Dagsboro history a family affair for Sandie Gerken

DAGSBORO — Historic Clayton Theatre in Dagsboro has a special place in the hearts of many Sussex Countians.

For Sandie Gerken, it was a family affair. Her father, Elwood “Pete” Hancock, and uncle, Alvin “Skeet” Campbell spearheaded the construction of the family-owned theatre in the late 1940s.

“The first movie was Feb. 2, 1949: ‘One Touch of Venus,’ with Ava Gardner,” said Ms. Gerken. “I don’t remember it, because I was only three years old.”

Sandie Gerken

“We spent most nights at the Clayton. We did homework sitting in the theatre. There was a little loft area where we could go to sleep,” said Ms. Gerken. “First job at age 11, cleaning the theatre on weekends. They had a lady that cleaned during the week. And every weekend we had to work behind the soda fountain, make milkshakes and dip ice cream and all of that. It would have been child labor.”

Back in the early days, admission was 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for kids under 12. There were nickel candy bars, 10-cent Coca Colas, 10-cent big ice cream cones and milkshakes for a quarter. It cost a dime for movie-goers to crank up the antique popcorn machine. “Sometimes people’s dimes would fall down in the little bin; we got to keep all of the dimes,” said Ms. Gerken.

“Then, when you were old enough you got to sell tickets. To me, I felt like the biggest movie star. You’re sitting there, under the lights — the marquee had all of those individual bulbs — with the big window on Main Street to see everybody coming through and all of the kids roller skating. At 15 years old, I thought that that was the best job in the whole world. I got paid two dollars for the night. It was a great place to grow up.”

Dagsboro is also home to another historic treasure: Prince George’s Chapel.

Ms. Gerken grew up playing in the shadows of the 18th century chapel that has congregation ties to Revolutionary War General John Dagworthy, a large landowner of the area.

“My grandmother used to live in the house right across the street from Prince George’s Chapel. And so, as kids we played over there a lot, behind the wall in the cemetery,” said Ms. Gerken. “In 1980 they were advertising in the paper for a docent and a caretaker for the chapel. So, I applied with the state of Delaware, and I got the job.”

Since 1992, she has been a member of the Friends of Prince George’s Chapel, a volunteer group responsible for maintaining and operating the chapel, which is still owned by the state and leased to the town of Dagsboro.

In 1980 she began working for the state as a docent for tours of the historic chapel.

“Then state decided to close the building because it didn’t have very much visitation. So that is when we formed the Friends in 1992,” Ms. Gerken said.

Given this, it comes as no surprise that history is one of Sandie Gerken’s passions.

Add genealogy to the mix. She says her family tree is more like a forest.

“I’ve got like 24,000 names on my family tree. Of course, that includes my husband’s family, too,” said Ms. Gerken. “24,000 names … it is not really a tree.”

Now retired, Ms. Gerken devotes much of her time to genealogy, watercolor painting and soccer for kids with disabilities.

One of her grandsons has Down Syndrome. “He is like the joy of our life and the whole community, I think,” said Ms. Gerken.

She is also a writer. Several years ago, she authored a book, “Memories of the Clayton Theatre” during the community-based fundraising campaign to help Clayton owner Joanne Howe purchase digital projection equipment in the transition from standard 35mm film to modern technology.

She wrote local history for High Tide News for more than three years.

Her new book, “Storied Sussex” is a work in progress. A collection of historical events and stories that have shaped Sussex County, the paperback book may be out in late February if all goes well.

Ms. Gerken and husband Howard, a retired school principal, have two children: daughter Melissa and son Gregory and three grandsons.

She graduated from John M. Clayton High School, a school encompassing grades 1-12.

“My parents were in the same class,” said Ms. Gerken. “They were the very first graduating class to graduate from John M. Clayton School in 1934. They had 16 members of their class. I graduated exactly 30 years later in 1964 and I had 32. It doubled. My younger sister she was the last class to graduate from John M. Clayton in 1968.”

She majored in English and history at the University of Delaware.

Now retired, Ms. Gerken worked as a substitute teacher for a number of years when her kids were going up. Then she worked with her sister and her husband at an insurance agency for 16–17 years.

Ms. Gerken also taught aerobic dancing for about 15 years through classes through Indian River School District.

This week’s People to Meet: Sandie Gerken.

Where were you born?

“I’m a Beebe baby. I was born in Lewes. My parents were native Sussex Countians; dad from Frankford; mom from Dagsboro. We lived in Dagsboro and they built the Clayton Theatre with my aunt and uncle.”

Where have you lived?

“I’ve lived here, except when I was first married. I met my husband at the University of Delaware. I was a freshman; he was a grad student. He was from New Jersey. When he finished his master’s degree at Delaware he had to go in the Army because he done ROTC at Gettysburg College where he did his undergraduate. He went to Fort Sill. At the end of my junior year we got married and I went to Oklahoma with him. We lived there two years and then came back to Delaware and lived upstate for seven years. Then we bought property down here, behind my mom and dad actually.”

Your passion for history?

