Patchogue Theatre turns 100 in style
The village of Patchogue has a lot to celebrate. The downtown streets are bustling with businesses, new housing developments have brought an influx of residents and the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts is marking its centennial this month.
“Patchogue is more than just a place to come for dinner and a cold beer. We have become a home for the arts,” says Mayor Paul Pontieri. “The Patchogue Theatre has had a tremendous effect on our downtown area. It brings credibility to Main Street.”
The culmination of the 100th anniversary celebration takes place May 20 when the Patchogue Theatre welcomes Louis Prima Jr., who, along with his band the Witnesses, promises to deliver “a nonstop freight train of music and mayhem.”
WHAT 100th Anniversary Celebration with Louis Prima Jr. & the Witnesses
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. May 20, Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, 71 E. Main St.
INFO $49-$79; 631-207-1313, patchoguetheatre.org
“We encourage crowd participation, mostly in the form of getting out of your seat, dancing, jumping and singing along,” says Prima Jr. “I do have one big surprise, but I can’t give it away yet. You’re going to have to be there to find out what it is, and trust me, it is HUGE!”
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Built in 1923, the former Ward & Glynne’s Patchogue Theatre, located at 71 E. Main St., used to feature first-run silent movies, theatrical productions, burlesque shows and vaudeville acts like the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin as well as musical performances by the John Philip Sousa Marine Band and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. As “the talkies” (films with sound) came more into fashion in the late 1920s, it became a movie house. In 1982, the theater, which was then owned by United Artists, turned into a triplex showing three different movies. But the theater was no longer profitable by 1987 and closed down.
“When the theater was shuttered, the town had a 50% vacancy,” says Marian Russo, executive director of the Community Development Agency for the village of Patchogue. “There weren’t a lot of people around at night and no cars were on the streets.”
Steve Lucas, treasurer of the Greater Patchogue Historical Society, adds, “The '70s and '80s were a bit of a downturn for Patchogue because shopping malls like Smith Haven Mall put a big dent in local mom and pop retail.”
In 1996, the village purchased the theater and some adjoining stores from United Artists for $410,000 viewing it as an investment for the future.
“Main Street was dead and we needed something that was going to draw 1,000 people nightly,” says former Mayor Stephen Keegan, whose term ran from 1996 to 2000. “We were looking to make the Patchogue Theatre a magnet on Main Street.”
To accomplish this task, Keegan got an investment-free loan from three local businessmen: Bill Knapp of Swezey’s, Ric Rose from Clare Rose Distributors and local fuel-oil dealer Arthur Fuccillo as seed money to start the process. However, the theater was in rough shape.
“It was a total mess,” says Peter J. Sarich, senior building inspector for the village. “We had to pull out everything. The alterations United Artists did to make the theater a triplex contributed to a substantial amount of the damage we inherited.”
The original plaster work on the walls was covered by Sheetrock. But the village’s plan was to restore the venue to its former 1920s glory.
“It was as if we were rebuilding a building to look like a real old building. It needed a roof, electric, sprinklers, bathrooms — everything you can think of,” says Sarich. “About 60% of the original plaster work was destroyed or severely damaged. We were going on the bits we found lying around and pieced these architectural elements back together.”
THE CURTAIN RISES
In late 1998, the Patchogue Theatre reopened with several performances of “The Nutcracker on Ice” by the St. Petersburg State Ballet on Ice from Russia in conjunction with The Gateway of Bellport, which initially helped book the programming, including several of its own performances such as “Titanic” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
“A partnership developed between us. We basically brought Gateway to Patchogue. It became our second home for many years,” says Paul Allan, Gateway’s executive artistic director. “It was our vision to turn it into a performing arts center and pepper it with our own performances.”
Though “The Nutcracker on Ice” was a success, the theater wasn’t nearly finished.
“The lobby was gorgeous. But the house had black theater curtains on the walls hiding all the crumbled plaster and construction work we were in the middle of doing,” says Keegan. “In 1923, somebody had the thought of insulating the place with seaweed. Believe it or not, the seaweed was still falling out of the ceiling when we had the first couple of performances going on. Plus, we had no heat in the building.”
The construction continued as there was still much work to be done.
“In 2000, we put up scaffolding all throughout the interior of the theater within 6½ feet of the ceiling,” says Sarich. “We went through the entire building piece-by-piece determining what needed to be restored and the method of how to restore it. It was basically trial and error. The goal was to get it as close to the original as we could based on an old photograph we had to go by.”
The ceiling was hand-painted by a team of local volunteer artists. Installing a $35,000-plus chandelier from Valencia, Spain, was even more arduous. Setting it up took two weeks because each crystal had to be put in by hand and even then it wasn't ready to be hung.
“The original hoist motor we had from 1923 was a hand crank motor,” says Sarich. “We had to spend $40,000 to put in a new hoist motor so that the chandelier wouldn’t fall.”
Having the theater up and running greatly improved the village’s downtown economy.
“Once the theater fully reopened, people started coming back,” says Russo. “It drew crowds to the village and that positively impacted the local restaurants, bars and stores creating great synergy.”
