Editorial: Two downtown movie palaces must be saved
Riverhead and Greenport have long been graced with historic downtown movie palaces. Riverhead’s Main Street theater — The Suffolk — is an Art Deco gem, built in 1933 and hailed at its opening as “the Radio City Music Hall of Long Island.” More than 2,000 people attended its opening night ceremony.
Greenport’s historic Front Street theater reopened in 1939 after a 1915 building on the same site was destroyed by the September 1938 hurricane.
Both venues are beloved by history and architecture lovers as well as longtime residents of the North Fork and Shelter Island, who remember them well. These iconic theaters are reminders of our past, and of happy summer evenings attending movie openings. They also showcase what is unique about each town and what should be protected from both the wrecking ball and big-money interests with a very different vision for the North Fork.
The Greenport Theater is now the real estate market for $5.5 million. It is also available for a long-term lease. It has been owned since 2004 by Josh Sapan, who recently stepped down as CEO of AMC Networks.
There are good reasons to be optimistic about the theater. John Catrambone of Dering Harbor Real Estate, who listed the property, said Mr. Sapan is looking for a group with a vision for how to run the theater going forward.
“There’s this renewed interest in these older movie palaces … that could be used for cinema, music, theater, and other art forms,” he said.
Mr. Sapan first became enamored with the theater after purchasing a home in Shelter Island Heights — a brief ferry ride away. In an interview, he recalled the days when uniformed ushers escorted people to their seats and cars lined up along Front Street.
“It was the heartbeat — the pulsing center of Greenport,” he said.
Hope for the theater’s preservation now lies with filmmaker Tony Spiridakis, founder of the Manhattan Film Institute with his partner, Lisa Gillooly. The institute ran a winter film series there in 2019.
Mr. Spiridakis said he hopes to form a nonprofit and raise money for a new cultural arts center at the theater. This is a terrific idea and we earnestly hope he can succeed with this goal. Greenport — with its extraordinary waterfront — cannot afford to lose what makes it unique. Historically, with its fishing and boat-building past, Greenport is like no other place on the North Fork. Save what can be saved. The clock is ticking loudly.
In Riverhead, where development has been front and center for the Town Board, The Suffolk is one of the anchors for a reimagined downtown. The theater now hosts concerts and events and its owners, Dianne and Bob Castaldi, are seeking to expand to attract bigger acts.
There is strong sentiment among Riverhead officials to do whatever is necessary to save this local treasure. It is said to be the last remaining large Art Deco theater on Long Island.
The theater attracted generations of people to downtown Riverhead. And a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant recently awarded to Riverhead will all but ensure that crowds keep coming, as $2 million of that funding has been earmarked for The Suffolk.
The Castaldis’ plans for saving the Suffolk include incorporating apartments and retail stores to ensure a steady source of revenue. If approved by the town, a 59-foot addition to the rear of the building would include new dressing rooms, with 20 rental units on upper floors.
For both Riverhead and Greenport, the goal is to preserve what is unique to these communities. Their iconic theaters are fine examples of period architecture and meaningful symbols of our past that must be saved.