In 2016 a fire nearly destroyed the only arthouse cinema on the East End of Long Island. Five years and $18 million dollars later, the iconic, century-old Sag Harbor Cinema is once again open for business.
A former whaling village, Sag Harbor, NY, located between Southampton and East Hampton, was at one point a thriving working-class community full of artists like John Steinbeck. In recent years, deep pocketed homeowners flooded the sleepy enclave, creating more traffic and fancier village haunts. But despite the influx of affluence, Sag Harbor has managed to uphold its small-town, subdued, artistic vibe.
The village’s Main Street is home to Sag Harbor Cinema. Built to host vaudeville and burlesque shows in the 1890s, the venue become a silent movie house that evolved to show talkies. In 1978 Gerald Mallow bought the single-screen theater, which he owned until selling for $8 million in 2017.
When Sag Harbor Cinema— beloved for not only its obscure programming but also its 1930s red neon sign with the village name — burned down, “it was a massive trauma for the community,” explains artist and community activist April Gornik. “It caused tremendous pain.”
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A volunteer for Sag Harbor Partnership, a local nonprofit community organization, Gornik and other inhabitants including Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan launched a massive Sag Harbor Cinema rebuild effort that became a community effort.
The Town of Southampton bought a use easement on the property, helping make Sag Harbor Cinema a non-for-profit theater with Gornik serving as the board chair. D’Agnolo Vallan — the U.S. programmer and a selection committee member of the Venice Film Festival — serves as the founding artistic director.
The Cinema garnered national attention when celebrities like Billy Joel, Julie Andrews and Martin Scorsese donated and voiced their support in purchasing, rebuilding, and restoring the movie house. But support also came via anonymous donations, grants, and community fundraising efforts like local bake sales, high school class donations and donation jars placed in shops throughout the small town. Over one million in community donations of less than $1,000 came from local villagers. Of the $18 million raised, $10 million was used to bring the movie theater and that 1930s red neon sign back to life.
“We have not just built a normal movie theater back in place of the Sag Harbor Cinema,” says Gornik. “We have built an extraordinary facility.”
That facility is a multiuse center for film and the arts which includes three separate theaters, Dolby Atmos sound systems, 4K, 35 and 16 millimeter projectors as well a roof top bar.
“From the very beginning we knew we were going to create a space where what you watch and hear is the way the filmmakers want their films to be seen and heard,” says D’Agnolo Vallan.
During the theater’s Memorial Day weekend grand opening, screenings included 35 millimeter collectors print of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” D.A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back,” Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” and William Wellman’s “Nothing Sacred,” which had been restored by the Museum of Modern Art.
But the new Sag Harbor Cinema is not just for cinephiles — it’s meant for anybody who likes to watch movies. Meaning Hollywood blockbuster like John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place Part II” and John Chu’s “In The Heights” will also be on the marquee.
“We are well on our way to changing the nature of what has been kind of a weird little art house theater that appealed to people, even people who didn’t come, to a cinema that actually has its arms open to the entire community,” says Gornik.
Ticket prices range from $7.50 -$15. Various membership deals are also being offered.
Through retrospectives and an upcoming celebration of Latin American cinema, both Gornick and D’Agnolo Vallan hope to attract a wide-ranging group of visitors.
“This is community is so full of artists and filmmakers,” says D’Agnolo Vallan. “So (the Cinema) can become a bridge between these artists and the rest of the community by highlighting the work of artists from here and making them available to audiences.”