Suffolk Theater

118 E. Main Street,
Riverhead, NY 11901

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Suffolk Theatre, auditorium looking back 1995

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The Suffolk Theater is the last remaining movie palace designed by architect R. Thomas Short, and the last remaining large Art Deco style theatre on Long Island. The theater was built as a National Recovery Act project for the Century Theaters chain. A.H. Schwartz of the Romack Construction Corporation of Brooklyn constructed the Suffolk Theater in just two and a half months.

The 1,012-seat Suffolk Theater was opened on December 30, 1933. According to newspapers of the day, more than 2,000 people attended the opening night festivities. When the theater opened, it was hailed as ‘Long Island’s prettiest and most complete playhouse’. State of the art air conditioning attracted special raves for the ‘ever cleaning of the air’. An opening review in the Riverhead News on January 5, 1934 states ‘No matter which way one turns, there is luxury and comfort, this is exceptionally true in the reception corridor and ladies room as well as the entrance lobby’.

During World War II, the Suffolk Theater was an official issuing agent for the U.S. War Bonds. Organizers such as the Long Island Farm Bureau regularly used the theater for special meetings.

At the opening ceremonies, then Riverhead town superviser, Milton Burns expressed the hope that the theater would bring economic benefits to the downtown shopping area. It did just that, until changes in shopping habits, a shifting economy and the birth of the multiplex forced the Suffolk Theater to close in 1987. The theater was ‘For Sale’ from 1987 until 1994, when the town of Riverhead purchased the theater. The theater had been operated by the Prudential chain for most of its life, and was lastly operated by United Artists Theatres.

In 1996, cinematographer, Keith DiNeilli and producer Jeff Bassetti, filmed the movie “Changeover” in the Suffolk Theater. “Changeover” is set in 1978 and revolves around the closing of the Suffolk Theater, due to increasing popularity of the multiplex, and how it impacts upon the lives of its young employees. The theater sat idle for about 23 years. Except for the replaced carpeting, the interior of the theater is exactly as it was in 1933. The theater’s interior flourishing', include Woodland-motif murals and carvings, a mosaic water fountain, woven wall coverings and crane-etched windows are intact but tired and worn.

Restoration of the Suffolk Theater has been an ongoing project; from the creation of the reception and office space, construction of new ladies and men’s facilities, to the addition of the state of the art LED marquee, one only needed to walk down East Main Street to know that the Suffolk Theater restoration was in progress. Given the challenges facing the Suffolk Theater over the past decade, it may have seemed a miracle that it would be restored and reopened. With vision and commitment, the owners were dedicated to restoring the Suffolk Theater, and once again creating ‘the most prettiest and most complete playhouse on Long Island’.

It reopened as a cabaret/restaurant performance space on March 2, 2013. Classic films are also part of the programming.

Contributed by Ray Matthews, Dianne Castaldi

Recent comments (view all 75 comments)

robboehm on January 10, 2013 at 12:57 pm

According to the marquee, the Suffolk will reopen on March 2nd as a performance space.

robboehm on February 23, 2013 at 7:19 am

Big hoopla about the opening including a party where guests are encouraged to dress in 1930’s attire. Go to Suffolk

chelydra on February 24, 2013 at 8:49 pm

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?

chelydra on February 24, 2013 at 11:39 pm

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…

robboehm on February 25, 2013 at 5:44 am

I think they’re taking the wrong route re design which has chairs and tables on tiers on the main floor, like Studio 54 in NYC. Already sounds like they’re going upscale. Altho' a smaller venue I like Westhampton Beach Performing Arts. They have name performers, children’s programs, workshops and four series of independent films (in the summer, with a speaker).

Mike (saps)
Mike (saps) on February 25, 2013 at 2:38 pm

You need a speaker or you can’t hear the movie. :)

robboehm on February 25, 2013 at 2:42 pm

I go there all the time and have no problem with the sound level. If you do they have infra red hearing devices at no cost (there is a deposit, however).

robboehm on March 21, 2013 at 9:46 am

It’s interesting to read the Times article about the condition of the theater before renovations. It seems, to my recollection, that for years before the current ownership, the keystone portion of the marquee (which is no longer illuminated) was lit day and night. Wonder who paid LIPA?

rivest266 on October 9, 2013 at 2:10 pm

I uploaded an grand opening ad in the photo section.

robboehm on March 26, 2015 at 7:17 am

New exterior photo of when theater was in limbo uploaded.

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