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Sorry to lapse into such long-windedness, but other old brainstorms are coming out of hibernation… The general idea of all these theater restorations is both to revive downtowns and liven up the bleak cultural landscape, to kill two birds with one stone — but why not try for three or four birds while we’re at it? An even bigger problem is the drastic cuts in school art and music education, so that concerned parents of talented kids have to hire private tutors and that leaves out any families on a tight budget (which is most of us). Wouldn’t it be a lot more fair and a lot more productive to organize an informal “public-private partnership” in which artists and musicians were recruited to teach in summer programs (relaxed or intensive, depending on the prevailing mood), dipping into library/school budgets (not too deeply) to provide the basic necessities? Venezuela’s Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and Japan’s Suzuki music education show that relatively modest investments can bring huge returns. Drama and visual arts too (as well as creative writing) can benefit from this kind of approach — and what does this have to do with the two cool old theaters in downtown Riverhead, and similar projects in several other towns? Everything! What’s missing from all these Long Island theater-restorations is home-grown talent. Three or four big events (and maybe a dozen little events) per year could give young creative types something to work towards… art exhibits in the lobbies, plays and concerts in the auditoriums, maybe newsletters featuring creative writing alongside the fund-raising and PR stuff… Synergy, synergy, synergy… but also, as Henry David Thoreau liked to say, “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” Sometimes a whole lot of seemingly disconnected and insoluble problems can get connected up and solved together in simple, sensible synergies… In this case, the key just might be providing inexpensive incentives for first-rate (and solid second-rate) arts professionals to spend some time as resident teachers in pleasant surroundings… and they could be the motor that drives the cultural conveyor belt, delivering great home-grown events and giving this “downtown revival” thing a real heart and soul… Okay, maybe that’s enough… I’ll check in again in another eight years or so…
Apologies to RobertR, contributor of the accidentally deleted picture. I found a few substitutes on Google images (three almost certainly public domain, one originally in Newsday), but am unable to get them to appear in the Overview picture slot (can’t deletes the article scan to make the theater move into its place, either). I emailed the site managers to see if they can fix this, hopefully even restore RobertR’s.
Major screw-up, which I hope the management can undo – uploaded an old article about a painting stolen from the Hampton Arts lobby, and somehow it displaced a perfectly good photo of the theater itself! Cannot find any trace of the previous photo. Maybe it can be found, or maybe someone can find a substitute to upload?
For what it’s worth, I bought a nice house a few years ago in Riverhead from the last of the local Rileys — it had been in the family since it was built in the 1920s. I can get in touch with the seller if anyone has any questions. She took all the remaining memorabilia (and her own memories) with her when she moved to another state, and she’d probably be delighted to share info and anecdotes. My own memories of the Riverhead Theater were that it had fallen on hard times by the late 1950s, and seemed to show mostly second-run double-features, B-movie westerns etc.. I think I may have gone there just once, probably in its last year or so. It was definitely located just past the bank, maybe right next door, around where the science place is now. The only colorful reminiscence I can offer is that a very cheerful madwoman used to dress up every day in a dark blue policewoman’s uniform, with a nice little hat, and stand on the corner outside the bank pretending to direct traffic, smiling and waving. She was always there, rain or shine, day after day, year and year, at least until 1960 or so. She wasn’t directly connected with the Rileys or their theater so far as I know, but she was a distinctive part of its environment.
Just made some comments on the page for the Suffolk Theater (around the corner) which apply equally to this one… Some half-baked thoughts on how to make this theater-restoration thing really work…
So it seems it’s finally happening, and as of last night the marquee was blazing as never before, with just two big neon letters dimmed out — not bad! I was going to correct the write-up a bit, but my posts in 2004-05 did that already, if anyone cares to dig back to the first page of comments. (I have since become a Riverhead homeowner, by the way.) Here’s a thought that’s been festering or fermenting for many years: with all these theater preservation projects in communities all over Long Island, why not try to get a coalition going, and establish a circuit, where offbeat films and live acts could bounce from town to town, staying a night or two or three in each spot? How hard would that be? The possibilities are endless: neo-vaudeville, folk and show music, maybe the occasional light opera, jazz, cabaret, country-western, B&W classics from Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin and Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, maybe a classy midnight burlesque show, all the things each theater wants for itself but probably can’t easily attract/book on its own. The cost-effectiveness would be vastly improved, and if an act flopped in one town, maybe the other five or six would make up for it. It seems crazy to conceive of all these costly projects as competing businesses, when the whole idea is to use restored theaters to keep downtowns alive and bring a bit of culture (high or low or middle, or a bit of each) to the local folks.
