Sag Harbor’s Historic Cinema Saved

The fire threatened the identity of an important segment of the village, said Robert Stein, former deputy mayor and a trustee of Sag Harbor. “Suddenly, people were like, Hey, wait a minute!” he said. “We’re at risk of becoming just another restaurant capital.”


The Sag Harbor Cinema in 2008. Before the fire, it had been the only art-house cinema on the East End of Long Island.

Doug Kuntz for The New York Times

In January 2017 a group of locals mobilized not only to buy and restore the theater but to transform it. Spearheaded by Ms. Gornik, the Sag Harbor Partnership negotiated purchase of the site and what remained of the building from the real estate developer Gerald Mallow, 80, who had bought the theater in the 1970s. They aimed to accelerate the plans first conceived in 2009 for transforming the theater into a multipurpose hub for the arts.

“If I see something wrong, I just want to fix it,” Ms. Gornik said.

If the initial fund-raising hurdle of $8 million still seemed far-off as recently as last week with $6.6 million in the coffers and a cliffhanger deadline of Dec. 31, board members remained uncommonly sanguine. “This kind of money is a lot of money, and when we talked to professional fund-raisers they said it’s a two-year campaign,” Susan Lacy, director of the HBO documentary “Spielberg and a member of the partnership’s advisory board. “But we’ll get there. I was at PBS for 35 years and I’ve never seen fund-raising like this.”

Nearly 80 percent of the millions raised came in the form of modest donations, Ms. Lacy said: “It was everyone from the butcher to the candlestick maker to the fire department and shop owners.” These being the Hamptons, though, that roster also included an Emmy-winning director, a cinematic legend and a Piano Man. Rob Marshall, Julie Andrews and Billy Joel are among the deep-pocketed locals committed to protecting Sag Harbor from an unwelcome fate as another seasonal resort town, or else a seaside boutique rialto. “I did a film on Judy Garland, and I think of this as being like Judy saying, ‘Hey, let’s put on a show,’” Ms. Lacy said.

She was referring to a trope made famous in 1930s films, but there was also something of an actual show. Among the improbably folksy fund-raising efforts put forth by the partnership is “American Values,” a film program running throughout the winter and featuring the documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker; the director William Friedkin; the Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein; the artist and composer Laurie Anderson; and Ms. Andrews screening their favorite films and sticking around afterward to talk about them. The Coen brothers’ 2010 adaptation of “True Grit” was first in the series. Selected by the “Wonderstruck” composer Carter Burwell, it was screened at the local high school.

“We want people to relate to Sag Harbor and Main Street as a year-round cultural destination, as opposed to a high-end retail strip that’s open eight weeks year,” said Nick Gazzolo, president of the Sag Harbor Partnership. One key to that goal is restoring the emblematic sign.

“Not seeing the facade and the sign there is what got people emotional,” Lisa Field, president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce and proprietor of the Sag Harbor Variety Store, said. A gaping hole remains in the middle of Main Street, all that was left after construction crews using heavy equipment tore away the wreckage of the historic theater last December.

In what was inevitably characterized at the time as a Christmas miracle, the Art Deco neon sign was pulled almost literally from the ashes — “It was attached to the facade, which was leaning and about to cave in,” Ms. Gornik said — and plucked from the structure with a backhoe and taken for storage by the owners of a local moving company. The mangled letters were pounded and welded together again by a Bridgehampton metalsmith quietly working for free.

“On a certain level, the fire left a particular kind of scar that people need to heal,” Mr. Stein, the village trustee — and, as he noted, a practicing psychoanalyst — said. “There is this feeling that people don’t want to see a new face there. They want the old face back.”

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