2013 0301 suffolk theater ribbon cutting

The red tape it took to restore and reopen Riverhead’s depression-era movie palace, the Suffolk Theater, was symbolically cut through Friday morning when owners Bob and Dianne Castaldi cut a big red ribbon to mark the theater’s grand reopening.

Castaldi, who first began renovation of the theater in 2005, said the project came together “against all odds.”

As bubbles poured from the re-lit marquee above his head, he thanked all those agencies who helped make the dream of the theater’s new life come true, including the town of Riverhead itself, its Industrial Development Agency and the construction crews who physically resurrected Castaldi’s labor of love.

2013 0301 suffolk theater ribbon cutting 2“As a contractor for 37 years, it was nice to see these guys work,” he said. “It was almost like watching them work on their own house. Everybody cared.”

Even the developer himself has been breathing new life into the building and is nearing completion on a painted mural on the second floor.

“I’ve still got two people left to paint,” he told RiverheadLOCAL with a laugh.

The opening of the theater will be consummated Saturday with a 1930s-style gala event, followed by an evening dance party, which executive director Bob Spiotto said will represent the time warp between the theater’s first life during the Great Depression and its new life during today’s Great Recession.

“After the gala the curtain will close, so to speak, on the 1930s, and we will be brought to the present with the evening event, complete with DJs,” he said.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said he considers the reopening of the theater a crowning achievement of his administration’s building-by-building approach to improving downtown’s business district.

“This is the final piece of the revitalization of Riverhead,” Walter said at the event, which included music by Bob Barta’s Sunnyland Jazz Band. Walter praised the Castaldis for their commitment to the theater and their investment in downtown Riverhead.

“This is a very small but proud town that has always identified itself with Main Street, but it has never given up heart,” Walter said. “As run down as Main Street has gotten and as bad as things look, the residents of this town…would always ask, ‘What’s happening? When’s the theater opening? How can we help?'”

Andrea Lohneiss, former Riverhead Town community development director who worked to acquire the theater for the town in the early 1990s, was on hand to enjoy the fruition of a long-ago dream. Lohneiss stood among the crowd with downtown pharmacist Barry Barth, the first president of the Riverhead Business Improvement District — Suffolk County’s first BID — which Lohneiss was responsible for creating in 1991.

She said it was then and there that interest in the theater’s resurrection began.

2013 0301 newsboy“We wanted to make sure the building wasn’t sold and then demolished,” she said, “So we asked the town board to purchase the building, which they did in 1994,” she said. “Ultimately the town board decided not to undertake [the theater’s restoration] and to sell it to the private sector, which was successful. Improvements were made over time, so this opening has been a long time coming. I think the theater will be an absolute asset to the town,” she said.

Calverton resident Frank McArdle echoed this sentiment at the ribbon-cutting cermony, calling the theater something “badly needed” in Riverhead’s business landscape. McArdle said he often frequented the theater during the 1930s and 1940s, adding he saw the 1940 film, “Little Nellie Kelly” there.

“That was Judy Garland’s first adult role as a young woman and it had great Irish songs,” McArdle said of the film, which interested the 20-something immigrant from Northern Ireland. “There was a big group of us there to see it and it was just beautiful inside. It looked just like Radio City.”

Tickets to the Suffolk Theater’s “Back to the Thirties” gala can be purchased by calling (631) 727-4343 or visiting the theater’s website: suffolktheater.com

See a video of the restoration work in progress, including interviews with the theater owner and contractors here.

Photo captions, from top: (1) Dianne Castaldi snips the red ribbon at the Suffolk Theater Friday morning. RiverheadLOCAL photo by Diane Tucci; (2) Supervisor Sean Walter speaking under the theater marquee as Dianne and Bob Castaldi look on. RiverheadLOCAL photo by Diane Tucci; old-time newsboy distributing souvenir newspapers, as the Sunnyland Jazz Band performs prior to the ribbon-cutting ceremony RiverheadLOCAL photo by Gianna Volpe.

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