Muriel Schwartz honored on the occasion of her 100th birthday.
Muriel Schwartz has been known by many titles during her long life – businesswoman, philanthropist, patron of the arts and community activist.
While Grande Dame of Dover was never an official appellation bestowed on her, it might be the most fitting title for the woman whose impact on the arts in the capital city is without equal.
Schwartz celebrated her 100th birthday on Tuesday.
While she was not available for an interview about her life and times, gallons of printer’s ink have been used to chronicle her career over the years, and those who know her were willing to mark her centennial celebration with stories about the diminutive fireball who refused to bow to others on the basis of her gender, her religion and or her moral beliefs.
Today, her presence is most keenly felt at the Schwartz Center for the Arts, which her family owned when it was called the Capitol Theater, and before that the Dover Opera House.
“It seems like Muriel was always around,” said retired Dover lawyer Thomas Jackson. “She is very intelligent, a logical, straight-line thinker, but she is also very entertaining. She really loves a good joke, even if it is a little off-color. She really has a great sense of humor.”
Retired Dover businessman Bob Berglund said anybody who was born in Dover during a certain time period knew Schwartz at one time or another.
“That’s especially true if you were a kid going to the movies,” he said.
Celluloid in their blood
Born July 15, 1914 in Wilmington, Muriel Silvia Schwartz was the only child of George M. and Lillian Schwartz, two first-generation Americans whose parents had come to this country from Russia and Austria, respectively. George made a living, first as a traveling salesman for a motion picture service and then, by the time his daughter was five, as manager of a movie house.
Although he lived in Wilmington, George persuaded a Dover fraternal group to build a theater in their Loockerman Street lodge and rent the building to him. Dubbed the Temple Theater, the building, which now houses the Dover Army-Navy Store, was considered one of the finest movie houses in the state.
The family eventually moved to Dover, where George bought the opera house in 1922 and remodeled it into a theater that featured movies and live vaudeville shows.
Lillian passed away in 1935, and George married the former Reba Ginns, daughter of a Wilmington theater owner, later that year. Yet George died of a heart attack in 1942, leaving Reba to continue the theater business alone. Although Muriel had only passing experience in the business aspect of her father’s theaters, she quickly learned what she needed to know – and then some.
“It was quite an achievement,” said former Delaware State News editor Frank Fantini, who later served a member of the board of directors when the Schwartz Center was being organized. “They were two single women, doing this back in the 1940s and 1950s. I don’t think that was done back then.”
Over the next three decades, Reba and Muriel expanded the George M. Schwartz movie chain, which grew to 12 houses, stretching from New Castle County to Salisbury, by the time they sold the business in 1973.
A fixture in Dover
Despite seeing business success in larger towns, Muriel and Reba remained in Dover, living together in a large white home on Silver Lake while managing their small theater chain.
Berglund recalled visiting the Capitol Theater, where he and other children could watch a movie and get a candy bar for less than a quarter.
“That was back before television, where everyone was geared to go to the movies on a Saturday,” he said. “As a child, you could see a movie for 16 cents and buy a box of Good and Plenty for a nickel. That’s what we did darn near every Saturday.”
And it wasn’t just weekends that Schwartz catered to the younger set.
“When I was in grade school, she would have a free cartoon show on the last day of school before Christmas,” Jackson said. “We’d get out of school at noon, have lunch and go to the Capitol Theater for two hours of cartoons. That was something every kid looked forward to.”
Schwartz had a real affinity for children, even though she never married, Jackson said.
“She has this inner child that she could access any time,” he said. “But she’d never talk down to you. She talked to you person-to-person. That’s kind of neat when you’re a little kid.”
The only time Jackson saw Schwartz get mad was when he and another boy got into a fistfight in the theater foyer.
“She kicked the both of us out,” he said.
Schwartz made an immediate impression on Ann Baker Horsey, now the curator of collections for the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. The two first met in 1976.
“I admired her right away,” Baker Horsey said. “She was a single woman and a businesswoman who carried on the family tradition and did it well.”
Schwartz was a woman ahead of her time, noted friend Dolly Ingram.
“She was like a Joan of Arc,” Ingram said. “She’d make up her mind and when she said she was going to do something, she did it. I always loved her wit and her candor. You couldn’t help but love her for it.”
Schwartz caused a stir in late 1972 for showing the X-rated “Deep Throat” at the Capitol Theater.
That decision caused then-Mayor Crawford Carroll and Dover City Council to pass an anti-obscenity ordinance, which Schwartz considered unconstitutional.
She flaunted the ordinance by showing another, similarly-rated film. Carroll and the police were in the audience for that showing, and a Dover Police officer showed up at her home afterward with an arrest warrant.
The situation soon resolved itself and she wasn’t prosecuted, but Schwartz had made her point.
“She had the guts to do it,” Berglund said. “It was one of those things that everyone then said was shocking, but there were an awful lot of people in that theater.”
Fantini said Schwartz was proud of the fact she stood up for the rights of people to see what they wanted.
“It was the source of great mirth and humor,” he said “But she also was very proud she stood up on principle.”
After selling the movie chain in 1973, Schwartz founded a Dover art gallery, Muriel’s, on Loockerman Street, where she showcased artists, including Delaware’s own Jack Lewis.
Reba died at the age of 95 in January 1996, but Schwartz, then 80, continued to work. She often drove herself to her office on the first floor of the Landmark building, located at the corner of Division and South State streets, putting in several hours each day.
Later, when she could no longer drive, Horsey would pick Schwartz up at home, drive her to the post office and then to the Landmark. She even went to work while recovering from a serious back injury, pushed in a wheelchair from the nearby rehabilitation center.
“She really prided herself on being a successful businesswoman,” Jackson said, adding Schwartz not only overcame bias over her gender, but people’s attitudes about her ethnic background.
“Back in the 50s and 60s, there was still prejudice against Jewish people in this area, not a lot, but it was there,” he said. “She also had to contend with that.”
In the late 1990s, Muriel joined the board of the Friends of the Capitol Theater, which was working toward renovating and reopening her former theater, which had stood unused since 1982. The group raised more than $8 million, and the Schwartz Center for the Arts opened in October 2001.
“I think it was a very fitting tribute to the contributions of her father, her stepmother and herself,” Fantini said. “Here we are in 2014, and the name continues to this day and it will continue for decades.”