“My mother loved history. Sunday afternoon rides with our family always involved going around to the Woodland Ferry and a lot of different places. My mom became interested in genealogy. So, they began taking us to all of these old graveyards and stuff. Basically, that’s how I got started, being interested in history. When my mother died in 1978, I found the notebook where she had done genealogy, but it disappointed me. It was just little notes that you’d write down when you talk on the phone. Sadly, she didn’t have it all written done all nice and all. She had a few typed pages. When she passed then I became the memory keeper of the family. So, I’ve been doing genealogy ever since then. And doing genealogy you get interested in the local history because it is through that that you learn an awful lot about your family.”

First date: The Clayton?

“Yep, my first date. And, of course, if you’d talk anybody who went to the movies way back in the day, the 50s, 60s and 70s, they’d walked around with a flashlight to keep all of the kids in order — Friday and Saturday nights, like baby-sitting night! First shine of the flashlight was a warning. The second shine was, ‘Next time you’re out of here.’ The third shine of the flashlight, you got the flashlight ‘konked’ on your head and you were out — and you had to call your parents.”

“I had the flashlight shined on me a whole bunch of times for kissing boys.”

“Come about sixth or seventh grade I had a boyfriend from the Clarksville area. His parents would drop him off and we’d sit together. Then when I was able to date, the boyfriend I had then liked to take me to the Clayton because he didn’t have to pay for me to get in. I was a cheap date!”

‘Memories of the Clayton’?

“I wrote that to help raise funds to help get the new digital equipment. I really thought that I was only going to sell like 100 copies of that. It’s been about 450 now. But I didn’t go all of this process of getting Library of Congress and all of that, I just took it to the UPS store and they copied and bound it for me. They actually helped me improve the photos that I had in there. I agreed to print 250. They all went. Since, we have printed more at 20 at a time.”

“Truly, one of the reasons that I wrote the book is that I had so many memories and I started out to write it mostly as a memoir before I thought of using it as the fundraiser — as a memoir for me and my sisters and my two cousins. We call ourselves the Clayton Girls. We have lunch once a month.”

“I started out wanting to preserve our memories … and those of our close friends. Then it just kind of blew up from that. So, I spent several months interviewing a number of people. I could have written two books. And along the way I got all the documentation about the history of the theatre.”

The Clayton’s memorable opening?

“The governor was there. They had a band from the school. A local wealthy man had bought up a mess of tickets and given them out. A lot of people didn’t get in. They tore the inside doors off. And my mother had gone to Philadelphia to buy a new outfit. She had these alligator-buckled shoes and she told about how they tore the buckles right off her shoes, treading on her feet to get in.”

Why the name: Clayton?

“It was really named for the school. The school’s name was John M. Clayton, named after a Delaware statesman who was born right here in Dagsboro. He went on to be a Delaware lawyer, statesman and chief justice of Delaware. And he served as Secretary of State under President Zachary Taylor.

“He negotiated with England – it is called the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty – about the Panama Canal. So, they were looking for a name and they figured, well, John M Clayton was born here in Dagsboro.”

Family ties to soccer?

“When my husband and I got married in 1967, he was in the service and then when he came back he was a teacher and he became a soccer coach. He had played soccer all through high and college.  From the very first year we were married, I have been married to soccer. He has been retired from the school system since 1999, but we are still in soccer. He and I started — coming up on 12 years — with the River Soccer Club — a soccer program for kids with disabilities. Our grandson Josh has Down Syndrome. When he was a little teeny tyke in preschool he did just fine with all of the regular kids. But then he needed a place of his own. We found this national program called TOPSoccer — it stands for The Outreach Program. So, we are still involved after 12 years — ages 71 and 75 — with coaching little kids, working with kids with disabilities.”

Sandie Gerken, right, welcomes attendees to the Olde Christmas Musical Celebration at Prince George’s Chapel in Dagsboro.

History quest?

“My training consisted of going to Zwaanendael Museum for like an hour presentation. I brought home a big notebook and a little paperback book about Zwannandel Museum — because I had to work there when they had school tours — and a half a sheet of paper about Prince George’s Chapel.”

“So, being the history person that I am, I had to find out more. I ended up in 1986 writing a docentry book for people who helped me there. It was open Memorial Day to Labor Day, Saturdays and Sundays. After the first few years, they hired another person to share the days of the weekend, so I didn’t have to work both days.”

“They don’t have it open on a regular basis anymore. They open it by appointment for tours, and yours truly gets to give all of those tours.”

Closing thoughts?

“When I was in high school I was the editor of the school newspaper, the John M. Clayton Cryer … I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. My family and my teachers discouraged me that that was a man’s job — we’re talking about graduating in 1964 — and women were supposed to get married, have families and if you worked you were a teacher or nurse or a secretary. They discouraged me from that. So, I was really going to become a librarian. And that is what I went to school to do because I like to research. I wanted to be a research librarian. Now that I am retired and older, I have worked for a paper and have been doing research. So, I kind of got those wishes.”

“And I like to draw. My parents had gotten me oil paint and lessons when I was young but I couldn’t stand the smell of the oil paints, so I gave it up. It was one of those things: ‘When I retire …’ So I took up water color painting in 2005. I paint. That it is one of my passions, that and genealogy.”

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

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