It wouldn’t be too far afield to say that a pall descended over Sag Harbor on December 16 when a wind-fanned fire caused heavy damage to one of the village’s most recognizable landmarks, the Sag Harbor Cinema.
The fire, coming less than two weeks before Christmas, also damaged several adjoining stores and businesses. Access to neighboring shops was curtailed for several critical days in the fire’s aftermath while the damaged buildings were secured.
The night of the fire, the cinema’s Art Deco façade was razed because of fears it would topple over onto the sidewalk. It was small consolation that a skillful bucket operator was able to delicately bring the wall down, somehow protecting its cherished neon Sag Harbor sign, which was whisked away to storage. On that cold December night it seemed unlikely that its cheerful red glow would ever be seen again.
Fast-forward four months.
Even before the fire, the rumor mill had been churning that the Sag Harbor Partnership was in serious negotiations to purchase the theater from owner Gerald Mallow. Since buying the cinema in May 1978, Mr. Mallow had resolutely, even stubbornly, provided Sag Harbor residents with a steady diet of foreign, independent, and off-beat films that were sometimes screened to a nearly empty hall. But could the all-volunteer group ever hope to come up with something approaching Mr. Mallow’s $14 million asking price?
The fire may have dashed those plans, but the partnership’s April Gornik, whose name has appeared in this paper many times over the past year, is a tenacious soul with a contagious “can do” attitude. This week, she and Nick Gazzolo, the partnership’s president, announced their group had pressed on in their mission and signed a contract to buy the damaged building for $8 million. Now, they are embarking on an ambitious fundraising campaign to raise that and another $4 million to $5 million to renovate the theater.
Their plans call for the creation of a not-for-profit organization, the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, to own and operate the theater. But first a major face-lift will be undertaken that will divide the main auditorium into two smaller spaces, convert the former RJD Gallery space into a café and build a classroom/small screening room above that.
Not only will the restored theater show the kind of films its fans have come to expect, but organizers hope to hold retrospectives, bring in directors and actors for seminars and other programs, and extend a link to local schools. The prospect for another cultural center in the heart of the village to complement the Bay Street Theater is more than exciting.
The partnership’s vision is ambitious, and, as it must be pointed out, it is by no means a done deal. Although the group has already secured a pledge of $1 million from one anonymous donor, millions more need to be raised before the ticket booth opens again. Our hope is that some of the same people who had backed the acquisition before the fire will stick to their commitment, that New York State will provide aid from its cultural and economic development funds, and that residents of Sag Harbor and the surrounding area will rally behind the project and make the cinema’s rebirth a reality.