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Reel comeback: Sag Harbor Cinema, a survivor of fire and pandemic, welcomes moviegoers anew

SAG HARBOR, New York -- The historic Sag Harbor Cinema, literally rising from the ashes, is once again reeling in moviegoers.

The cinema, a cherished landmark in this charming Long Island village, has witnessed the story of 20th-century pop culture. It began as a vaudeville and burlesque theater in the 1890s, then became a silent movie house before moving on to talkies.

By 1978, it was one of the few single-screen art-house cinemas left in the country, thanks to the stewardship of Gerald Mallow, its owner and programmer for 38 years.

But the cinema almost became a casualty of the 21st century: It withstood a devastating fire in 2016 and then the ordeal of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. But with community support, the cinema stands strong anew.

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"You can't miss the cinema, it's really at the heart of the village," said Genevieve Villaflor, acting executive director of the Sag Harbor Cinema. "People walk around and are always curious about what's playing. This is the place to discover something different and new."

Moviegoers are thrilled not simply to back in a movie theater, but to be back in this one, with its iconic Art Deco neon sign glowing anew.

"This is our first time back in a movie theater," since the COVID shutdown, said Allan Beinhorn, who's been seeing movies at the cinema with his wife for over 30 years.

"We like nothing better than to come back in this theater, which is without question our favorite theater in the world," Beinhorn said.

Unlike traditional chain movie theaters, the cinema has three screening rooms with limited movie timesthroughout the day, and one of the theaters can play movies on 35-millimeter film.

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"Rather than seeing the blockbusters in AMC, this is a place where you can see independent films," said Leslie Rikon, who has watched movies at the Sag Harbor Cinema for over 30 years.

"It's a real art house," said Rikon.

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Cinemagoing at Iconic Venue Makes a Comeback in Sag Harbor

In 2016 a fire nearly destroyed the only arthouse cinema on the East End of Long Island. Five years and $18 million dollars later, the iconic, century-old Sag Harbor Cinema is once again open for business.

A former whaling village, Sag Harbor, NY, located between Southampton and East Hampton, was at one point a thriving working-class community full of artists like John Steinbeck. In recent years, deep pocketed homeowners flooded the sleepy enclave, creating more traffic and fancier village haunts. But despite the influx of affluence, Sag Harbor has managed to uphold its small-town, subdued, artistic vibe.

The village’s Main Street is home to Sag Harbor Cinema. Built to host vaudeville and burlesque shows in the 1890s, the venue become a silent movie house that evolved to show talkies. In 1978 Gerald Mallow bought the single-screen theater, which he owned until selling for $8 million in 2017.

When Sag Harbor Cinema— beloved for not only its obscure programming but also its 1930s red neon sign with the village name — burned down, “it was a massive trauma for the community,” explains artist and community activist April Gornik. “It caused tremendous pain.”

A volunteer for Sag Harbor Partnership, a local nonprofit community organization, Gornik and other inhabitants including Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan launched a massive Sag Harbor Cinema rebuild effort that became a community effort.

The Town of Southampton bought a use easement on the property, helping make Sag Harbor Cinema a non-for-profit theater with Gornik serving as the board chair. D’Agnolo Vallan — the U.S. programmer and a selection committee member of the Venice Film Festival — serves as the founding artistic director.

The Cinema garnered national attention when celebrities like Billy Joel, Julie Andrews and Martin Scorsese donated and voiced their support in purchasing, rebuilding, and restoring the movie house. But support also came via anonymous donations, grants, and community fundraising efforts like local bake sales, high school class donations and donation jars placed in shops throughout the small town. Over one million in community donations of less than $1,000 came from local villagers. Of the $18 million raised, $10 million was used to bring the movie theater and that 1930s red neon sign back to life.

“We have not just built a normal movie theater back in place of the Sag Harbor Cinema,” says Gornik. “We have built an extraordinary facility.”

That facility is a multiuse center for film and the arts which includes three separate theaters, Dolby Atmos sound systems, 4K, 35 and 16 millimeter projectors as well a roof top bar.

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“From the very beginning we knew we were going to create a space where what you watch and hear is the way the filmmakers want their films to be seen and heard,” says D’Agnolo Vallan.

During the theater’s Memorial Day weekend grand opening, screenings included 35 millimeter collectors print of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction,” D.A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back,” Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” and William Wellman’s “Nothing Sacred,” which had been restored by the Museum of Modern Art.

But the new Sag Harbor Cinema is not just for cinephiles — it’s meant for anybody who likes to watch movies. Meaning Hollywood blockbuster like John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place Part II” and John Chu’s “In The Heights” will also be on the marquee.

“We are well on our way to changing the nature of what has been kind of a weird little art house theater that appealed to people, even people who didn’t come, to a cinema that actually has its arms open to the entire community,” says Gornik.

Ticket prices range from $7.50 -$15. Various membership deals are also being offered.

Through retrospectives and an upcoming celebration of Latin American cinema, both Gornick and D’Agnolo Vallan hope to attract a wide-ranging group of visitors.

“This is community is so full of artists and filmmakers,” says D’Agnolo Vallan. “So (the Cinema) can become a bridge between these artists and the rest of the community by highlighting the work of artists from here and making them available to audiences.”




