A long-lost New York area theatre got a second chance in the Limelight starting March 2. The Suffolk Theater, a nearly forgotten Art Deco gem from the tail-end of the golden age of American theatre construction, is now reborn as a combination playhouse/cinema/concert hall following a seven-year on-and-off renovation project. The ribbon cutting was March 1, a gala performance of 1930s music played March 2.
Located in Riverhead, Long Island, New York, on the border between the middle-class suburbs of Long Island and the mansions of the Hamptons, the 650-seat theatre will offer a year-round mixture of music, theatre, films and special events, with a special emphasis on local artists.
Guiding the theatre's second life is Bob Spiotto, who spent 22 years as director of Hofstra Entertainment, which booked a variety of live shows and concerts into the performing spaces at Hofstra University, also on Long Island. As a writer, director and performer himself, Spiotto plans to use his connections to artists on Long Island and New York City to keep the Suffolk lit.
Finding the theatre was like "finding an intact 1933 Duesenberg [car] preserved in a barn," said Robert Castaldi, who bought the venue at 118 E. Main Street from the Town of Riverhead in 2005 for a reported $707,000. The cinema had stood empty since 1987 because it could not compete with the multiplexing trend that was causing old theatres like the Suffolk to be carved up into smaller screening rooms, or torn down altogether. "The town at that time was depressed," Castaldi said. "There were a lot of vacant stores on the block. If the theatre had been in Huntington or Port Jefferson it would have been bought up in a second. So it was bad in one way because it went unused, but it was good in another way in that it was preserved more or less intact. All of the pieces were here."
Castaldi declined to say how much he has spent on the renovation, but said all the money has been private, except for tax breaks he has gotten from the town to help spur the project, part of a revitalization of the downtown Riverhead area.
Spiotto said plans are in the works to apply for not-for-profit status, but for the time being there is no board of directors and the Suffolk is operating on a commercial basis.
Owing to the theatre's modest size there are no plans to bring in national tours of full-scale musicals, Spiotto said. The theatre will operate for the time being as a non-union house.
Constructed as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's N.R.A. program to lift the country out of the Great Depression, the Suffolk was designed in the Art Deco style by architect R. Thomas Short and opened Dec. 30, 1933 with the film musical "Footlight Parade." It functioned for the next half century as a neighborhood cinema. The closing bill was "Dirty Dancing" in 1987. Over the next two decades the Suffolk stood empty and came close to being demolished more than once. Not considered suitable for subdividing into a multiplex, it was bought in 1994 by the Town of Riverhead which hoped to rehabilitate it. A bond issue for that purpose was defeated by voters in the mid 1990s and the theatre sat empty, except for one bright moment. The Suffolk became the subject and location for the 1998 film comedy "Changeover," about a group of ushers who party as the theatre closes and one of them prepares for a wedding.
Castaldi and his wife Diane, who operate the renovation firm Castle Restoration and Construction, headquartered in Long Island City, NY, summered in the area and decided to buy the building in 2005. Progress on restoration was slowed by a lawsuit with a larger company brought in by the town to oversee a comprehensive city-wide revitalization that did not come about. Restoration was completed in 2012, about the same time Spiotto was brought aboard to program content.
The renovation replaced the gradually raked seating area with a series of terraces that can be configured with tables as a supper club/conference hall, smaller tables for a cabaret setting, or traditional rows of theatre seats. Castaldi said that, depending on the configuration the Suffolk can seat 350 to 650.
Because the theatre was built as a cinema the stage is only 18 feet deep and there was originally no wing space, fly space or dressing rooms. Castaldi said he has rented space in an adjoining building and broken through a wall to provide more stage-level support facilities.
In addition the building has kitchen facilities to accommodate business lunches and banqueting.
Spiotto said that, "given the flexible, table/chair configuration, the space resembles an upscale, supper club/night club type environment. There are also two bars, a luxury suite (a "sky box" in the old projection booth), larger and improved rest room facilities, coat check rooms, technical booth, art/exhibit space, as well as administrative offices and box office. The Suffolk Theater will as be available for rentals: performances, weddings, special events, expos, art shows, fashion shows, benefit performances, etc."
Among the upcoming offerings at the Suffolk:
March 10 Courting the Jester: A Musical tribute to Danny Kaye, a live stage show.
Spiotto said plans are being finalized for more productions later this spring, over the summer and into the fall, including The Count Basie Orchestra, Duelling Pianos, Julie Budd, Marilyn Michaels, Charles Grodin, Guy Lombardo's Royal Canadians, Bobby Caldwell, Christine Pedi and Johnny Rogers, The American Boychoir, Ben Vereen and Flying Home: A Tribute To Lionel Hampton featuring Tito Puente Jr..
For more information, visit suffolktheater.com.
(Robert Viagas is executive editor of PlaybillEDU and co-author and editor of "At This Theatre.")