Suffolk Theater reopening shapes downtown Riverhead

The Suffolk Theater reopened on Main Street in The Suffolk Theater reopened on Main Street in Riverhead in March 2013. Photo Credit: Handout

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The Suffolk Theater reopened in March with a new identity, one its operators hoped would lead to a solid future. Three months later, the new theater is changing downtown Riverhead as well.

The former art deco movie house, shuttered since 1987, is experimenting with an eclectic mix of programs. It started a supper club on Saturdays, where 350 people can dine at tables and the night's entertainment can range from a country-and-Western combo to a Latin band to a tribute band recreating music by the Beatles, the Eagles or Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.

With its own chef, the theater also can stage retirement parties and business meetings. It hosted its first wedding this month.

"We're refocusing to a supper club and cabaret," theater spokeswoman Susan Hackett said. "We're doing excellent with the 45-to-65-year-olds. . . . They come for the tribute bands."

As the theater changes, so do the businesses around it. More desserts are popping up on menus in nearby restaurants for the after-dinner crowd. The Riverhead Project, the innovative restaurant run by Dennis McDermott, is showing movies four nights a week on the large, white movie screen he has put up in front of the building. The films are chosen by "guest curators," including Mike Otto, his bartender.

New businesses also are moving slowly to the Main Street business district, attracted in part by one residential apartment complex nearing completion and another going through the review process. The apartments will put more than 100 new families on downtown streets each day.

"When I was a kid, this was a thriving metropolis. You couldn't get a parking space," said former town councilman Ed Densieski, now treasurer of the downtown Business Improvement District. "For the first time in my adult life, we're heading in the right direction again."

The new mix of stores popping up downtown -- including a bakery, a bicycle shop, a toy store and a dance studio -- might not be what some people had planned, he said, but they are a welcome part of the downtown's revitalization.

"I always said we will do it one store at a time," Densieski said.

The Suffolk Theater once was a destination. The movie house showed the musical "Footlight Parade" when the doors opened in 1933, but it closed in 1987 because it could no longer compete with multiplex cinemas in suburban malls with expansive parking lots, large concession stands and the ability to start a hot first-run film every hour or two.

When it shuttered its doors, its 800 seats were literally left in the dark, abandoned to dampness and mold. The ornate plaster decorations on the ceiling slowly broke apart, and wall decorations faded and ripped after the roof started to leak.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, like other supervisors before him, dreamed of the big, red brick theater opening again and dropping 700 to 800 people at a time onto East Main Street, people who then would go to local restaurants and shop in local stores before going home.

Instead, the brightly lit theater is proving that cabaret entertainment, tribute bands and catered events might be the ticket to bringing people back to downtown Riverhead.

"Things change," Walter reflected. "Change is good."

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