Two bright spotlights pierced the dark sky, visible from miles around, announcing something big was happening in downtown Riverhead last night.
For the first time in 26 years, the Suffolk Theater was open for business.
This wasn’t just any opening for any theater.
This was the Suffolk, Long Island’s last remaining Art Deco movie palace, which originally opened with great fanfare on Dec. 30, 1933, financed by federal funds spent to create jobs during the Great Depression. The spectacular result would be a place where one could escape the troubles of the times — in air-conditioned comfort and plush velvet seats — with fantastical stories of swashbuckling adventures, monsters, romance, comedy and grand musical productions.
From a vantage point more than 79 years later, it’s difficult to measure the precise impact the Suffolk Theater might have had on the local economy back then — but stories of its impact on local society are legion.
Last night, as the theater’s doors were opened, its bright lights washed over the otherwise dark and empty section of East Main Street, lined with Model A Fords for the occasion. Thousands of tiny bubbles poured from the theater’s brightly lit marquee, danced in the brisk night air and floated onto the sidewalk below, where a red carpet lay before the theater’s polished mahogany entrance. Actors dressed as newsboys hawked free souvenir papers. Others dressed as constables, billy clubs in hand, pretended to keep order. A line of partygoers formed on the sidewalk behind a red velvet rope, where men in tuxedos and top hats escorting women in flowing gowns mingled with gangsters carrying machine guns and sequined flappers.
You could almost hear the sound of flashbulbs popping and sizzling as photographers snapped pictures of couples posing on the red carpet.
Excitement was — truly — in the air.
Expressions of wide-eyed wonder lit up the faces of people passing through the lobby and into the painstakingly restored theater for the first time, where they were greeted by an illuminated ice sculpture and a performance space unlike any other on the East End.
The Suffolk has been transformed by Dianne and Bob Castaldi into a magnificent multipurpose venue. Last night, tables and chairs were set up on its terraced floors, reminiscent of one of the great cabarets of another bygone era. Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks orchestra filled the stage, entertaining the crowd with music popular in the 1930s and ’40s. Costumed couples flowed onto the theater’s new dance floor to dance the Charleston, Fox Trot and Peabody. Tony LoBianco as Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia made a guest appearance at the podium.
Its opening night in 1933 reportedly drew 2,000 people. The crowd last night wasn’t quite that big, but the theater was packed, costumed revelers overflowing the available seating and filling the aisles. But the crush of the crowd didn’t dampen their festive mood.
“It’s hard to believe this night is finally here,” Dianne Castaldi said as she took it all in from her seat at a table overlooking the dance floor. “We’ve come such a long way.”
The theater is often called downtown’s “missing link” by local officials eager for it to herald in an era of downtown revitalization. Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter says he believes the theater, reopened as a performing arts center, will spawn other businesses in the immediate area even as it boosts business for existing restaurants and shops. The storefronts across from the Suffolk are currently almost entirely empty. The building immediately to its east — once the home of Woolworth’s – also sits empty, but it was recently purchased by a developer who has plans for a gym, retail stores and second-floor apartments.
“The theater is going to be the trigger for the final phase of downtown revitalization,” the supervisor said Friday.
Revitalization was on the mind of a smiling Bob Castaldi as he stood in front of the theater last night watching the crowds begin to arrive.
“Saturday night in downtown Riverhead,” Castaldi exclaimed, grinning. “Yes.”
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Emil Breitenbach Jr.
Click here for photo slideshow.
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