Charity and Sag Harbor Cinema Clash

The lobby of the Sag Harbor Cinema looking towards the auditorium. Theater owner Gerry Mallow alleges that a 50-foot long expanse of carpet was damaged following a benefit in August. Michael Heller photograph.
The lobby of the Sag Harbor Cinema looking towards the auditorium. Theater owner Gerry Mallow alleges that a 50-foot long expanse of carpet was damaged following a benefit in August. Michael Heller photograph.

By Douglas Feiden

A national charity that educates families and raises awareness about the perils of drug and alcohol addiction is accusing the Sag Harbor Cinema of improperly withholding funds it claims belong to the nonprofit.

The allegations made by Facing Addiction stem from a $10,000 security deposit it made at the request of the theater on August 10, nine days before it held a long-scheduled fundraiser-and-awareness event at the Main Street venue on August 19.

That money has not been returned, and the charity is demanding it back. The cinema has not said what it intends to do with it, but longtime owner Gerald Mallow is alleging that his iconic building, erected in 1936, sustained damage in two separate areas.

It is the disposition of those funds, along with the theater’s claims of damages, which Facing Addiction calls unfounded, that lies at the heart of the controversy.

The clash pits a venerable and cherished Sag Harbor institution known for its art-house fare, and unmatched if quirky cinematic repertoire, against a start-up charity founded in 2015 that defines its mission as “reducing the human and social costs of addiction.”

Facing Addiction says it was told that it had to make the $10,000 payment at a time when it had already sold 300 of the 350 tickets for its big summer event, which featured Darrell Hammond, the Saturday Night Live comedian, and was billed as “A Tribute to Lost Laughs: An Evening of Awareness and Entertainment.”

It had previously paid $19,725 to rent the theater, according to the terms of an April 5 rental contract, and believed that would be the total cost of the venue. But charity executives say they had no choice but to make the extra security deposit, as asked, nine days before the event, because, they say, they were told that if they didn’t do so, they would not be permitted to bring their sound equipment into the theater.

Without the equipment, the event, hosted by the group’s Young Leadership Team to call attention to the scourge of youth addiction, would not have gone forward, Facing Addiction says.

“We had to get in that day or we would have no show,” said Robin Aviv, a founding board member of the nonprofit, in an interview.

“Under duress, Facing Addiction signed another contract, and paid the demanded additional $10,000, to avoid the threatened risk of losing the venue for this charitable event, to which we had already sold hundreds of tickets,” she wrote in a statement.

The Connecticut-based charity, which raises funds in both New York City and the Hamptons to seek solutions for people facing addiction, took in roughly $130,000 from the night at the cinema, for which it sold tickets ranging in price from $50 to $2,500.

But it never got its $10,000 security back, a fact that is not in dispute. And three months after the event, the group decided to go public in a letter to The Sag Harbor Express and interviews in which it outlined its side of the story. It also provided documents and emails it exchanged with Mr. Mallow.

“We’re an emerging organization working on really difficult issues,” said Greg Williams, the co-founder and executive vice president of Facing Addiction. “It’s not easy to have an event in the Hamptons, there aren’t too many venues, and this has made it very tough for our nonprofit. Unfortunately, this was not a positive experience for us, and we want people in the community to know about it.”

Mr. Mallow was reluctant to discuss specifics of the row: “I don’t want to make any substantial statements because they would all be negative,” he said in one interview. “I don’t really want to try this in the newspaper,” he said at another point.

But in a handful of brief interviews over a two-week period, Mr. Mallow praised the work of Facing Addiction, while also making it clear that he was unhappy with how some members of its team had comported themselves at the August 19 fundraiser.

“In terms of the overall picture of who they are and what they do for the community and for our young adults, I’m very impressed with their work, and what they do and the services they provide,” he said.

“But in terms of their people, they were incredibly rude and incredibly aggressive,” Mr. Mallow added. “Their attitude seemed to be that they should have everything for free, and how could I charge them for anything?’”

Ms. Aviv said the charity never asked Mr. Mallow to do anything for free, but she noted that other vendors and service providers had waived or discounted their fees for the event.

She produced copies of the two contracts the charity signed with the cinema, dated April 5 and August 10, and three emails that it had received from Mr. Mallow in the days following the fundraiser.

Mr. Mallow declined to discuss either the security deposit or the alleged damages. But the emails he sent to Facing Addiction, which the charity is making public, spell out his allegations that the historic 400-seat theater, which he bought in 1978, sustained damage in two separate areas.

“I thought the show came off very well, the theater looked great with the lighting you provided,” he wrote Mr. Williams in an email dated August 20, the day after the event. “I was very impressed with all the young people you were engaged with; you provide a great service.”

But Mr. Mallow added, “I would only hope you teach them not only to honor their bodies, but also to honor the house that they are in. I find that lacking in your staff.” And he also wrote, “The building is a beautiful venue, unappreciated by your people, and that is truly a shame.”

At issue in the dispute: Several crates of bottled juices supplied by a sponsor for the show. Mr. Mallow wrote that a worker for the charity had “piled the very heavy crates” in the men’s bathroom; Ms. Aviv says they were placed, as instructed, in a lounge outside the men’s room.

“The weight of the crates cracked a supporting beam,” the August 20 email said. “I will have it inspected and see if any other areas were damaged from the heavy crates piled one on top of the other. I will report back to you in a few days what the repairs will cost.”

Then on August 24, Mr. Mallow wrote to Mr. Williams again to say that the crew the charity sent on August 23 to remove the crates stored inside the theater had “created a very big problem.”

“The bottles in some of the crates had exploded,” the owner said, and as they were being carried from the men’s lounge to the back door, the crates “leaked on the theater carpet.”

The affected area is about 50-feet long, or roughly 40 percent of the theater’s carpeted area, he claimed. Inside the crates were “swollen and ruptured bottles of soured, foul-smelling material.”

And Mr. Mallow concluded the email, “This foul smell is now in our carpet. We will advise you what needs to be done to remedy this.”

Facing Addiction says it was never permitted to inspect the alleged damages to the beam and carpeting respectively. It says that was a breach of a clause in the “final security agreement” it signed with the cinema on August 10, which stated it “will have 24 hours to inspect said damage.”

The charity says the alleged damages were never quantified; it was never advised what the cost of repairs or remedies would be; it was never presented with any visual proof, and it was never offered photographic evidence or written documentation to verify that there had been any impairment to the property.

The refusal of Mr. Mallow to return the $10,000 security deposit, based on “claims of which he refuses to provide evidence or grant access to ascertain the facts,” is a breach of contract obligations, Ms. Aviv said in the November 15 letter.

“He is wrongly withholding funds from a charity established to educate families about the dangers of addiction and accidental overdose,” she wrote.

Brooklyn-based attorney Lawrence Tofel, who is representing Facing Addiction on a pro bono basis in this matter, said an effort to resolve the issue in conversations with Mr. Mallow’s lawyer was “unsuccessful.”

“Despite repeated requests for detail and support for any of Gerry’s claims, combined with his denials of access to assess the situation, it seems clear that there was no actual damage caused by Facing Addiction and that efforts were being made to effectively coerce payment,” Mr. Tofel said.

Mr. Mallow’s attorney, Shelter Island-based Sharon Moritz, didn’t return four calls over a two-week period.

Asked if he would provide photos of the alleged damage or give a tour of the affected areas to The Express, Mr. Mallow demurred.

“I’ve been in Sag Harbor for 40 years,” the proprietor said. “I think I deserve some respect for keeping the theater going for 40 years.”