Mixed Messages: Two Big Bright Signs Are Lit in Sag Harbor & Hampton Bays

Sag Harbor Cinema and the Shinnecock billboards lit up over Memorial Day weekend
Sag Harbor Cinema and the Shinnecock billboards lit up over Memorial Day weekend, Photos: CB Grubb, Dan Rattiner

Two very large, brightly lit electric signs appeared in the Hamptons over Memorial Day weekend. One of them, the red-and-blue neon SAG HARBOR sign attached to a white wall above the cinema entrance on Main Street, sprang to life at 8 p.m. on Saturday evening. It is 16 feet long and 8 feet high. The ceremony attracted a thousand people, standing before it on the street and blocking traffic, to enjoy the event. My wife and I were among the crowd.

Sag Harbor Cinema, the night before the lighting
Sag Harbor Cinema, the night before the lighting, Photo: CB Grubb

The sign had been the symbol of the town for nearly a century—having first graced the movie theater in the 1930s until it went dark that terrible winter day in 2016 when fire roared through the theater and several shops adjacent. Several dignitaries spoke to the crowd. One was artist April Gornik, the leader of the fundraising drive, and she named dozens of people who helped—please raise your hands when I call your name, she said. Among others who spoke were Assemblyman Fred Thiele, who shepherded the effort through Albany.

Fred Thiele and April Gornik at Sag Harbor Cinema sign lighting
Fred Thiele and April Gornik at Sag Harbor Cinema sign lighting, Photo: CB Grubb

“I grew up in Sag Harbor,” he said. “When I would come home from college I would, even before I went home, drive up and down Main Street to see that everything was in place. When the fire happened and it was this black hole [he forced back tears], I knew we had to bring it back. And soon!”

Gornik had the crowd join in counting down from 10, and when the sign lit at zero, pandemonium reigned. The cinema part behind the great sign should be done by fall. It includes two theaters, a performance space, an art gallery, a meeting room—what a great effort this was!

The other big sign that got lit up this Memorial Day weekend is on the south side of the Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays. I was there as the moment approached. The huge video screen sprang to life about 7 p.m. on Thursday. It appears as a great granite slab, 20 feet wide and 61 feet high. Up at the top, two full-color 12-foot diameter disks—one on each side—display the Great Seal of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, the owners of the land where this was put up.

It’s a bit hard for the motorists on the highway to read the wording on the seal as they whiz by at 60 miles an hour, but they cannot miss seeing the 20×30 foot video screen just below the seal. The videos are to be advertisements as available slots are sold, precious income for a tribe that has been here continuously since before the white men came, now living in hard economic conditions on a reservation in the very center of a wealthy summer resort. But there has been backlash. Many summer people who love the Sag Harbor sign want this one to be ticketed by the authorities and taken down. It’s not in keeping with the area, they say.

When the switch was thrown lighting the big vertical billboard, it sprang to life with flowers and rainbows and waterfalls in full color and full motion in the middle of the monument for the first time. A large crowd of Shinnecocks and friends stood around or sat in a semi-circle of folding chairs around a bonfire and cheered as the lights came on and Lance Gumbs, one of the leaders of the tribe, smiled and walked around telling reporters what it was all about.

“We own all this land, from the south side of the Sunrise Highway to Peconic Bay, all deep woods. We leased a right-of-way for the superhighway to the federal government in 1959. We are nationally recognized as a separate nation. And we paid $75,000 for state permits and built this.

Shinnecock billboard lit up on Route 27
Shinnecock billboard lit up on Route 27

“We will follow the Dark Skies guidelines—the video will be dimmed during the night. And we informed the towns and the county on what we intended to do, so here it is.

“In the 1980s, we got shut down for selling cigarette cartons on our reservation. In the 1990s, we got shut down for trying to open a bingo hall and casino on our property. It seems every time we want to do something to make ourselves some money, we get stopped. They want us poor. No more. And we have some other ideas to make money coming along, too.”

The top of the billboard does not rise above the tree line. Not far away to the east, a communications tower rises to over 300 feet, as does a water tower. And just a quarter-mile further along the superhighway ends, next to a gas station sits a statue of me sitting on a bucking lobster by the side of the road, put there by some “Friends of Dan,” as they call themselves. (It rises 11 feet.)

Just after that begins a five-mile stretch of strip malls, pizza parlors, brake-repair shops, auto dealerships, driving ranges, swimming pool stores and a Burger King and a 7-Eleven. It is not what you would call the historic Hamptons here. That’s elsewhere. The summer people have ruined the land, the Shinnecocks tell us. Not them. They have a point.

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