The show must go on, and for the Milton Theatre, that means organizing a fundraiser to buy a mobile stage for their outdoor Quayside even area.
Like other performing venues, the theater only can fill about 30 percent of its capacity under the current phase of Delaware’s COVID-19 State of Emergency Reopening Plan, said John Paul Lacap, marketing manager for the Milton Theatre.
Social distancing makes selling tickets indoors difficult because it’s hard to account for the six feet of space between groups.
“Because of COVID-19, we are finding that more people are attending our outdoor events than our indoor events,” Lacap said. “Of course, this is because they feel safer in an open area than inside a building. For this reason, we are trying to plan more outdoor events over the next few months and, to make this work properly, we need a stage.”
Milton Theatre Quayside, which is pronounced “key-side,” is named in honor of Milton’s shipbuilding history. A “quay” is a platform that lies alongside water for loading and unloading ships.
Quayside premiered in 2019 and was the location for last year’s annual Concert for a Random Soldier as well as a St. Patrick’s Day concert series. Before the pandemic, the theatre planned to hold 12 free summer movies or concerts. Recently, five picnic tables and 22 Adirondack chairs were sponsored by community members and as well as businesses to promote Quayside’s grand re-opening for the summer.
“You can’t really put on a performance without a stage,” Lacap said. The mobile one the theater is interested in will cost about $28,000 and looks like a smaller version of a trailer pulled by semi trucks. Two big doors open on one side of the trailer to reveal a stage inside.
The theater already is using the space regularly. Every Thursday at 6 p.m. its Quayside Nights start with a happy our and then feature local bands. Beer, frozen drinks and are available for sale. Admission is $4 per person, and guests can rent a picnic table that seats eight for $35.
“We still require social distancing even outdoors,” Lecap said.
In addition to raising funds for the mobile stage, the theatre is conducting a capital campaign to raise $2.5 million over the next five years. Known as the Milton Theatre Renaissance Initiative, its money will be used to renovate the original balcony, which will almost double seating the building’s current seating to about 450, as well as restoring the original marquis.
In order to meet the requirements under the State of Emergency, every other row is blocked and every audience group must have three empty seats between them.
For example, if a husband and wife attend a program, they may sit together. If the next group has five people, they must leave three seats between them and the couple. These requirements mean that the theatre can only seat 90 to 100 people. Quayside’s capacity is about 450 but with social distancing, tickets are limited to 120.
The theater plans to continue some activities, Lecap said. Each Friday night, it has a comedy show, but even the performers must social distance on the stage right now. The theater also has drag shows, cabaret shows, dog shows, bird shows and plays planned.
“For four weeks in the summer, we have a Kids Summer Camp and they perform a show every Friday at noon and at 2 p.m.,” Lecap said. “Again, this is a modified theater show with strict social distancing. The kids are not allowed to be within six feet and they cannot hold hands. Our Saturday shows vary and may include plays, musical acts and more.”
Milton Theatre originally opened in 1910 and has suffered greatly over the years. The building has been a basketball hall, fire station, social center and a community stage over the years. In addition, retail businesses as well as restaurants called the Milton Theatre home.
It was not until 1930 that the building became an art deco movie house, showing silent films until “talkies” were available. It was also a popular location during the 1960s and 1970s for live music acts, many of them national recording artists.
The building was damaged by several storms that flooded downtown Milton, including the Storm of 1962. After the last business that used the building closed its doors, it was in danger of being demolished until the Milton Development Corp., a 501(c)(3) purchased the property in 1999.
They rehabilitated the building for use as a multi-use performing arts and cultural center. It is also used as a cinema house, venue for community programs and is available for special events. Financial issues closed the theatre for a few years, but it reopened in 2015.
Since that time, it has been a catalyst for a flourishing arts and entertainment scene in Sussex County.