler system.

The theatre was built with 478 seats. Some will be removed and/or re-positioned.

“Downstairs is going to be all of the original seating. I love those wooden chairs and they are actually quite comfortable in my opinion,” said Dr. Hattier. “And, of course we’ll have some handicap area for handicapped seating.”

The balcony/mezzanine faces a facelift with modified arrangement.

“This would be more premiere seating,” said Mr. Clarke. “Our vision is two seats and a table, four seats and a table of different type seating than the fixed seating downstairs. The mezzanine would be more of a lounge.”

New bathroom facilities present a puzzling challenge. It was built with two toilets on the first floor – a men’s and a women’s.

Under present plans, code compliance calls for 11 toilet stalls.

“With assemblage it’s half of the seats go to women. Therefore, every 65-woman count, you have to have a stall. It is interesting, the rules and where did these rules come from and how did they make these rules,” said Dr. Hattier.

“Now we are up to around 11 toilets, not counting sinks and all of the requirements to meet the requirements,” said Mr. Clarke in their May 7 presentation update to Millsboro town council.

“In order to keep this much seating in the design, I have to have a sprinkler system,” said Mr. Clarke. “There are ways to go without sprinkler systems, but then you start reducing the seat count so much and also potentially lose this whole aspect of the mezzanine. And to me this is really the premiere seating and the feel that we are trying to give.”

“My problems with the ADA and toilets let alone the sprinkler systems is there isn’t a water source. There are two hydrants on the other side of Main Street. Digging up Main Street isn’t an option,” Mr. Clarke said. “We have a small three-quarter inch water line that comes into the building via another property. Obviously, it couldn’t sustain 11 toilets let alone the sinks. In the event that it does become feasible to do the sprinkler system, there isn’t water to sprinkler the building.”

There are 8-inch water mains in a nearby alley. “But imagine the cost to the run lines and tear streets up,” said Mr. Clarke.

“The town, they want this to be its front tooth, focal point. They are doing everything they can, in all fairness. It’s a really great collaboration. And like any of us, dollars drive this,” said Mr. Clarke. “There is a lot of people that tell you this is what you have to do. And there is a lot of ways to do things differently, so there is a lot of compromise. We have some good people working on it with us. Nobody has more interest in public safety than us. Everybody talks it; we have to live it.”

However, too many roadblocks they say would dramatically change the atmosphere and aesthetic value to the point it would defeat the purpose.

“If it gets to that then we’ll just have a private theatre,” said Mr. Clarke. “Until it is fully permitted with everybody having their input, that’s when we’ll see what comes out of it. Then we’ll see if we can move forward.”

“We certainly don’t want to put a lot of money into the building and then be shut down because we don’t comply,” said Dr. Hattier, adding the intent is to “get it right the first round.”

Optimism abounds

“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.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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