A Century of Celluloid in Sag Harbor
By Douglas Feiden
For more than a century, motion pictures — first the silents, then the talkies — have been a centerpiece of Sag Harbor life.
Ranging from big-budget Hollywood spectaculars to little-known European art-house fare, from blockbusters to just-plain busts, tens of thousands of flicks have flickered across the screens of at least seven movie theaters in the village — amusing, entertaining, inspiring, angering, and, occasionally, boring, the residents of the East End. And that doesn’t event count venues like the Bay Street Theater, which also present films on their stages.
Of those seven houses, at least four, starting in 1901, have been domiciled at 90 Main Street, in roughly the same footprint as today’s iconic Sag Harbor Cinema, which is now being offered for sale by owner Gerald Mallow at $14 million. That price, by the way, is 560 times the $25,000 it cost in 1936 to build one of the predecessor theaters on the site. This is the history of those show houses:
A Century of Celluloid in Sag Harbor
Timeline of The Sag Harbor Cinema and its six known predecessor theaters in the village:
1907 – The Atheneum, a playhouse and vaudeville theater at Sage and Church streets, hosts Sag Harbor’s first known screening of an experimental silent film. Hits that play the Atheneum include “Big Jim Garrity,” a 1916 classic about a mine boss forced into exile in Europe after he’s falsely accused of murder by a dope doctor. The theater burns to the ground on April 30, 1924.
1908 – The Montauk Motion Picture Theater bows on Washington Street and becomes an overnight sensation. A top tenor performs to the accompaniment of a pianist, silent flicks like “Molly Pitcher” and “Vanity Fair” unspool, and in 1911, The Sag Harbor Corrector opines, “This inviting house deserves the heartiest praise for the high standard of its productions and the refined character of its theater.” The Montauk closes in 1912.
1909 – The Star Theater, a vaudeville-and-film house, opens on the west side of Main Street, near the site of today’s Sag Harbor Cinema, to compete with the Montauk. It charges 10 cents for children and 15 cents for adults and features Charles Chaplin flicks on Saturday night, according to longtime village historian Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski. In ads in The Corrector, the Star boasts that it is “devoted to high-class motion pictures,” like the 1911 Vitagraph Drama, “On a Tramp Steamer,” and the 1915 hit, “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” The Star closes its doors in 1923.
October, 1915 – George’s Theater opens at 90 Main Street. It sits on the same footprint as today’s Sag Harbor Cinema and begins a 101-year, unbroken history of movie houses at that address. But it was not a smooth debut, Ms. Zaykowski reports: A public notice soon advises “all law-abiding people” to “decline from patronizing the place” because George’s Theater had defied Ordinance # 15, issued by the village trustees, in opening on Sundays. “A serious offense in some eyes,” she wrote. Within four years, the theater had new management, new ownership and a new name.
November 19, 1919 – The Elite Theater reopens at the 90 Main Street site, and its first full-length feature proves a big hit with returning World War I veterans: “His Majesty, the American” is a silent film about a thrill-seeking New York millionaire, played by Douglas Fairbanks, who is unaware of his true identify as heir to the throne of a small European kingdom, which he rescues from evil plotters seeking to overthrow the monarchy. And oh, yes, he wins the hand of a gorgeous princess along the way. The Elite in 1926 or 1927 featured John Barrymore’s “The Sea Beast,” which is described as a silent version of “Moby Dick” with a happy ending. The Elite name lasts for eight years.
1927 – Glynn’s Sag Harbor Theater, taking its name from its latest proprietor, Michael Glynn, faces an unprecedented challenge. It is the year of Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer,” and for the first time, the pictures have begun to talk.
October 13, 1929 – Glynn’s Sag Harbor screens what is believed to be the first talkie to play the East End. “Kitty” tells the story of a handsome young British aviator in World War I-era London who falls in love with a humble shopgirl, horrifying his upper-crust and class-bound mother, and forcing him to choose between the two women in his life.
1935-1936 – The Sag Harbor Theater, as it is now known, begins a top-to-bottom reconstruction, and the Glynn’s name disappears. A demolition crew razes the auditorium and workers erect a two-story, three-bay, steel-and-concrete theater with stucco walls and an eye-catching façade graced with a distinctive concave arc. The cost of the John Eberson-designed show house is $25,000, and a ticket costs 20 cents for children and 40 cents for adults, writes Ms. Zaykowski. Famously, that glowing, 18-foot-long sign, reading simply “SAG HARBOR,” is mounted on the theater’s white face. Its signature red neon letters, dramatically underlined in a ribbon of blue, becomes a big-and-bold Art Deco symbol of the village.
8:30 p.m., June 3, 1936 – The gala opening performance of the Moderne-style Sag Harbor Theater features a Shirley Temple classic, “Captain January,” in which she plays the “little lady in the lighthouse,” a shipwrecked foundling rescued by a sea captain who raises her in a lighthouse — until a local truant officer comes calling. “Singing, dancing, laughing in the most lovable story she’s ever had!” says the ad in The Sag Harbor Express.
May, 1978 – Independent-and-foreign film aficionado Gerald Mallow buys the venerable Main Street building and renames it the Sag Harbor Cinema. It is the first name change in 42 years, and though he eventually removes some seats, the exterior remains largely unchanged. And it remains a single-screen theater, which is already becoming an increasingly rare breed.
Summer, 1978 – Mr. Mallow’s wife, Francoise, wants to watch “Madame Rosa,” a French film starring Simone Signoret as an Auschwitz survivor and retired prostitute. He screens it at the theater, and to his surprise, 275 people show up. So begins his decades-long run of presenting foreign films, some popular and some extraordinarily obscure.
1983 – E.L. Doctorow hosts an advance screening for “Daniel,” the Sidney Lumet-directed film adaption of his 1971 historical novel, “The Book of Daniel,” which was loosely based on the trial and executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
May, 2004 – Controversy erupts when Mr. Mallow removes the iconic period sign, with its nine rounded, sheet-metal letters, and prepares to install a much-criticized neon replacement of the dilapidated but beloved original. Villagers on the scene scoop up the original, which is earmarked for the junkyard, for safekeeping and preservation, and Mr. Mallow complains to the police that his sign has been stolen, though no charges are ever filed.
Summer of 2004 – The standoff is resolved when community sign-lovers, led by photographer-painter Brenda Siemer and playwright Joe Pintauro, come to an agreement with Mr. Mallow and start a fundraising campaign to build a nearly exact aluminum replica of the weather-beaten original, which is designed to take its place on the cinema’s façade. Model Christie Brinkley and then-husband Peter Cook purchase the “SAG” portion of the old sign, and an art auction and fundraising dinner collects cash for the new sign.
October, 2005 – Nearly a year and a half after the sign’s removal, a $20,000, 18-foot-long, letter-perfect copy is hauled into place. Preservation-minded residents foot the bill. And Main Street is lit up once again.
November, 2008 – Mr. Mallow lists the Sag Harbor Cinema for sale for $12 million. But it is a “whisper listing,” without a formal listing through a broker, according to current broker Ed Bruehl of Saunders. No deal ever materializes.
December, 2015 – Mr. Mallow puts the 7,000-square foot cinema back on the block with Mr. Bruehl as his exclusive agent. Asking price: $14 million. Interested parties from China and Europe have already expressed interest, the owner says. And the curtain is still going up as usual at the Sag Harbor Cinema.
The proof? The 2015 Romanian drama “Aferim!” — set in early 19th century Wallachia and described as a “Wallachian Western” — is now playing at 90 Main Street.
SOURCES: “Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty” (1991) by Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski / Additional archival research, The Sag Harbor Express & The Sag Harbor Corrector