The Greenport Theatre has weathered many sea changes during its 102-year run as the North Fork seaport’s “only show in town” — changes wrought by the transition from silent pictures to talkies, the destructive force of a hurricane and more recent innovations such as multiplexing and digital projection. But one thing has stayed the same.
“We don’t have shows that run too late, so [patrons] don’t have to worry about missing the last ferry,” said theater manager and projectionist John McCabe. During the Great Depression, ticket holders were even given return ferry tokens, according to a 1937 Daily Box Office Statement that McCabe found during the theater’s restoration and hung on a lobby wall.
The movie house, which has been in (almost) continuous operation since 1915, is now experiencing another change with its transformation into a multi-arts center. This summer, a photography exhibit greets moviegoers walking along a 60-foot hallway to their seats. The East End Arts Alliance in Riverhead curated the exhibition of 22 nature photos by artist Scott Farrell, 52, of Huntington Station.
Farrell said the theater is “the only show in town in Greenport,” and as a result his “work gets a much wider demographic with exposure to people who wouldn’t normally see it.”
The schedule has also been enriched with independent films such as “The Glass Castle” playing along with summer blockbusters and feel-good comedies. And upcoming is the North Fork TV Festival, which closes the summer season Sept. 7-9.
The man behind the makeover is owner Josh Sapan, 66, of Manhattan, president and CEO of AMC Networks, which owns and operates AMC, IFC and other cable channels. Sapan, a classic movie fan and reportedly the owner of the world’s largest antique lightning rod collection, is himself a ferry customer, walking to the boat from his summer home in Shelter Island Heights. Sapan says his love for “old things” drew him to purchase in 2004 what was then an aging multiplex theater. Between 2008 and 2016, Sapan invested $300,000 in renovating the theater to give it an Art Deco look harking back to its beginnings. In addition to putting in the gallery, a cafe was built and molding reminiscent of the Art Deco heyday of the 1930s is throughout the theater.
“I have always been drawn to artifacts of the recent and more distant past, particularly ones that I think may have been overlooked,” Sapan said. “I thought it would be wonderful to preserve the theater and to simultaneously make it a place that did more than just film.”
The theater opened in 1915 as The Metro, but was destroyed by fire and rebuilt, Sapan said. After it was damaged again, this time by the hurricane of 1938, the theater was rebuilt in time to screen Charles Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940).
The 1930s were a “hot period for building movie theaters and for Art Deco theaters,” said Paul S. Fiore of Foley Fiore Architecture, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, firm that designed the restoration.
Fiore said that no plans were found for the original 1915 structure, but other cinemas surviving from the 1930s were studied. Tearing down black curtains in one of the Greenport screening rooms revealed Art Deco details such as curved molding, which were replicated throughout the building.
“We wanted to put it all back in the style that was originally there . . . creating a theater that felt more of a time when movies were more important,” Fiore said.
Among the Art Deco touches are a stand-alone box office inside the lobby and, er, authentic 1930s men’s room plumbing, including the colorful mauve urinals. The latter drew raves from at least one online admirer, who wrote in a recent Google review:
“The urinals in the Men’s Room are astonishing and worth the price of admission.”