A plan to create a community arts hub while preserving a historic St. James theater got a boost recently when Suffolk County awarded a total of $1 million in grant funding to Smithtown and a nonprofit that operates in the building.
Built in the early 1900s, the St. James Calderone Theater houses Celebrate St. James, a nonprofit cultural arts organization.
The Second Street theater, which started as a venue for vaudeville arts — stage entertainment featuring a variety of acts — has fallen into disrepair.
However, with $900,000 in recent Suffolk County JumpSMART funding, Smithtown will buy the theater and let Celebrate St. James continue to operate there under a lease agreement that still is being worked out, according to Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim.
He said the building's price also needs to be settled.
Through the JumpSMART funding, which supports small businesses and strengthens local arts and cultural organizations, the county also gave the nonprofit a $100,000 grant.
That money can go toward either arts programming or renovations to the building, according to Suffolk County spokeswoman Marykate Guilfoyle.
Theater owner Natalie Weinstein, who bought the building in 1985 with her now-late husband Bernard and also founded Celebrate St. James, said in an interview that she has refused offers through the years to sell the property to people who didn't plan to preserve its history.
An ongoing fundraising campaign to fund renovations to the property hasn't been sufficient to pay for repairs that nonprofit officials said the building needs: a new roof, a new elevator, repairs to its tin ceilings and a space reconfiguration.
In the future, Celebrate St. James also would like to add a small recording studio, classrooms, meeting rooms, areas for art and music therapy, a movie museum and an art gallery. Nonprofit officials estimate the repairs and renovations would cost between $1 million and $2 million.
Today, the building hosts monthly events that include one-man and two-man shows, concerts, seminars, adult classes, movies, art shows and children’s programming.
“It’s not the most elaborate of buildings, but people who come there, even the artists, all say the same thing that I said to my husband: 'There’s a special feeling about this place,'” Weinstein said.
The Calderone family, who operated a chain of theaters on Long Island between 1916 and the early 1980s, previously owned the property.
Weinstein said she hadn't been aware of the theater’s long history at first. However, she said it became clear to her soon after the property acquisition nearly four decades ago that the building represented a piece of St. James’ arts culture that needed to be preserved.
Doris Meyer, the president of Celebrate St. James, says the grant funding will provide “a way forward” for their plans to create a cultural arts center in the hamlet while preserving a piece of its history.
"I believe so passionately in the vision that that building that has such extraordinary history could become the home of a permanent art center in St. James," she added.
Taking history into the future
- The St. James Calderone Theater was built in the early 1900s
- It houses Celebrate St. James, a nonprofit cultural arts organization
- Smithtown plans to buy the building with county funding and lease it to the nonprofit