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Sag Harbor Cinema offers tours as it prepares to reopen after fire

Executive director Jamie Hook talks about the renovations made at the historic Sag Harbor Cinema. Credit: Gordon Grant

Normal life returned briefly to Sag Harbor on a recent weekday when a few folks sat in plush theater seats to watch George Clooney and Sandra Bullock repair a satellite in space. After the roughly five-minute clip of Alfonso Cuarón’s "Gravity" ended, a smattering of applause broke out. Jackie Dunphy, a real estate agent from East Hampton, smiled as she walked out of the auditorium with her friends.

"Wasn’t that wonderful?" said Dunphy, 66. "It really makes you realize what you’ve been missing."

That short film presentation was part of a sneak peek at the new Sag Harbor Cinema, the East End landmark that burned down in 2016. Currently undergoing a renovation funded by private donors and a state economic development grant, the Cinema hopes to reopen Dec. 16, the four-year anniversary of its burning. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, that date is far from certain. In the meantime, the Sag Harbor Cinema welcomes small groups to take free tours of the spiffed-up property. (The Cinema says it has installed COVID-compliant air filters and is working on other safeguards.)

"The idea came about because nobody really knows what’s going on behind the Willie Wonka front façade of the building," according to Jamie Hook, the Cinema’s executive director and now also a part-time tour guide. The first few tours in October proved popular, he said, so the Cinema decided to keep them going. "Until we’re open, I think it’s a great way to build people’s interest in what’s going on here," Hook said.

The Sag Harbor Cinema, which sits on Main Street near Washington Street, opened in 1936. Designed by John Eberson, a European-born architect known for his "atmospheric" movie palaces, the Cinema has long been distinguished by its elegant, Art Deco neon sign. Gerald Mallow, the building’s previous owner, removed the original sign in 2004 but agreed to put up a replica that was built with donated funds. That replica survived the 2016 fire thanks to a local business owner who saved it from the bulldozer; it’s now back in its rightful place on the Cinema’s façade.

Though the Cinema looks the same from the outside, it’s nearly unrecognizable on the inside, as Hook's recent tour showed. The dim lobby is now a brightly lit space with white walls, glass jars filled with candy and a shiny new Nespresso machine. Down the hall is another concession area emblazoned with the words "BILLY JOEL’S POPCORN STAND" — a nod to a generous donation from the Long Island rock icon.

Formerly a single-screen theater, the Cinema now houses three auditoriums. The largest features 240 seats with classic arched backs, velvety red fabric and wood armrests. (The decorative metal plates that flank the aisle seats are originals, salvaged from the fire.) This is the auditorium Hook chose to screen the clip of "Gravity" because of its state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos sound system.

The second, mid-size auditorium has 100 seats and features both digital and 35 mm film projectors, which Hook says will allow the Cinema to show more obscure titles. The third and smallest theater, with 40 seats, may be a good choice for patrons who want to rent a room for private "pod" screenings with friends or family, according to Hook

"In this world of post-COVID," he said, "nobody knows what’s going to fly."

The Cinema’s third floor is devoted almost entirely to communal spaces: two outdoor patios, a large multipurpose room and perhaps best of all, a full bar. "I do think that's an innate part of the filmgoing experience," Hook said.

Dunphy, the real estate agent who attended a recent tour, said she’ll miss the "decrepit-ness" of the old theater, which she likened to Miss Havisham’s rotting mansion in Charles Dickens’ "Great Expectations." But she also welcomed the idea of a new art-house cinema in the neighborhood. "It’s not just about Sag Harbor," she said. "It’s about all of us on the East End."

Tours of the Sag Harbor Cinema at 90 Main St. take place Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m..; Fridays at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Tours are limited to groups of 10 and last one hour. Admission is free. No pets or service animals allowed. Masks are required and social distancing must be observed. Call 631-725-0010 or go to sagharborcinema.org.http://sagharborcinema.org.

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