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A First Look Inside Sag Harbor’s Rebuilt Cinema

Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

From the sidewalk, the Sag Harbor Cinema, with its red neon sign, curved stucco exterior, glass-tiled portico, and blue recessed doors, looks as if it has been untouched since Jean Harlow was the main draw. But much of what you see at 90 Main Street today is brand-new. In 2016, the theater was nearly destroyed by a fire that is believed to have started in a nearby building. The new façade is a meticulous reproduction, and though the neon sign is original — it was saved from the blaze by the local fire department — it had to be reconstructed and restored. Much of the interior had to be rebuilt as well. It’s the work of the Sag Harbor Partnership, a local nonprofit community organization run largely by volunteers, which launched a massive rebuilding effort, raising money from donations and grants. Artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik were among those involved in launching the project; Fischl gave an early donation and Gornik has chaired the campaign. The redesign — which was led by architect Allen Kopelson of NK Architects — took several years and was delayed by the pandemic; this month, the century-old theater is reopening in stages, and this is the first extensive look inside.

After the 2016 fire. Photo: Jennifer Peltz/AP/Shutterstock

For locals, its return is an exciting and emotional event. Growing up nearby, I went to the theater often. It was where my friends and I would meet on weekends to watch old horror movies, and it was where I went every December with my parents to see It’s a Wonderful Life. It was the site of many summer matinees and awkward high-school dates. The theater had a damp, dusty smell, creaky red seats, and perpetually stale popcorn. Everyone in town, it seems, has a story about being the only person in the house — or one of a handful — at a winter-night screening. In recent decades, as Sag Harboradapted to a modern (and exceedingly wealthy)clientele, the theater remained comfortingly shabby, a lingering piece of the old village.

Built in the 1890s, the building originally housed a vaudeville and burlesque theater. Around the turn of the century, a projector and screen were brought in so silent films — Charlie Chaplin flicks and the like, on celluloid — could be screened on Saturday nights. As filmmaking technology developed, so did the theater, and in the late 1920s, speakers were installed and the auditorium was expanded to show talkies. In 1936, the architect John Eberson — known for dozens of “atmospheric” theaters around the country — remodeled the cinema, establishing its distinctive Art Deco aesthetic, putting in a curved marquee, red plush carpeting, and a brass ticket counter. In 1978, Gerald Mallow, a local cinephile, bought the theater and transformed it into an art house, and it remained his for 38 years. After the fire, Mallow — who at that time was nearing 80 — sold the charred building to the Partnership, whose restoration aimed to eliminate the theater’s underlying ricketiness while retaining the small-town feel.

Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

The biggest change to the theater involved reconfiguring the single 500-seat auditorium into two smaller rooms: one with 227 seats and another with 98, with a concession stand in between. “A 500-seat theater is sort of antiquated,” says the executive director, Jamie Hook. “We went with a design that would offer more flexibility.” The new structure also includes a 40-seat screening room upstairs (with “big, fat fancy seats”) for special events.

Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

Although the building’s façade and lobby were destroyed, the main auditorium was largely spared, and the designers, says Hook, threw themselves into painstaking reconstructive work. The light fixtures and the illuminated exit signs, for instance, are original, and the cast-iron seat ends were stripped of their lead paint, repainted, and rewired. Likewise, the golden fleur-de-lis wallpaper is a careful reproduction of the original, hinting at the opulence of the earlier auditorium. “The old theater was really palatial, with gold chandeliers, thick curtains, and a lot of pink velvet” says Hook. “We wanted something more understated that still gives you a sense of its former grandeur.”

Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

“Another main goal was to transform this theater — which for many years had a rather narrow program of indie and art-house films — and broaden the palette.” The booth can now project digital movies but also 35-mm. and 16-mm. film. That’s unusual these days, says Hook, “but we felt it was important to be equipped to screen archival films in their original format.” And he’s exultant about the audio equipment: “We invested in a Dolby Atmos sound system, which is basically the highest-fidelity system on the market,” says Hook. (It involves 53 speakers in custom-built fixtures distributed around the walls and ceiling.) “It’s hard to find one outside of, like, Lincoln Center.”

Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

On the newly constructed third floor, they added a bar and rooftop lounge with a view of Peconic Bay — the most decidedly modern space in the new-old building. “Back in the day, the theater was beloved but a little decrepit,” Hook says. “What a lot of people loved about it was that you could go to the movies and there would be only two or three people in the theater. You could drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes in there, and no one would notice.” Clearly, those days are over, but the updates offer potential for new (if perhaps not quite as illicit) kinds of fun, and Hook is hopeful that it will be a gathering place for the community. The bar is slated to open to the public on May 27.

“We also want this to be the place where high-school students can come hang out after class, where you come to meet a friend or a colleague for coffee, where connections are made.” To that end, a ground-level café will be open during the day, well beyond peak movie-watching time.

Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

Vintage film posters, some dating to the 1940s, line the walls of the lobby and central hallway. “We have a poster orphanage,” says Hook. “Kim Cattrall donated an old poster to us, and after that, we had tons of people calling and offering us theirs. Joe Mankiewicz’s granddaughter donated some. It’s sort of incredible — we have dozens.”

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