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Sag Harbor Cinema Rebuild A True Community Effort

The rebuilding of the Sag Harbor Cinema is still underway after a fire gutted the historic theater over two years ago.

The Sag Harbor Partnership bought the building for $8 million. The structure was bulldozed, and the group sought millions to rebuild the 83-year-old cinema.

Recovered from the rubble was the cinema’s battered and damaged art deco sign. This Memorial Day weekend, the neon sign will be relit on the cinema’s facade. April Gornick leads the group charged with rebuilding the cinema.

Thank you for joining All Things Considered, April.

Bill, it is a pleasure to be here.

So, tell me. What was it like when that historic sign was recovered?

Oh, my god. It was an extraordinary thing. First of all, the fire was so intense it was an icy, icy day as cold as it could possibly be. A hundred and fifty fire units from all over Long Island came to battle the flames. They had icicles dripping from their helmets, and ash was falling on them. And it was just extraordinary. And at the very end of the day, at 8:00 I got a call from somebody. I was having dinner on Main Street, walked out only to see a bulldozer was knocking down the facade of the cinema and the sign with it. My heart just sank. To have the sign be saved, thanks to Chris Denon of Twin Forks Moving and Storage and a couple of artisans – one John Battle who is a metal worker out here, and neon sculpture Clayton Orehek – who actually undertook to repair the sign themselves without anyone begging for their help. It has been an extraordinary adventure. So, to see it back on the building as it is now and to anticipate the lighting up of it tomorrow is just extraordinary.

And how has the Sag Harbor community come together in support of the cinema?

We’ve had donations ranging from 35 cents from children when we were on the Main Street on the wharf raising money for the cinema, to donations from $1 million and $500,000 from various big donors. So it’s actually run the gamut. We are going to be a not-for-profit. The Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center is not-for-profit organization that we founded to run it. So we have to think of clever ways to making sure we have the revenue to keep it afloat because we don’t want to beg this hard forever for funds.

How much of the cinema will be different when it reopens?

When you look at the cinema, it is going to look the same essentially. We of course have to modernize a few things because there are certain materials that can’t be found and must be replicated. But when you look at it, it will look the same. But when you go in, it will look much fresher. We’ll have a different look. Where there had been an art gallery, there will be a cafe. We will have a concession stand as well. We are going to source everything locally as much as possible. There will be two theaters instead of just the one, which was never full to capacity in my experience. And then there will be an upstairs screening room, where the top of the art gallery had been.

We have also expanded since we started this project. There was this realization last year that we had the opportunity to expand to the third floor, put a VR studio in there, and that can double as a classroom and expand our possibilities that way. We realized we had to take this opportunity now because nobody was going to go back and – two years – add on like that. It is really, really pricey. We are going to have a real cinema tech, which is different from any place on Long Island. It is going to be an extraordinary facility. Everybody is getting a little more than they bargained for, and it will still feel like the older theater but no more musty smell.  

But when the sign was put back yesterday, everybody had tears in their eyes even without it being lit. Because to see that sign – that beacon – rise up again out of literal ashes has been one of the most moving experiences of my life.

The Sag Harbor Cinema on Long Island regains its art deco sign this Memorial Day weekend. The neon sign’s relighting ceremony is on Saturday at 8 p.m. Organizer April Gornick, thank you. Good luck with the project. And again, thank you for coming on with us today.

Bill, thank you so much and have a great Memorial Day weekend and stay safe.

And you, as well. Thank you.

Bill began his radio journey on Long Island, followed by stops in Schenectady, Bridgeport, Boston and New York City. He’s glad to be back on the air in Fairfield County, where he has lived with his wife and two sons for more than 20 years.