“Creating the future by preserving the past.”
This is the mantra that the soon-to-be-renovated Suffolk Theater in Riverhead wants to imbue in the surrounding community.
The Suffolk Theater first opened its regal doors in 1933 during the height of the Great Depression. Before the end of 2012, nearly 80 years after its grand opening, the old movie house intends to reopen with the intent of recapturing the spirit that helped it survive some of America’s hardest times.
“Riverhead is waking up from a deep slumber and reinvigorating back into a walk-able hamlet that serves as a center for community life,” says Chris Kempner, Director of Community Development in Riverhead.
The inimitable art deco style of the theater is being restored to its former grandeur. The high walls and ceilings of the lobby have been repainted, the seats of the auditorium have been terraced, the magnificent stage has been expanded, and the marquee has been refurbished to light up both East and West Main Street.
“The theater really is the central hinge that binds East and West Main Street together,” said Sean Walter, the Riverhead Town Supervisor, in an interview.
“You have great restaurants and the historical society on the west and the Aquarium and the Riverhead Project to the east – the potential is great,” Walter insisted.
The town purchased the majestic theater back in 1994 with the intention of renovating the building to its former glory, but legal concerns and litigation impeded the process. Now, after 25 years of dormancy on Main Street, the theater is scheduled to open in December.
“The theater has been empty too long,” said Walter. “Main Street was dead after the theater left.”
Walter’s administration has fulfilled their pledge to rebuild old Main Street block-by-block, store-by-store. But the town supervisor acknowledges that his success is due in large part to the efforts of other hard working people, like Bob Castaldi, the owner of the Suffolk Theater.
“Bob has been working very hard to get the theater open. He has been doing it out of his own pocket,” adds Walter.
Despite chiefly funding the renovation himself, Castaldi insists that the undertaking is well worth it.
“We feel like we’re doing a really good thing, by saving this theater,” he said.
When the Suffolk Theater opened in 1933, Milton Burns, the town supervisor at the time, decreed that the new theater would bring economic growth to Riverhead’s Main Street and business district. Burns turned out to be clairvoyant. The theater did just that up until its closing in 1987, when the birth of multiplexes changed the industry forever.
Walter is hoping for similar success with this opening – he believes that the theater is one of the main factors that contribute to Riverhead’s unique image.
“We are creating an entertainment district with the new Suffolk Theater, the aquarium, great restaurants, the historical society, and Grangebel Park on the river,” says Walter. “It has nothing to do with box stores, we want window shoppers… and unique stores.”
“With the new storefronts, the new school opening up downtown, the new parks, gardens and public spaces along the Peconic River – we are seeing many new faces getting engaged downtown. It is an exciting time for Riverhead,” states Kempner.
However, the reopening of the Suffolk Theater does not mean that Walter has stopped looking for a movie theater for Riverhead.
“We’ve slowed down a little to take care of other things, but now that they’re done, we will continue our search,” informs Walter.
The renovated theater is a perfect mix of the past and the future.
During World War II, the Suffolk Theater was an official issuing agent for the U.S. war bonds. The old theater is not just a classic building with important memories, but a historic landmark whose influence is still prominent throughout the community.