Transformation of historic theater, iconic businesses offer them a second act
A movie theater luncheonette-turned-diner.
The furniture store with a past life as an opera house.
And a bank, whose owners dream it will soon become a hub for live theater.
Whether they started out as theaters or will soon make their stage debut, these Long Island buildings underwent transformations of theatrical proportions.
For Laurel Diner in Long Beach, Goldin Furniture in Greenport and the Strongbox Theater in East Rockaway, traces of their roots still remain embedded in the architecture or design of the space. These owners and community members hope to honor that history for generations to come.
'Right this way, your table's waiting'
I was thinking about all this nostalgia to the old theater and I thought, you know what, we should really embellish on that.
— Peter Loucas, co-owner of Laurel Diner
Brothers Andrew and Peter Loucas grew up working in their father's diner in East Harlem.
"By the time I was 15, I was giving him days off on the weekends so he could go fishing while I ran the store," said Andrew Loucas, 50. "His goal for us was to learn the business, and to value hard work."
But their father, who came to the United States from Cyprus, wanted his sons to venture into the corporate world when they grew up. Peter, 48, became an accountant, and Andrew worked as a mechanical engineer.
Then, in 2006, Peter learned about a potential investment opportunity from one of his clients: A diner for sale in Long Beach.
"We were intrigued by the real estate portion of it," Loucas said.
While they decided whether to buy it, Loucas hung around the diner for a week, monitoring sales from behind the register. He bonded with the patrons and owner, who had been serving the community for 17 years.
That's how Loucas learned of the history behind Laurel Diner.
"Everyone that came in who was a loyal customer or a native there, a lot of them would tell me about the theater part of the building," he said.
Opened in 1932, the diner was once known as Laurel Luncheonette. It was attached to a movie theater, so guests could enjoy egg creams and cheeseburgers before heading to their feature presentation, said Loucas. Long Beach native Billy Crystal spoke fondly of the theater in his autobiographical theater special, "700 Sundays," filmed for HBO in 2014.
"You could buy candies and whatnot from the luncheonette and take them with you to your movie," he added. "A lot of customers confessed to stealing candy before they would go, because they had these huge racks with different types of candies."
Loucas wanted to pay homage to this era when he and his brother bought the diner.
"I was thinking about all this nostalgia to the old theater and I thought, you know what, we should really embellish on that," he said. "The place at the time was 80 years old, so we started to leverage the old theater in our marketing and branding, and we spruced up the place."
They added framed classic movie posters and old Laurel Theater photos to the back wall. Slowly but surely, sales began to increase, Loucas said.
Then came Superstorm Sandy in 2012, devastating Long Beach.
"The building was falling apart," Loucas said. "The restaurant was in really bad shape. There were holes in the floors behind the counter; you had to really watch where you were going."
The brothers decided to use this time to renovate the diner, adding splashes of red and orange with Art Deco-style booths and signage throughout the space.
"Now we have a diner that emulates the old theater," said Loucas. "We have a marquee outside and even tiles that look like old movie theater carpets."
The diner has been through a lot: After Sandy came Hurricane Irene, plenty of power outages over the years due to the wind and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Loucas, who moved from the Bronx to Rockville Centre to be closer to the diner, still remembers the vetting process they went through to buy the place. The previous owner wanted to make sure they "do right by the store and by the community," he said.
"If we were ever to sell this place, it would be the same thing for us," Loucas said. "We put our blood, sweat and tears into this place. We want it to stay as the Laurel Diner."
'My perfectly beautiful room'
When you walk into the back portion of the furniture store, it is literally the theater as it was built, but filled with beds and La-Z-Boy recliners.
— Greenport Mayor Kevin Stuessi
On the corner of Main Street and Central Avenue in Greenport stands a white Queen Anne Victorian-style building, with golden yellow accents and a prominent turret roof with the word "Auditorium" written beneath it.
From across the street, you might need a pair of opera glasses to find a smaller sign that reads "Goldin Furniture."
Formerly the Greenport opera house, Goldin Furniture is a business selling mattresses, recliners, couches and more, but many of its historical details have remained intact since the 1800s.
The building was originally known as Stirling Hall, which opened in 1878. It operated as an entertainment venue before suffering a fire in 1899.
