Meet the Grand Dame of Delaware Avenue
The Delaware Children’s Theatre boasts 125 years of history and reincarnations—and bears its vast legacy ever in mind.
Donna Swajeski in the balcony of the Delaware Children's Theatre, the latest—and most enduring—use of the New Century Club building.//Photo by Carlos Alejandro
Statuesque and majestic, she commands the corner of Delaware Avenue and Jackson Street. The white Dutch colonial revival building, known today as the Delaware Children’s Theatre, has survived 125 years of history and reincarnations. Her halls and rooms have been filled with voices, legends and purpose. Today, you can’t miss the sign announcing the upcoming shows, but you may have missed the two historical markers on the side that give but a mere taste of its story.
Thirty years after the Civil War, with a new century looming, the roles of women were changing. More were beginning to enter the workforce, and upperclass women who had married well were uniting to improve their communities and taking roles in the women’s suffrage movement. Women’s clubs were born.
The first Women’s Club of Delaware was the vision of Emalea Pusey Warner, namesake of the school on 18th Street. Warner became a primary leader in Wilmington when she led a group of more than 40 notable women to found the New Century Club in 1889.
Meetings were at first held in their homes, but with ever-growing ranks, the ladies decided they needed their own clubhouse. Though they wanted space for meetings, small entertainments and private parties, they determined that the building itself should create an income, thus becoming both a purposeful social center and an addition to the city.
Taking their cue from the Philadelphia New Century Club, which had built its own clubhouse, the ladies hired the same architect, Minerva Parker Nicols. Granddaughter of an architect, Nicols entered the field through an apprenticeship while attending the Philadelphia Normal Art School, the Franklin Institute and the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts. Nicols became the best-known woman architect in the 19th and early-20th centuries in Philadelphia—the first to establish an independent architectural practice in the United States.
In July 1891, ground was broken for the New Century Club. As the building took form, 300 members grew to 500 and a waiting list. On Jan. 31, 1893, there was a grand reception to celebrate the building’s completion. Its three stories included offices, a stage, a large room with space for seating and a gallery. There were also dressing rooms, an orchestra loft, bathrooms and a cedar closet for costumes, as well as storage areas. There was a balcony, a kitchen, several rooms and bathrooms, and a gigantic basement. It cost $35,000.
A 15-member board managed clubhouse maintenance and expenses. Matters of philanthropy, cultural and moral development, intellectual improvement and the literary enlightenment of the membership were managed by the members themselves. Self-improvement was urged; it was believed those who took part in classes and events outside the home became better mothers and homemakers.
For many women, the club was as close to college as they would get. Women were learning to research, write papers and give presentations. Gaining confidence in themselves as individuals, they were empowered as a group.
Joining with other women’s clubs that were emerging in Delaware, as well as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs that formed at a national level, the women led a host of progressive reforms. Members urged more education for women, manual training in schools for boys and domestic science for girls, kindergartens, playgrounds and cafeterias in schools. They established libraries. They raised money to help black schools and held events to benefit the black community. They advocated for compulsory education, better sanitation, trees along highways and for a juvenile court. They were the force behind child labor laws and improved conditions in prisons. They created the Women’s College in Newark that became part of the Delaware College, then the University of Delaware. They began a student loan fund, scholarship programs for girls and scholarships for studies abroad. In 1907, member Emily P. Bissel, a social worker and activist, designed the first American Christmas Seal to raise funds for a tuberculosis sanatorium.
During World War I the Wilmington New Century Club was used as a hospital during the influenza epidemic, and many club members—600 by then—served as nurses and assistants. World War II brought even greater demands on women’s clubs as they sought to feed, clothe and house destitute millions abroad. The New Century Club sold bonds and stamps, entertained servicemen and their guests, took part in recruitments for the Women’s Army Corps, and worked at the ration board and rent control office. Women became more involved in child welfare, health centers and Americanization for citizenship. Future president Woodrow Wilson was a speaker there. So were author James Michener and birth control activist, sex educator, writer and nurse Margaret Sanger.
