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Adventures in Roadside Archaeology - The Mar-Va Theater in 1985

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Back in 1985 I was 22 years old and worked for a record company, racking records, cassettes and 8-tracks in chain stores like K-Mart, Roses and Nichols. Once a week, my route took me to the Eastern Shore of MD where I overnighted in a cheap old mid-century motel in Salisbury MD.

I usually filled the night with a trip to the local movie theater. One night I checked the phone book and found the Mar-Va Theater in Pocomoke City MD a short drive south. Located a few blocks off US 13, I had no idea of the surprise I was in for.

I got there early before the first (and only) screening at 7pm, so I checked out the building next door. A candy shop? I went in, and ordered a Cherry Coke. Not out of a can, the guy behind the counter grabbed an empty cup, went over to the fountain GAVE IT A FEW SQUIRTS OF CHERRY SYRUP, and filled the cup with Coke! Just like, the old movies I was such a fan of. But there was more.

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The Mar-Va Theater was the genuine article. I paid my $2 to the elderly lady at the ticket booth and went inside.

Growing up in the land of multi-plex theaters, the Mar-Va was a single screen WITH A BALCONY! The place was a time warp. The Mar-Va left me speechless at every turn - leather seats, porcelain and enamel tiling in the bathroom, art deco touches were everywhere. The popcorn machine advertised a price of 15 cents a bag, and the candy in the machine was 10 cents. 1955 prices in 1985.

I went to the ticket booth and asked to meet the owner. The kindly old lady introduced herself - 80 year old Hattie Clarke. She then introduced me to her husband, 81 year old Dawson Clarke. Mr. Clarke was not only the projectionist, he was the theater owner and the Mayor of the town!

Mr. Clarke explained he used to be the pianist when they used to show silent movies there. He then took me behind the screen to show me the piano he played back in the day for the films. He had played it so much, the white keys were worn to the wood underneath.

I attended the Mar-Va weekly for the next several months and was it an education! I got a detailed demonstration of the projectors - huge things that had to weigh a ton - that had no light bulbs. Two carbon rods were burning inside, and when the screen got dimmed, he cranked a handle to bring them closer together.

He showed me the padlocked, long-closed separate entry doors, bathrooms, candy and popcorn machines, and seats (the now closed balcony) used during segregation.

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He told me all about the Mar-Va, built in 1926 and still 100% original when I discovered it in 1985. Still displaying it's art deco touches, the huge curtain still rolled back when the cartoon (yes, a cartoon!) started before each picture. It had 60 years of wear, but that just made the place even better.

That was 34 years ago and I haven't been back. I read that the Mar-Va fell into disrepair after Mr. Clarke's passing. This story does have a happy ending though - I understand a group of dedicated volunteers have saved the old gal. I can only hope some of the interior touches are still there from 1926...along with a big photo of Mr. Clarke in the lobby.