"It was a popular meeting place, and it was quite large," said Jane Ratsey Williams, chair of the Historic Preservation Commission in Greenport. "The Greenport Opera House was then built on the same spot."
The idea for the opera house was conceived by Sara Adams, a local leader who advocated for women's suffrage and was active in the community's Presbyterian church. The opera house showcased "drama, band, vaudeville and theater," said Ratsey Williams. "It was a real center for arts and entertainment."
The venue was active from 1894 until 1938, when a hurricane ripped through the village. But the building was not harmed as much as the spirits of its former patrons, said Ratsey Williams. And so it sat empty for years.
"Much of the village was damaged," she said. "People weren't thinking about going to hear music and see vaudeville acts. Everyone was scrambling. In my opinion, the whole village was devastated and needed to heal."
Then, Oscar Goldin bought the property in the 1940s, turning it into a place to sell furniture. Andrew Aurichio's parents purchased it from Goldin in 1968.
"Nothing's been changed," said Aurichio, the current owner. "We do everything we can to preserve and maintain it."
Along with the facade, the building still maintains its balcony, stage and a hanging sign that says "Silence Please." Some of its original seats are in storage, said Aurichio.
"I think it's an example of a style of architecture of which we don't have a lot of commercial examples," said Greenport Mayor Kevin Stuessi, 49. "And truly when you walk into the back portion of the furniture store, it is literally the theater as it was built, but filled with beds and La-Z-Boy recliners. I'd love to see the day where we bring it back as a theater again."
Aurichio has been trying to sell the building, and its future is unclear. But for now, it remains a staple in Greenport.
"Everyone knows a little bit about the history of it," Ratsey Williams said, "and often people wander in to see what it looks like."
'Money makes the world go around'
We want to be a home for new talent... I'm committed to this, not just for the community but for myself. This is my dream.
— Tony Leone, owner of Strongbox Theater
Tony Leone, 51, would often walk past vacant buildings on Long Island and think to himself: "That could be a good space for a theater."
As a former actor in the Buffalo theater circuit, Leone always wanted to run a venue of his own. After working at a logistics company for two decades, that dream started coming more to the forefront.
"We looked at a couple of properties in Malverne and Lynbrook, and one in Valley Stream that used to be a diner," he said. "I asked our broker if he had anything else, and he said, 'I have this bank in East Rockaway.' "
The East Rockaway National Bank and Trust Company was built in 1930. In 2020, its second life began when Leone and his wife, Marla D'Urso, bought the building for $725,000. Together, they plan to turn it into a performing arts space called the Strongbox Theater, as a nod to its beginnings. The selling point for them was the ceiling: At 25 feet, Leone thought it would be perfect for all of the necessary lighting instruments.
The building has been gutted and asbestos remediated, with a plan to install all of the mechanics a theater needs, such as the lighting grid.
But the biggest task so far was the removal of the bank's vault in May 2022 — Leone was told the door alone weighed 10 tons. There are few companies in the country that can perform a task like this, he added, but he found OZ Trucking and Rigging in Farmingdale.
"We demolished the vault but we moved the door," said Leone, 51. "It was a big feat of engineering. It had a very thick steel door, which we moved 20 feet for the bar area of the theater. That involved building a new foundation for the door, which was a 30-inch reinforced foundation."
The exterior and windows of the bank will be preserved as well, along with some safe deposit box doors that will be incorporated into the theater's design by D'Urso.
The construction process has slowed down a bit since the vault project, said Leone. He said he's disappointed in how long it's taking, but admits to learning as he goes.
"We went into this with a certain level of naivete," he said. "It's 6,000 square feet, and it's a big undertaking. We're retrofitting this building that wasn't meant to be a theater: it was built to be a bank."
As the mechanical part of the build continues, Leone also purchased the building next door for around $475,000, he said. The adjoining wall will come down and provide more space for necessities like dressing rooms and rehearsal space. He envisions straight comedies and plays on the theater's roster, along with original musicians showcasing their work.
"We want to be a home for new talent, so that's part of the model," he said.
Across the street from the building on a recent sunny day, a community member spotted Leone and waved, asking how the construction was coming along. Leone invited him inside.
"It's not a work of beauty right now," Leone said, "but let's see."
Despite some roadblocks, he feels confident in the future of the Strongbox.
"I'm stubborn to do it," Leone said. "I'm committed to this, not just for the community but for myself. This is my dream."