As the Vietnam War drew to an end, the second wave of the feminist movement picked up speed. Women were hoping to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and looking to leaders like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. Many wanted more than the roles their mothers inherited. With so many going to college, entering the workforce and becoming more active for their own rights, fewer joined the clubs.
Still, there was a clubhouse to maintain, so the remaining members of the New Century Club desperately sought funds beyond their own pockets. As the club’s few tenants came and went, the building fell into disrepair. The cultural sensibilities of the ’70s had little to do with preservation and restoration and more to do with demolition and starting over—with brass, glass and the occasional fern. The members of the New Century Club needed a permanent financial solution. Two possibilities appeared: Colonial Parking, which wanted to buy the lot, raze the building and build a new parking lot, and the Beaver family, which wanted to create a dinner theater. The ladies chose the latter. It was show time.
The 125-year-old building is a treasure of architectectonic
In 1976, Jim Beaver, his wife, Lorraine, and their son Max, all fresh from The Stone Barn and Fireside Dinner Theatre in Unionville, Pennsylvania, took on the Herculean task of bringing the New Century Club back to life. They leased the building with the option to buy, took out a home equity loan, then went to work.
There was little electricity. “We tore out the gas footlights and used the gas pipes as conduit for the electric lines,” says Max Beaver. (He and Lorraine now live in West Grove, Pennsylvania.) “The building needed new plumbing and a new kitchen, and the kitchen needed all new appliances. The roof on the main building was slate. There were many pieces missing, and there had been leaks. The walls—all of them—needed to be spackled and painted.”
The Beavers welcomed volunteers who wanted to help, but the public also came in to snoop and reminisce. “We had people wandering in telling us all kinds of stories about what they remember happening here,” says Max Beaver. “Apparently, beyond the weddings and cotillions, there had been boxing matches, card trading shows, bachelor parties and other theatrical productions. Someone taught ballroom dancing on the second floor, and there were even church services here when churches were being renovated.”
The Delaware Dinner Theatre opened in 1977. “There was probably more drama in the kitchen than there was on stage that night,” Max recalls. “Our opening was delayed as the building inspector had yet to give us the green light, so everyone was running home and cooking food in their own ovens.” Patrons waited patiently in a line that wrapped around the block.
There were years of very good theater there, and there were years of very good food. “Our chef, Mary Richie Johnson, made everything from scratch, including the ice cream,” says Lorraine Beaver. “We served 50 to 60 pounds of meat every night, along with everything else.” Mary Richie was also an onstage talent. She once performed while roasting a pig to impress a cranky critic. Days later she remarked, “The pig got a better review than I did.”
Many theatergoers still remember stellar productions with local talent, as well as actors from Philadelphia and New York. The building also housed the Delaware Ballet Company, Alcoholics Anonymous and a few tenants who took up residence on the upper floors. The theater also rented out its costumes and lighting. “When Bruce Springsteen started his East Coast tour,” Max Beaver says, “he rented lights from us.”
By 1982, it was clear that revenue was not covering expenses. Max Beaver, whose dream had always been to live in the theater he worked in, learned quickly to be careful what he wished for. “I was not only the artistic director. I was everything in between and the janitor. I just became the go-to guy for anyone who simply didn’t want to do the work. It got old very quickly.”
At the five-year point, the few remaining members of the New Century Club and Patterson Schwartz suggested the Beavers quit the lease. “The money to buy simply wasn’t there,” Lorraine Beaver says. “We closed our last show and closed the theater on the same night.”
For the second time, The New Century Club was up for grabs. Once again, Colonial Parking put in a bid. So did John and Marie Swajeski, advocates for the arts and theater education for the young. Again, the ladies chose the latter. Again, it was show time.
