It didn’t matter that the sign had nothing to do with Sag Harbor’s history as a unique whaling town. It didn’t matter that the sign didn’t say “Theatre” after it. It didn’t matter that the size of it was much too large to be allowed under current zoning laws. It didn’t matter that neon is illegal and anti-environmental. It didn’t matter that the movie theater inside sometimes smelled bad. It was just the symbol of the town. And the town embraced it as such, as a historic icon of what Sag Harbor was, even though it was put up in the Great Depression, intended back then as something garish, something way out of proportion and something that just might bring in more customers to watch a movie.
Who know what the townspeople thought of it back then. Well, there was no zoning. There wasn’t much anybody could do. By the 1980s, as the leaders got together to decide to defend Sag Harbor from chain stores, pop-ups and chic shops, the sign became the symbol of the community’s success. The mechanical horse in front of the 5 and 10, activated by quarters, remained. The Customs House remained. The Whaling & Historical Museum remained. And everybody in Sag Harbor knew everybody else. Until they didn’t.
Thirteen years ago, Brenda Siemer, the wife of actor Roy Scheider, came out of her yoga class across Main Street from the movie theater and saw a workman from Sayville, according to the sign on the side of his truck, standing on a ladder and putting up small plastic letters that said SAG HARBOR where the huge neon sign had once been. While Brenda was in her yoga class, this workman had already removed each of the nine giant neon letters of the neon sign. Each letter was now leaning against the building on the sidewalk alongside his truck. He was completing his task. Up were going the plastic letters. Brenda had never seen the white concrete wall bereft of the neon SAG HARBOR. It was not a happy sight.
“Stop,” she shouted as she ran across the street. The workman ignored her. She shouted at him again, and he continued to ignore her. He was putting up the letter H.
Brenda ran into the store next to the movie theater. She ran into the stationery store. She ran into the grocery store, the liquor store, the pharmacy, the Paradise bar. Like Paul Revere, she rousted up not only the owners and employees of these establishments, but also the customers, and also the mayor. Soon there were 50 people, then a hundred, then 200, crowding around the man on the ladder alongside his pickup truck. He stopped what he was doing.
“Take those letters down,” someone shouted. “Put up the old neon letters again.”
The workman hesitated. Then he tried to argue with the crowd. He was only doing his job. He was almost done. Now the crowd was angry. He would have to stop. Put the old neon letters back up.
The workman was surrounded, trapped. He caved. And in the end, he took all the plastic letters down and threw them in the back of the truck and then drove off, back to Sayville, to tell the boss what had happened.
The crowd looked at the neon. The workman was told it was all rusted out. Too dangerous to put back up. And they could see that. But they wanted them up nevertheless. What to do?
“I’ve got a shed where I could keep them,” someone shouted. Someone else shouted, “I can get a truck. I’ll be right back.”
And so it was that for more than one entire year, between 2004 and 2005, there was no SAG HARBOR sign on that white concrete wall. The owner of the theater filed a grand larceny complaint demanding “his property” back. Eventually, he backed down and a fundraiser was held, consisting of an auction. Under a tent on Long Wharf, the old rusty sign was auctioned off—Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook bought the SAG part—to raise money to pay for the construction of a new neon sign exactly like the old, but brand new instead of rusty. It was done and the neon was back, but just until last winter when, in a horrible fire, firemen braved the smoke and flames consuming the building that housed the entrance, the ticket office, the lobby, the bathrooms and the concession stand of the Sag Harbor movie theater, and, later, workmen knocked down the façade and unbolted the new letters and got them off to safety.
Gerry Mallow, the owner of the movie theater then and now, had, even before the fire, offered up this movie theater building for sale for $12 million, which is about what it was worth as a piece of commercial real estate in this town. He hoped to sell it to someone who would keep the movie theater going. But if not, he’d sell it anyway.
Two months ago, Mallow went to contract to sell the burned-out theater for $8 million to a private nonprofit enterprise committed to saving the theater. The funding for the nonprofit, the Sag Harbor Partnership, had not been finalized when the papers were signed, though they had a promise for a $1 million donation from an anonymous donor. They’d need some time to raise the full funds.
Sag Harbor Partnership is receiving gifts of tax-deductible money to raise a total of $6 million before July 1. If they can achieve that goal, they continue on toward $8 million due by December 31. If the money doesn’t appear, the deal is null and void.
The officers of the nonprofit believe they can make these deadlines, and a vigorous campaign is underway to raise the money. The old 480-seat theater will become two theaters with state-of-the-art equipment. There will be a third 30-seat screening room upstairs that can also be a lecture hall. There will be a café. And, of course, the sign, squirreled safely away, will be put back up exactly where it was as the capstone to this project.
The money is coming in. Last month it was announced that singer Billy Joel, who lives part-time in Sag Harbor, had given $500,000. The Partnership confirmed that the Cinema Popcorn Stand will be named in his honor of his generous gift. Others making major donations are director Martin Scorsese and film producer Harvey Weinstein. Join in. Help make the goal. Sag Harbor is the little town, the lovely little town, that could, and will. Everyone loves Sag Harbor, the old 1840s whaling town restored to look like yesteryear, with almost every store on Main Street owned and operated by someone who lives nearby. Make your donation for at sagharborcinema.org in the next three weeks. Join this effort to make it happen.