A Look at the Milton Theatre’s Century-Plus History and Revitalization

Five years after reopening as a non-profit, the community theater plows ahead.

Milton Theatre director Fred Munzert and marketing director Jean Paul Lacap./Photo by Maria DeForrest

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Here’s how the historic Milton Theatre in Delaware has been resurrected by the non-profit Calliope Project for future use.

The Milton Theatre is a story of resurrection, so it was appropriate that during an Easter weekend performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” all 236 seats were occupied, the lobby was full and the line was out the door. Eager attendees were visible out the window between posters for some of the venue’s other 350 shows, nearly one per day. The success was an early birthday present for the theater, which celebrates the five-year anniversary of its most recent incarnation in July. Seeing the crowd, it was hard to believe that, less than a decade ago, the theater had been left for dead.

The Milton Theatre originally opened in 1910. It lived many lives: as a fire station, a basketball hall, a social center and a community stage. At its peak in 1939, it wasn’t uncommon for men to wear a suit and tie to the movies it screened to more than 400 patrons at a time. The theater lived through three fires but was finally brought down in 1962 by severe rain damage. The last film it showed was the Elvis flick “Blue Hawaii.”

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After 30 years of abandonment and a false-start revival ending in bankruptcy, the theater was saved by Milton couple Glenn and Lisa Howard, who bought the playhouse in bankruptcy to prevent it from being demolished. With help, they re-opened it to the community under the management of the newly-created non-profit Calliope Project.

One of the Milton Theatre’s first shows was a community production of “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Holly Murray started volunteering when her son landed a part in the play. She never left. Today, she works full time as its house manager. “I love it here,” she says. “I like to say that this isn’t really a job for me. It’s one of my favorite things to do.”

“I am absolutely amazed at the uniqueness [of this theater] and the way this all has come together. It’s almost like a perfect storm.”

The programming fills every category under the sun, from children’s shows to musicals to comedians and magicians to wrestling matches. Some of the most popular shows are music tributes and the Peek-A-Boo Revue, a Philadelphia-based burlesque act. “It’s fun to have a variety,” says Murray, “We want everyone to feel comfortable here.”

Fred Munzert, the theater’s director/talent buyer, credits Milton for the theater’s success. “It has just been amazing people, an amazing project, amazing building, an amazing town… and it has just really made that synergistically far more than anything I thought it would be.” Munzert was recruited from his job running a theater program in Middletown and has been in the job since the theater’s reopening. “I am absolutely amazed at the uniqueness [of this theater] and the way this all has come together,” he says. “It’s almost like a perfect storm.”

On July 6, Milton Theatre and the Calliope Project celebrated their five-year anniversary with a fundraiser for the Milton Theatre Renaissance Initiative, Calliope’s fundraising arm. MTRI’s goal is to raise $2.5 million in 3-5 years, which will go to the purchase of the theater from the Howards and final renovations.

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By the looks of the Easter Saturday crowd at “Jesus Christ Superstar,” it’s evident the community is on board with the venture. As the lights turn up on a leather-jacket Judas and a Jesus decked in flannel, it’s clear that this community, and maybe a miracle, have finally brought Milton Theatre back from the dead.

The Milton Theatre
110 Union St., Milton • 684-3038

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