Restored theater set to debut in Riverhead

Renovation takes place in the Suffolk Theater, in

Renovation takes place in the Suffolk Theater, in Riverhead. The theater part of the Riverhead Main Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. (May 10, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/Ed Betz)

If the stars align, the long-shuttered Suffolk Theater could be back in business by the end of the year, and its re-emergence exactly 79 years from the day it opened could illuminate downtown Riverhead in more ways than one.

Developer Robert Castaldi, who started renovating the 800-seat art-deco movie house in 2005 -- lawsuits, red tape and other things got in the way for five years -- said his recent discovery of the 1933 opening date scrawled in pencil in a storage cabinet may be an omen.

Renovations have involved ripping out seating, getting rid of mold, rebuilding a wall that was near collapse and updating the plumbing and electrical systems. The interior is mostly an empty shell and there is a lot left to do, but Castaldi said most of the difficult work is finished.

"I've got more done in the past year than since I started," he said. "The glitz and the glamour will get done fast."

Many stores in Riverhead's Main Street business district have been closed for years, but there is a new hotel at the east end of the street and a refurbished court complex near the west end. The theater sits in the center and dominates it.

Like many older downtown business districts, much of Riverhead's Main Street is filled with stores that are too big to be cost-effective, while many of the other, smaller businesses have moved to the busy shopping centers a few miles away. Several restaurants have opened recently, expecting to serve the crowds that the renovated movie house will bring.

"This one project has the ability to almost single-handedly transform Main Street into a vibrant downtown," Supervisor Sean Walter said. "To have it open and add a thousand people a day to Main Street, or 2,000 on the weekend . . . this provides the critical mass we need for everything to survive."

 

Mix of old and newOn the inside, the bright color and detail work that audiences saw when the theater first opened is being brought back to life: wall trim in silver, gold and black, fresh paint on the ceiling and spaces carefully marked where the original stained-glass fixtures will be rehung and lit up again.

Despite the original details, the theater will look different. A new bar will run the length of the back wall, and instead of one long stretch of seats sloping down to the screen, seating will be terraced, allowing accommodations for more than 700, or for setting up tables and chairs for more than 300.

The stage is being expanded for live shows and meetings, and there will be catering facilities. The original bathrooms have been upgraded -- in the women's restroom, a dozen more toilets will join the original two.

It's been interesting work. As the old electrical systems were pulled out and new mechanical equipment installed, Castaldi -- whose firm, Castle Restoration and Construction Inc. in Long Island City, specializes in historic renovations and redid the observation deck on the Empire State Building -- found himself looking back in time.

He discovered a series of tunnels and pipes that brought cold Peconic River water to a series of heat exchangers, creating cold air that was pumped through the building in the summer.

"The ground was 52 degrees. They were using a geothermal system," Castaldi said.

As he ripped apart the old walls and closets, he found messages and dates, names and marks with their meaning long lost. And then there was the mystery button. It was on the wall, near the exit, and no one knew its purpose. Then, at an open house just before the heavy demolition started, a woman whose mother had worked there said the button set off a buzzer in the projection booth. The usher would push it when the crowd finished buying candy -- a signal to start the movie.

 

Sharing storiesIn September, a new high-tech marquee was installed, and its LED lights have become a community bulletin board, telling residents when to vote on the school budget, congratulating the high school girls' basketball team for a stellar season and informing the community about upcoming events.

Lately, Castaldi's wife, Dianne -- who among other things puts messages on the marquee -- has used it to ask people to share stories about their experiences at the theater. She's gotten a few responses and is hoping to receive more.

"One couple got engaged in the theater," she said. "A woman told me about her first kiss."

And, she added, several people had fond memories of the upper balcony -- stories she will not be including in the theater's official memory book.

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