I don’t think any discussion of the Suffolk Theater is complete without a mention of the even older and even more remarkable Vail-Levitt music hall right around the corner — these two amazing venues have been competing furiously for volunteers, donations, and public sector commitments for about twenty-five years now, and the competition has tended to undermine both projects, though not fatally as it turns out. If both of them could somehow be fully alive, that would be amazing. (The old music hall was already shut down down before the Suffolk Theater opening, I think, so Riverhead was never supporting both at once.) Even more amazing would be if downtown Riverhead were born again without losing what makes it great — the affordable, down-to-earth, gritty quality that makes the place an island of reality is the midst of the elitist never-never-land of the East End. If the downtown revival could happen without everything getting boutiqued and bougeoized, that would be a miracle… but the Riverhead Blues Festival just might point the way… and then if we could bulldoze Route 58 and let it go back to woods and farms… who knows?
Moved to Riverhead a few months ago, into a home owned (1922-2009) by the family that owned the old West Main Street theatre (predating Suffolk). Unfortunately they didn’t leave any memorabilia behind, but perhaps I can contact our seller to see if she can help us set up a web page for her grandfather’s theater.
Although my glib remarks in my first post above struck some as slanderous, I’ve always liked Riverhead a lot, and totally fell in love with the town while staying with family at one of the local trailer parks. Aside from the better-known tourist destinations (the historic and amazing Vail-Levitt Music Hall, aquarium, annual Blues Festival, etc.), it’s worth a visit (even a major family outing from the city) just to have a sundae at the Star Confectionary (Roanoke & Main), or to shop at Griffing Hardware (Osborn & West Main). Show your grandkids what America was like before you were born. (Note: If you must go to the monstrous Tanger Mall at the west end of town, the only decent store there, with value for money, is (believe it or not) Brooks Brothers. All the rest are scams.)
The Suffolk Theater is still dormant. No one seems to know what’s going there. Several rival groups are, as always, scheming to “revive” Main Street (some say the landlords are the problem, others say they’re the solution). Ever since the Town decided (circa 1959) to chop down all the grand old shade trees (due to bird poop on car windshields), Main Street has been in a tailspin â€" there are plenty of other factors at work, but that event marked the beginning of the end. What’s bringing Main Street back to life now (aside from a couple of nice pubs with good pricey food) are the Mexican and Guatemalan groceries and restaurants â€" check out the restaurant just east of the tracks, reputed to be the most authentic and best on the island.
Sooner or later, the Suffolk Theater has to be reborn â€" that is, if there’s any trace of its former glory still intact when the town is finally ready to get its act together.
I recall hearing he was a committed and enthusiastic teacher. He proudly told his employees at the Hampton Arts theater that he had his students (maybe you?) eating a welfare/food stamps diet for a week to see what it felt like. We smiled politely, but it was hard to suppress a guffaw (or a snarl), since we were literally living on peanuts, or rather peanut M&M’s and making about $40/week.
Nihilism marches on.
That whole stretch of Route 25a was quite beautiful when I first came across it circa 1968-74 â€" many huge trees, just a few malls here and there. It even featured the magnificent remains of Nicolai Tesla’s legendary laborary in Shoreham, an architectural masterpiece (McKim Meade & White) with wild electrical experiments that inspired the Frankenstein movie imagery of inddor lightning. Hidden away in the pine barrens was the RCA transatlantic radio communications station, another architectural gem I’ve heard, very art deco. The former was covered over with a corrugated tin facade, its lovely trees turned into a parking lot surrounded with barbed wire, and then the place was condemned as a toxic waste site. The latter was demolished in connection with the pine barrens preservation, and then the preserved woods were paved over by a four-lane by-pass. The route between Wading River and Port Jefferson Station has now been systematically reduced to one of the worst asphalt wastelands on Long Island (which means anywhere in the world). It’s nice to know there’s still a trace of the drive-in sign at least!
This is starting to sound like we should produce a picture book about this place! Maybe one of those dark, sordid comic-style graphic novels.
If anyone cares, I’m sure the Quonset hut was still showing movies into the 1970s, maybe even early 1980s. I wonder if that was the only Quonsetstyle theater in the world? Hmmmm – vague recollection that Suffolk Air Force Base in Westhampton also had one, or maybe that was their church…
So I guess BU has gone along with the trend of its university bookstore getting absorbed by B&N. Hmh. At least Fenway Park is still there. And the Citgo sign still beams its red triangle of light down onto the snogging student bodies.
Anyone know where BU kids go to the movies these days?
A little more info at Suffolk Theater page (also Riverhead NY).
