Suffolk Theater owners Bob and Dianne Castaldi were presented with the New York State Historic Preservation Award last year, in recognition of their efforts to restore their historic theater. Built in 1933, the Suffolk Theater is the last remaining Art Deco theater on Long Island. “We were really very honored to get it,” Bob says, regarding the Preservation Award. “There were some very impressive projects in New York. It was just really nice to know that our little theater was on their radar.”
Castaldi is being modest. Not only is the Suffolk Theater quite large, but the Castaldis’ elaborate and transformative restoration of the theater was anything but “little.” It took place over eight years, from February 2005 to March 2013. Having grown up in Queens, the Castaldis had not been to the Suffolk Theater before they first saw it and bought it on the spot. “We just looked at each other and said ‘we can’t let this go,’” Dianne remembers.
It’s easy to imagine the Castaldis falling in love with the elegant Suffolk Theater we see now. But this beautiful theater that once again anchors Main Street in Riverhead is a far cry from the building the Castaldis took under their wing. Abandoned and neglected, the Suffolk Theater had been crumbling for years. “There was rotted this, rusted that, broken this, and broken that,” Bob says. But despite its appearance, “we felt we had to save it. We saw 1933 and we saw somewhere in the future. We didn’t see the disaster at hand.” Dianne adds, “It would have been a shame to see this go. The town was selling it for any use. It could have become a furniture store, a car wash, an office building—whatever.” But thanks to the hard work of the Castaldis, the Suffolk Theater remains a theater—one true to its roots.
Down to the smallest details, the Castaldis reproduced nearly every element from the original 1933 Suffolk Theater. From the fabric pattern on the walls to the lighting fixtures and the carpet, the décor of the theater mimics its original look. Because the theater had only received two paint jobs in its history, it was even possible to discover and replicate its original color scheme. Of course, the Castaldis added new features to the theater, including a beautiful island bar on the first floor. The biggest update, however, was reworking the seating to make the venue a more flexible space. Seating can now be interchanged between traditional theater seats, cabaret seating with tables, or larger wedding-style tables. The goal is to be able to hold virtually any type of event in the theater.
“It’s very versatile,” Dianne says. “We’ve even set up a rink and had a boxing event.” For Independence Day weekend, the dance floor came out for the live broadcast of the Grateful Dead’s final concert. “It was Woodstock but everyone had grey hair,” says Bob.
The one aspect of the theater’s restoration that Bob Castaldi is most proud of, however, is somewhat surprising: the women’s bathroom. “The real challenge of the renovation,” he says, “was trying to figure out how to get 13 stalls in the ladies room. Once upon a time there were only two.”
The bathrooms may be bigger at the Suffolk Theater, but it’s certainly the same theater that patrons remember from decades back. “We have people that have come in who worked here and had been to movies here and they say, ‘Wow, it looks just like it used to!’” And for those who’ve never seen it before, they’re still struck with what the Castaldis call “the wow factor,” because you can’t walk in without saying wow.
“We’re very happy we went through the time and effort and expense to do the renovations,” Bob says. “You know, I’ve done renovations before, saving buildings as a contractor. You get paid and you move on. But we saved this building and we stayed.” Bob confesses: “This building—it sounds crazy—but it talks to you. And the same voice that said ‘help’ is now saying ‘thank you.’”