Jay’s words, Reedy’s photosAug 12, 2022 02:51PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
In the step-down chronology of life in America one century ago, the country was still in the stages of grief and recovery from World War I, and just when it seemed safe again to resume normalcy, a worldwide pandemic known as the Spanish Flu took the lives of 50 million worldwide and the lives of over 650,000 Americans.
As the decade slowly closed, a new battle began that ended with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1919 that gave women the right to vote. In 1920, a nationwide constitutional ban on the production and sale of alcoholic beverages led to a 13-year prohibition, and on October 29, 1929, the decade known as “The Roaring Twenties” came to a sudden end when the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined almost 13 percent and gave way to the Great Depression.
Leading up to and including the decade of the 1920s, the fabric of America, tested constantly and often without warning, served as a landscape of progress, excess, disaster, invention and turbulence.
In between, a new theater was built in Middletown, and two local teenagers named Jay Davis. Jr. and Frances “Reedy” Reed lived through all of it.
Beginning in time for the Old Tyme Peach Festival on August 20, the Middletown Historical Society is unveiling its latest exhibition -- “Teens on the Town: Middletown in the 1920s” -- in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Everett Theater, as documented through the lives of Jay and Reedy and the documentation they left behind.
The new exhibition follows “The Whole Shebang: Who and What They Fought For,” a retrospective of the Women’s Suffrage Movement that was a collaborative venture between the Society and the students of Appoquinimink High School’s National Art Honors Society.
The original concept for “Teens on the Town: Middletown in the 1920s” emerged three years ago, when the Society began to explore ideas to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Everett, which opened in November of 1922 after a fire destroyed the Middletown Opera House earlier that year.
“We conducted community surveys, and with the 100th anniversary of the Everett coming up, we asked if they would be interested in seeing an exhibition about the 1920s,” said Abby Harting, the “Teens on the Town” exhibition designer who has been a member of the Society since 2019. “Their answer was an overwhelming ‘Yes,’ and once we knew that this was something that the public wanted to see, we took a look at our collections and asked, ‘Through what lens can we tell that story of that period?’”
‘I went to the movies’
The answer was soon found in the Society’s archives – a contribution by a local resident that contained the one-year diary of teenager Jay Davis, Jr. written from January 1928 to December 1928, along with several play scripts and playbills from theater productions he later produced, directed and starred in.
Born in Middletown in February 16, 1910, Davis grew up in a house owned by his father Jay Davis on Green Street. In his diary, he writes about a play he participates in as a junior in high school, which was later performed at the Everett. He writes about a girl who captures his fancy, and whom he takes to a dance, much to the chagrin of his male rival. He writes about his sister Katherine’s blossoming romance with Ralph from Philadelphia, who will late become Ralph’s wife.
Throughout the diary, however, another love affair begins to emerge. “I went to the movies,” reads one entry. “I went to the movies,” reads another, and a week later, “I went to the movies” appears again – a five-word passage that would give birth to the artistic life he would enjoy until his death in 1986.
Every film Jay Davis, Jr. saw at the Everett in 1928 was silent. While the start of Talkies began in 1927, the theater didn’t yet have the technology of recorded voices until 1929, but it didn’t matter to the teenager. This was a spectacular new medium and he wanted every part of it. From his seat, he would watch Clara Bow and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and John Barrymore and Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd.
Further research by the Society revealed that Davis continued to pursued a two-year degree program in theater and went on to work with several theatrical organizations like the Messrs. Shubert Traveling Company, while also directing and performing in shows like “Pygmalion” in the role of Col. Pickering.
“In 1928, it was all about the movies for Jay,” Harting said. “His diary showcases the fact that he was in love with filmmaking and storytelling and theater and all of the panache and pizzazz that goes along with that. While his dream may not have earned him fame and fortune, he spent the rest of his life pursuing his dream.
In part, the Everett Theater informed the remainder of Jay’s life, and to be able to tell the story of the early days of the Everett through Jay’s words is remarkable.”
Girl on a motorcycle
While the Historical Society now had Davis’ words to help tell the story of life in 1920s Middletown, they needed another prism – photographs – that would show the story. Several years ago, the Society received a collection of photographs collected in scrapbooks by Frances “Reedy” Reed during 1929.
Given to the Society by one of Reed’s caregivers in her later years, the photographs formed a black-and-white lens into the life of Reed, who was born in 1912 to James and Viola Esther Reed. Pulled from an oral history James wrote in his later years, the Society learned that the Reeds lived together for several years, until Viola died of tuberculosis in 1915. After her mother’s death, Reedy was then sent to live with her grandparents in Townsend and graduated from Middletown High School in 1930 -- what was Meredith Middle School – one year after the start of the Great Depression.
In 1934, she married Grover Grandon of Dover and spent much of their lives together living in the Middletown area and traveling extensively. Reed eventually went to work as a security and intelligence officer at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, and became president of several Delaware-based organizations.
Her photographs in the collection – which will be showcased in the exhibition – track Reedy’s life from when she was a toddler to her teenage years and even include one snapshot of the teenager astride a motorcycle. Every photograph of Reed’s – together with Davis’ diary – foretells what would soon become a transitional and traumatic period in American life that impacted the lives of Middletonians.
“For a very long time, Middletown in the 1920s was a major center of commerce for the surrounding farms,” Harting said. “The trains allowed farmers to ship their produce off to Philadelphia, Baltimore and as far away as Boston.
“While the peach was no longer the signature crop of Middletown, we began to see the rise of agriculture and in the 1920s that included dairy and produce farmers and by 1929, we began to see five repair garages that are also functioning as car dealerships in what was still essentially an agricultural community.”
‘Dip into Jay’s shoes’
Throughout the entirety of the exhibit, “Teens on the Town: Middletown in the 1920s” will provide a narration of one decade of the town’s history, told through the delicate heirlooms of two 1920s teenagers and illuminated by the emergence of a new theater that is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
“Like any collecting organization that produces an exhibition, sometimes you will have these stories, such as what we’re telling from Jay’s diary and from Frances’ scrapbook,” Harting said. “We’re also telling this story from the moments that the Everett has provided the people of Middletown, Odessa and Townsend and beyond. This old gem of a building has been able to allow young people to test their talents in a place that allows risk, in order to celebrate the good things that young people have been able to do in this community for so long.”
Harding said that one of the most exciting elements of the exhibit will provide visitors with an interactive opportunity to engage in the life of the 1920s in Middletown – on a makeshift Everett Theater stage.
“They will get to dip into a prop trunk and then reenact some of the plays that Jay was involved in,” Harting said. “They will be able to walk in that space and by doing that, they will be able to step into Jay’s shoes and just for a moment, step into his life.”
To learn more about the Middletown Historical Society, visit www.middletowndehistory.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].