A Memory: When Sag Harbor Kidnapped the Neon Sign on Main Street

Sag Harbor Cinema sign cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

Everyone who cares about the big red-and-blue Art Deco neon letters that say SAG HARBOR over the cinema entrance on Main Street remembers the day when they all got kidnapped. It was the whole town that did it. And nobody was telling where they went.

It happened in broad daylight on May 10, 2004. Brenda Siemer, the beautiful wife of actor Roy Scheider, came out of her yoga class in the building just across the street from the sign around 11 a.m., shaded her eyes from the sun and saw there was a workman on a ladder, removing the letters. The letters, each one four feet high and two feet wide, had been there since anyone could remember—actually it was 1936—when the new proud owner of the town movie theater first had the neon letters put up. It was the very latest thing.

The letters lit up the whole town at night, bright red and blue. Everybody loved them. And now somebody was removing them.

Brenda walked across the street and had a little conversation with the workman, he on his ladder, she on the sidewalk. He was holding the letter B to his chest. The letters O and R were already on the ground next to his truck.

“You can’t do that,” Brenda shouted at him.

“The letters are coming down,” the workman said. “Man who owns the theater ordered it.”

Towne Cellars leaderboard 2019

He said they were all rusty, a danger to the public, could fall down at any time. He said the owner of the theater had hired the company he worked for to remove them. He would put them in his truck and bring them back to the company headquarters in Islip for disposal. He had new cheap plastic letters, smaller ones, in the flatbed of his truck parked right out front to put up. So what was the problem?

Carl, for that was his name, struggled with the letter B he was holding. It weighed 50 pounds. What was wrong with this crazy woman? He carefully wrestled the B down the ladder. Brenda again shouted YOU CAN’T DO THAT but the man ignored her. She ran into the art gallery and brought out the owner, who repeated that phrase. Then Brenda ran up and down Main Street sounding the alarm, bringing other shop owners and customers running out into the street until there were about 200 angry people shouting at the workman to stop.

Carefully, he brought down the rest of the letters, but now, completely intimidated, instead of putting them in his truck, he lined them up along the wall, got in his truck and fled. The small plastic ones bounced in the back of the flatbed as he left.

The crowd swarmed over the old letters. What to do? The mayor, Ed Deyermond, said that Gerry Mallow, the owner, did have permission to remove the letters. Brenda took charge. Was there a warehouse anywhere? One with a lock and key? Gerald, the manager of the Whaling Museum down the street, said there was one out back. He said he had a big truck they used for carrying scenery around. And he ran off, came back with it, and everyone helped pile the letters in and take them to that hiding place.

That done, the crowd dispersed, and late in the afternoon, as it happened, Mallow showed up. No new plastic signs were up. And the old letters weren’t up, either. He called in and was told what had happened, and boy was he angry. As I remember, he called the police and reported the letters stolen.

But the people were mad at him. What did he think he was doing? In the end, the whole town, including Mallow, held a fundraiser at Bay Street, more than $70,000 was raised, and a man with a workshop in Ronkonkoma, using the old rusty letters as models, made brand new ones exactly like the originals, which then were put up. You’d never have known a temporary kidnapping was committed.

One thing was particularly strange about all of this. Sag Harbor is an old whaling town. Why had everyone fallen in love with letters that had been created in neon so many decades after the last of the 50 or so seagoing whaleboats left for San Francisco to join the gold rush? No one could answer that question.

Then came the downtown fire on a cold December day in 2016. Fire raged through the theater, ruining it. But the firemen got the neon off before the front came down. Now the neon has returned, all cleaned up and back in place. And everyone is happy again.

More from Our Sister Sites