Mayor Pontieri adds, “Having the Patchogue Theatre makes all the difference in the world because it gives everybody a bump. I don’t think the village would be where we are today without the theater being here. It’s a real asset.”
MUSIC ON MAIN STREET
Over the years the Patchogue Theatre, which is owned by the village but operates as a nonprofit, developed a reputation for supporting local original artists. Former board chairperson Christopher Capobianco put together a monthly series called, “Live in the Lobby,” which held a crowd of 100 in the front lobby.
“The idea was to give Long Island musicians, who write their own material, a place to play in the land of cover bands,” says Capobianco. “It took off right away. The biggest surprise was how many artists there were to present. We never ran out!”
Singer-songwriter Rorie Kelly of Sound Beach was a regular at “Live in the Lobby” and recorded her 2013 album, “Sincerely Live” there.
“It was a real listening space, and we don’t have too many of those on Long Island,” says Kelly. “You could hear a pin drop and people were excited to be a part of it.”
Fellow artist Cassandra House of Patchogue adds, “That was as local as it gets. It felt like a living room in a way. The audience was very respectful.”
Some artists got so popular they graduated to the main stage like local favorite Miles to Dayton. Lead singer-guitarist Jon Preddice of Port Jefferson Station even proposed to his wife and bandmate, Krista, on the stage.
“We had played a whole 90-minute show and on the last song, I looped my electric guitar part and I went into a speech about Krista,” says Preddice. “Then I surprised her by getting down on one knee in front of 800 people. It was an amazing night.”
Led Zeppelin tribute band Hammer of the Gods played its first headline theater show there and has since filled the venue almost annually for the past 18 years.
“We had no idea what to expect. At that time tribute bands weren’t playing in theaters,” says guitarist Paul Colchamiro of Nesconset. “By the end of the night, the relationship between the band and the Patchogue audience was absolutely electric. We fed off each other.”
After “Live in the Lobby” ended in 2017, alternative programming continued with the Loading Dock, which turned the back end of the stage into an intimate venue.
“I wanted to establish a place for new music and comedy,” says Gary Hygom, former executive director of the Patchogue Theatre. “I think it’s important to make space for emerging artists. The Loading Dock puts a spotlight on up-and-coming talent in an interesting and unique way.”
Current board chairman Ryan Murphy adds, “We can do a simple comedy act or a small jazz trio for 50 to 100 people. It’s another option for a performance space for us, which is part of rebranding and reinventing ourselves to keep up with trends.”
The upgrades continued by installing solar panels on the roof to make the building more green, a new video enhanced marquee as well as wide bodied comfortable seating.
“It was time to afford our patrons with a little more comfort,” says Murphy. “We lost some seats when we did the upgrade in order to gain some additional width and space that we got. Plus, you gain a better eye line from the crowd.”
SHOWS FOR EVERYONE
Finding unique talent and appealing to a larger demographic is a key objective for executive director Michele Rizzo-Berg, who books the programs at the theater.
“All our guests are not the same age or share the same taste, therefore our focus is on variety," she said. "We have all types of music, comedy, theater, book authors plus films and TV shows with the cast.”
Last fall Rizzo-Berg brought “American Idol” Season 20’s Top 7 finalist Christian Guardino, who grew up in Patchogue, to the venue for a homecoming concert.
“The Patchogue Theatre was huge for me as a kid. We were always there seeing shows, especially during the holidays,” says Guardino. “Having it be my first headlining gig was mind-blowing. It felt like a full circle moment.”
The theater plans to continue being creative with its programming but hopes more Long Islanders discover what it has to offer.
“People are amazed when they come in for the first time and see this grand theater,” says volunteer usher John Madden of Selden. “They can’t believe it’s here in Patchogue and they didn’t have to travel all the way into Manhattan to experience this type of entertainment. They never knew what was waiting for them behind those doors.”
HALL OF FAME ROCKS PATCHOGUE
On Oct. 15, 2006, the Long Island Music Hall of Fame (now known as the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame) held its inaugural gala at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts.
The 2006 inductee class included: Tony Bennett, Harry Chapin, Joan Jett, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge, Run-D.M.C., Neil Sedaka, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss of KISS, the Stray Cats, Twisted Sister, Vanilla Fudge, Leslie West of Mountain and more.
“We thought the first one needed to be an explosion,” says board member and co-founder Jim Faith. “Our intent was to change the perspective people had about Long Island and scream out to the world what incredible talent we have here.”
Main Street was closed down for three blocks in each direction. Thousands of people watched from the street as classic cars dropped off each artist on the red carpet.
“The theater was filled. It was sold out in a day, which was absolutely amazing,” reflects Faith. “It was exactly what we wanted it to be.”
West played three songs, Little Anthony and the Imperials performed as well as Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge who did “The Worst That Could Happen” with composer Jimmy Webb. The festivities went past 2 a.m. as the speeches ran long and the jams were extended.
“We had actor Alec Baldwin inducting Billy Joel and he needed to take a flight at 6 a.m. but Billy was scheduled to be last,” recalls Faith. “Alec kept pointing to his watch asking me to move up Billy’s induction to earlier in the evening, but I wouldn’t do it because I knew once we inducted Billy everyone would leave.” — DAVID J. CRIBLEZ