David and Donna Swajeski carry on the theater established by their mother, Marie, in 1972. Marie's purchase of the building likely saved it from being razed.//Floyd Dean Digital Imaging
In 1972, Marie Swajeski had founded the Children’s Repertory Theatre in Wilmington and took its shows far and wide, though it had no home to speak of. “The problem was always rehearsal space, which was often Grace Episcopal Church or anywhere mom could find a suitable spot,” says Marie’s daughter, Donna Swajeski. “A permanent venue was key to her continued success.”
The Swajeskis didn’t lease the New Century Club—they bought it. Once ensconced in their new home, the couple’s first order of business was, once again, repairing the building.
“Replacing the entire roof was a massive undertaking,” says Donna. “There were upgrades and improvements that had to be made throughout the building before we could begin again. Since I’ve been here, we’ve put in a professional sound booth and air conditioning behind the stage and in the gallery.”
The Delaware Children’s Theatre operates as a nonprofit organization. “Mom was not looking to run a business and capitalize personally,” Donna Swajeski says. “As artistic director, she wanted to keep ticket prices affordable, and she wanted to establish a permanent family theater company with a small staff and the help of volunteers. Nonprofits attract the kind of volunteers and manpower one needs to run a theater and maintain a historic building—and we always welcome volunteers.”
Operating as a nonprofit has allowed DCT to apply for grants and “to call in some very influential people,” Donna Swajeski says. “We were able to refurbish the ornate facade with our Fresh Face fundraising campaign with the support from the Markells and (U.S. Sen. Chris Coons). Joe Biden once sat on our advisory board.”
Unlike in the past, the building is no longer for rent. “Marie believed you are either a rental facility, with the staff and security needed to do that well, or a permanent theater running with a full schedule of shows,” Donna Swajeski says. “Our theater is always busy. We are, at any given time, putting on a production, rehearsing a second production or auditioning for a third.”
In 1982 the New Century Club was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. There is a marker on the left side of the building. Nearby is another historic marker from the state, declaring the Delaware Children’s Theatre as its own historic institution. It features Marie Swajeski prominently. A director who helped hundreds of children develop a love for theater, Swajeski led many into the world of professional performance. She brought in thousands of families who marveled at the Old World glamour and splendor that housed her theater. In 2004, Swajeski was entered into the congressional rolls by U.S. Sen. Tom Carper. Sept. 18, her birthday, has been established as Marie Swajeski Day.
Swajeski retired from the demands of the theater several years ago, but her legacy continues through her children, Donna and David Swajeski. David, president of the DCT board, works behind the scenes with banks and accountants to keep the theater financially sound. His latest goal: getting sponsorships for shows. “Rights to musicals continue to be very expensive,” he says. “Imagine the exposure and publicity for a company if it were an underwriter. Thousands of young families come in and out of our doors here on Delaware Avenue.”
Donna Swajeski was the perfect artistic director to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Well known in New York as a writer for NBC, ABC and CBS soap operas, Donna’s scripts colored the events of “Another World,” “Guiding Light,” “All My Children” and “General Hospital.” In 2007, Donna and her “Guiding Light” team won the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing.
“I developed a love for the arts, drama and storytelling from my mother,” she says. “After college, I was fortunate to get a job in New York with ABC, where I was in charge of running the soap operas. It was all a natural transition into the world of writing and directing.”
Both Donna and David Swajeski see the role of The Delaware Children’s Theatre advancing well into the 21st century. “I have pledged to write an original children’s musical to premiere at DCT every year,” says Donna Swajeski. “I’ve done three so far, ‘One Magic Kiss: Snow White’s Story,’ ‘Wake Me When I’m 16’ (based on ‘Sleeping Beauty’) and ‘The Patchwork Girl of Oz.’” Her fourth is slated for this year. “I’d also like to bring some of my own life and connections from New York into Delaware.
“We seek to continue raising standards and to provide a full theater experience for children, which includes premiering originals,” Donna Swajeski says. “My mother never met a child she didn’t love. Having children come to a theater to hear live music, meet characters and engage in a full participatory experience with family is really our aim.”