Wearing a vintage Dixieland hat, Bob Spiotto looked out over the audience, grabbed his microphone, prompted the swing bang GI Jivesters to begin playing and began to sing.
Kicking off the night in front of 200 of his guests, Spiotto, executive director of the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead, sang the 1902 jazz standard “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey.”
Guests danced, drank and ate for more than two hours during the theater’s first “FREEdom Fest” to celebrate the Fourth of July after reopening its doors only four months ago.
The theater, originally built in 1933, was known as the “Radio City Music Hall of Long Island,” according to Spiotto, but it closed in 1987 amid a shifting economy in which multiplex theaters became difficult to compete with. It wasn’t until developer Bob Castaldi and his wife, Dianne, purchased the theater and spent years restoring it that it came alive again, offering dinner, drinks, comedic acts and musical performances Thursday night.
“It’s not only July Fourth, but also the theater’s four-month anniversary,” said Spiotto, 50, of Holbrook. “So it’s excited for us to be here on Riverhead’s historic Main Street partaking in its annual Fourth of July celebration leading up to the fireworks display at 9 p.m.”
Lorraine Dunleavy couldn’t remember the last time she had the pleasure of seeing the 1942 film “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but couldn’t take her eyes off it playing on the screen.
“I wish I could watch the whole film now, but I know the band’s about to play,“ said Dunleavy, of Riverhead. “I just love coming here because it provides a nice social setting for me and my friends and I wouldn’t miss coming out tonight to support the theater.”
Frank Lauro and his wife Barbara, who drove from their home in Manorville, couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the holiday than by relaxing and dancing to Dixieland music.
Frank Lauro, who served on the U.S.S. Independence, an aircraft carrier in the Navy from 1958-61, said “the holiday is about remembering how great a country we live in.”
“We live in a great country, but in my opinion there should be more patriotism,” he said. “Today should be spent celebrating the freedoms we have and let’s never forget that.”
The GI Jivesters played until 8:30 p.m. and then everyone filed out of the theater doors and to the street to find a good spot to watch the annual fireworks display near the canal.
Laura Landor sat at the first table to cheer on her boyfriend Tom Manuel, band director of the GI Jivesters, playing his trumpet along to American classics like “Hello Dolly” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
She could hardly believe how perfect a setting the theater was for this type of music.
“This theater is so beautiful. Its 1930s vintage-style paired with music from the same era is just so fitting,” said Landor, 37, of Coram. “This music was designed for a place like this. The music lifts the American spirit and is so perfect to hear on the Fourth of July.”
The Fourth of July celebrations at the Suffolk Theater continue into the weekend. Tonight, “The Great American Classic Rock Show” will begin at 8 p.m. On Saturday, “Red White & Swing,” featuring the big band sound of Black Tie Affair Orchestra, begins at 8 p.m. (Call 631-727-4343 for ticket information.) Saturday night will also feature vintage cars being displayed on Main Street.