“…nothing … that makes me want to trek to the city.” Funny you should say that here, because Theatre 80 St Marks (and the great, but always empty, Indian restaurant across the street, now closed) DID inspire many treks to the city. In fact, it was just about our only destination whenever we needed to get off Long Island.
But when Ritchie Wesley was running the place in the 1970s, there were plenty of sold-out nights, even in a huge single-screen auditorium in the dead of winter, and with his relatively adventurous movies. There were packed midnight shows (Rocky Horror mostly, but also some ancient scary movies). When Cineplex Odeon closed its doors – I think it was 2002 or early 2003, about a decade or so after they bought it – Wesley remarked that they hadn’t given much thought to the local residents' taste in movies, and just showed whatever came along.
Before Wesley’s renovations started (and before the arrival of cats), the place was kind of a disaster zone, with a terrible sound system echoing off cement walls, cold drafts in winter, and reports of rats scurrying around underfoot. By the late 1970s, it was pretty classy, with good free coffee and real butter on excellent fresh popcorn.
There was also a hippie bar next door, The Long Island Potato, with good live music. Together these places made Six Corners into a sort of cultural mecca (by Westhampton’s modest strandards).
Does anyone remember a theatre near Greenport located in an old Quanset (or Quonset) hut? (Those are the cheap military structures that resemble half of a large tin can.) Maybe it’s already in the database? I think it was on the main road (Route 25) a couple of miles west of Greenport, possibly on the outskirts of Southold. It was still operating (barely) in the 1970s.
In my first post, above, I accidentally misspelled the name of the last operator – should be WESLEY (or possibly Westley or Westly).
Here’s some news on the theater and its environs, from Newsday :
Remaking Riverhead’s downtown
BY MITCHELL FREEDMAN
November 6, 2004
Riverhead’s downtown business district could be completely transformed during the next decade, as the town board this week created several new zoning categories to encourage development and – at the same meeting – gave a warm reception to the newest candidate to rehabilitate the Suffolk Theatre.
Together, the actions open the door to construction of new five-story mixed- use retail and apartment buildings, professional offices and waterfront marinas, and also allow the reopening of an 800-seat Main Street art deco movie house that has been closed for nearly two decades.
“The face of downtown Riverhead will be very different a decade from now,” said Supervisor Philip Cardinale. “The potential for great change has been created by the new zoning … developers believe the creation of 250 to 500 apartments in the downtown area is very attractive, and when you bring in the people, the restaurants and specialized retail stores and attractions and night clubs will follow.”
The town board’s unanimous vote to approve five separate new downtown zoning categories was one of the final steps needed to fully implement Riverhead’s new master plan.
…[here I edited out several paragraphs about projects and zone changes]…
At the same meeting, the town board gave a warm reception to Robert Castaldi, owner of Castle Restoration and Construction of Long Island City, who has submitted a bid to restore and renovate the Suffolk Theatre and convert it into a performing arts center.
Because of a complex tax issue, Castaldi – whose firm has extensive experience in the rehabilitation of historic buildings – must acquire the property by February.
He expects to use the building to show films during the week, and for extensive live entertainment on weekends.
Councilman Edward Densieski called the firm “exceptionally well qualified” to reopen the big 1933 art deco movie house, which stands at the heart of the Main Street business district and which has been closed for 17 years.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.
This article originally appeared at:
Rocky Point also had an indoor theater in the 1970s. I think it was probably in one of the featureless malls along Route 25a, and showed only adult movies.
My memory is that they showed nothing but Bogart movies, ever. It was right around the corner from IFIF (International Federation for Internal Freedom) where recently-retired professors Leary and Alpert set up shop.
Incidentally, the only other theater I ever heard of using rear-projection was the short-lived Old Post Office Cinema in East Hampton NY, owned by Ritchie Westley (who also had Mattituck, Hampton Arts and Suffolk Theater) in the early 1980s or so. Is this common?
I think that was where all us BU kids saw Bonnie and Clyde and immediately morphed from 60s hippies to raffish 30s gangsters, which was obviously much cooler and more fun.
Just found the page for Leow’s Avenue B – but I’m pretty sure the one I remember from 1968-69 was around 12th or 13th street, on the east side of Ave B, and I don’t remember it being particularly old or grand. It was just up from the roachy, reeking Pioneer supermarket with its broken red plastic letters proclaiming “where the elite buy their meat”.
It was NYU(!) that demolished this place and Luchow’s???!!!
With an intelligensia like that, who needs barbarians.
Any info on the Avenue B movie house? I think it was around 12th Street? It was definitely operating in 1969.