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Riverhead's Suffolk Theater could become home, sweet downtown home

Suffolk Theater on East Main Street in Riverhead

Suffolk Theater on East Main Street in Riverhead on Monday. Credit: James Carbone

Renovations planned for the 86-year-old Suffolk Theater on East Main Street in Riverhead are necessary to keep the building thriving downtown into the future, the owner of the iconic landmark told town officials. 

Bob Castaldi, the theater's owner, and Southampton architect Richard Stott presented plans at the Riverhead Town Board’s May 2 work session at Town Hall to build a five-story addition to the building and add theater amenities.

The addition would include 28 apartments on four floors and a ground floor of commercial and retail space. Other renovations would add a new "green room," a waiting room and lounge for performers and other changes.

The town is considering an environmental assessment review for the proposed construction, Stott said. 

Heyday: 1930s through 1960s

The Suffolk Theater was built by A.H. Schwartz, who operated a chain of movie theaters on Long Island and in Brooklyn, and opened on Dec. 21, 1933. It was considered a modern marvel.

“They referred to it as the Radio City Music Hall of Long Island,” said Castaldi.

The building earned that name because of its “opulent, Art Deco look” that was similar to the iconic music hall in Manhattan, said Suffolk Theater manager Dan Binderman. “The idea was to create that feeling like at the Ziegfeld [Theater] or Radio City out here.”

In addition to hosting plays and other performances, the Suffolk Theater was an official issuing agent for U.S. war bonds during World War II. Organizations such as the Long Island Farm Bureau often used the theater for special events and meetings, and it became “a hub of activity in the town and a central attraction for many years,” Binderman said.

Closure and Reopening

The Suffolk Theater entered a downward spiral in the 1970s. Changes in shopping habits and the economy, as well as the advent of multiplex movie theaters, began to erode the theater’s profits, according to the theater's website.

The theater closed in 1987.

Riverhead Town bought the building in 1994, but it remained mostly unused until 2005, when Castaldi and his wife, Dianne, purchased the theater. It had fallen into significant disrepair by then.

The theater reopened in 2013 and since then has hosted a variety of acts, including rapper L’il Kim, comedian Rob Schneider and musical groups such as Three Dog Night and The Temptations.

“We’ve kept it broad, trying to appeal to a bunch of different people,” Binderman said.

Building Toward the Future

More improvements are needed at the theater to keep it viable in the future, Castaldi said.

“We need the space to become a true performing arts center,” he said. “We’d be able to be more versatile and be able to produce more artistic material. We wouldn’t be limited.”

Ultimately, Castaldi said, he wants to ensure the future of a building that residents told him holds special memories.

“First dates, first kisses, being there with your kids, going with your friends, anything in your imagination, people told me they experienced there,” Castaldi said. “We thought we were saving a building. The bonus was we were saving people’s memories.”

Suffolk Theater in downtown Riverhead

  • Owner Bob Castaldi said his wife, Dianne, convinced him the building was worth saving when they purchased it in 2005.
  • The proposed renovations would add space to increase programming such as plays, a 30-piece orchestra, operas and ballets.
  • Theater renovations were also proposed years ago but became bogged down in issues with the previous town administration, Castaldi said.
  • A glass exterior for the building was initially discussed, but some Riverhead Town Board members said it would not mesh well with East Main Street’s look. Castaldi said he would be open to other options for the exterior going forward.

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