In what could be the first of many sneak previews to come, the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center celebrated the completion of the construction phase of its project with a decidedly low-key ribbon-cutting on Saturday.
“What we did was just to thank elected officials and celebrate what they did to help us get this done,” said Susan Mead, the treasurer of the nonprofit organization that acquired the building after it sustained heavy damage in a December 2016 fire. “We thought this merited some kind of celebration and ribbon-cutting to note it was completed. With COVID, we didn’t want to attract a big crowd.”
Instead, about a dozen people gathered under the Sag Harbor sign to reminisce about the old movie theater and anticipate its reopening as a state-of-the-art cinema arts facility.
When that will be remains up in the air, Ms. Mead said, as New York State has yet to offer any guidance as to when theaters will be able to reopen. In the meantime, the cinema has already beefed up its air filtration system and is testing its equipment to make sure its opening will be a smooth one, she said.
The multi-million-dollar renovation project was given two significant boosts from state and local governments. The first came in the form of a $1.4 million state grant from the Empire State Development Corporation that allowed the Cinema Arts Center to close on the building shortly after the fire destroyed its lobby and left its screening room unusable. The second came when Southampton Town agreed to spend $4 million in Community Preservation Fund proceeds to buy an easement over the building’s iconic façade and the commercial development rights to the property.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said the community could have “shrunk in despair and say ‘Oh my God, it will never be the same’” after the fire. Instead, he said, it came together to save the cinema. “Not only is it not the same, it is a lot better,” he said. “This community is in for an extraordinary treat.”
Both he and New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said the state and town funds were well spent to help restore a valuable and much loved part of the village’s cultural landscape.
“We are so lucky to live in a place where art and culture are valued,” said Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni. “At the heart of this is really a love for the Village of Sag Harbor. They really have been behind this thing, and now we have our cinema back.”
Mr. Thiele said long before it became an art house cinema, it was just a movie theater.
“I remember 35-cent Saturday double features on a day just like today, with stale popcorn and a Milkshake bar in my other hand, going to the movies here,” Mr. Thiele said. “My story is not unique. There are literally thousands of people in this community who have the same connection to the movie theater.”
Sag Harbor Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy also reminisced, saying the first movie she saw at the theater was the Beatles’ second feature film, “Help” in August 1965 when she was a little girl.
“I started thinking about the words to that title song,” she said. “What a way to sum up this theater and this village, but ‘help.’”
She cited first the community effort to save the cinema’s neon sign and later a cold and windy December morning when a fire that threatened the entire business district was stopped by an army of volunteer firefighters from across the East End. That effort was directed by village Trustee Tom Gardella, who was Sag Harbor fire chief at the time. He was not present Saturday because he was on an ambulance call.
“Now we need the cinema’s help,” she said. “We need the cinema to open its doors and entertain us and bring us together as a community … and make us cry and make us laugh and make us learn. And we just can’t wait for that to happen.”