December 16, 2016, is a date that will long live in the memories of Sag Harbor residents. Early that morning, a fire ignited in the rear of the Compass building on Main Street and soon, whipped by strong winds on the coldest day of the year, began its march south on Main Street. By the time it was extinguished later in the day, the conflagration had taken out several buildings, including a large portion of the Sag Harbor Cinema.
Among those who witnessed the fire’s destructive path was Michael Heller, who was present that day not only as an active member of the East Hampton Fire Department but also as a professional photographer. He shot the firefighting action up close all that day and in intricate detail, and in the years that followed, as the cinema was rebuilt, continued to chart the course of its rebirth through photographs.
Now, with the newly refurbished Sag Harbor Cinema poised for its official grand opening over Memorial Day weekend, Heller has released “A Phoenix Rises: The Fall and Rise of the Sag Harbor Cinema,” a book that not only tells the story of its destruction, but also how the movie theater was brought back to life. Heller’s book, full of photos and text, touches briefly on the cinema’s history, which began with its construction in 1936, before diving into the details and drama of the 2016 fire, followed by the long and arduous process to purchase and rebuild the cinema through the efforts of the nonprofit organizations Save Sag Harbor, Sag Harbor Partnership and later, the new Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center.
In a recent interview, Heller, who on the day of the fire was living just a block away on Union Street, recalled how it all began.
“I was one of the first ones to get there. The first engine had pulled up around 6:15 a.m., pulled the hoses off and had moved the first line into the Compass building and were trying to fight the fire when I walked up,” he said. “I helped pull hose and as more guys arrived, I stepped back and became the photographer.”
Some 16 fire departments and another 10 or so police, ambulance and emergency agencies from across the region eventually responded and for the rest of the day, Heller trained his lens on the job at hand — putting out a voracious fire that became all the more dramatic as it intensified in the strong winds, eventually causing the roof of the cinema’s main hallway to collapse while the water used to fight the fire in the frigid air encased fire engines all along Main Street in thick layers of ice.
“The surprising thing for me was you didn’t get a sense of how intense it was from the outside,” said Heller, who noted that the smoke was so thick that even he didn’t realize at the time that at one point, a firefighter had to be rescued by ladder truck from a third-floor window of the Compass building after becoming disoriented in a maze of boxes as the fire grew. He notes another veteran firefighter said he could gauge just how hot the fire was burning from the heat he felt on the back of his ears.
Later that evening, after the fire had been extinguished and the burned-out hulls of several buildings sat in darkness, it was determined that the cinema façade was too unstable to remain and it was taken down, the iconic neon sign carted away for safe keeping.
Now, more than four years later, the Sag Harbor Cinema is opening its doors once again. It has certainly been a long and winding road— especially with a yearlong pandemic delay thrown into the mix — and while for Heller, his new book evolved over time, he knew from the beginning that its centerpiece would be the dramatic imagery he shot the day of the fire.
“I had all these photographs. I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to do a book on the fire because it was an important moment in history,” said Heller, who in recent years has used his photographic skills to create books documenting other historic restoration projects in Sag Harbor, most notably the Bulova Watchcase Factory and, earlier this year, Long Wharf.
The story of the cinema in “A Phoenix Rises” really begins in May 2004, when the cinema’s previous owner, Gerald Mallow, attempted to swap out its deteriorating iconic art deco sign with a plastic replacement. Sag Harbor resident Brenda Siemer, who happened to see the work in progress, intervened with the late playwright Joe Pintauro to rescue the old sign from the dump. In the year that followed, Siemer took charge of a community effort to raise funds to construct an authentic reproduction of the original sign.
In 2005, residents turned out to see the new sign lit on the façade for the first time. The event marked the beginning of a community partnership that has continued with the reconstruction of the cinema. But no massive building project in Sag Harbor happens in a vacuum, and in his book Heller also documents the behind the scenes maneuvering — from Sag Harbor Partnership’s many meetings related to fundraising efforts to buy the burned-out property from Mallow to the inner workings of the various village boards and other governmental entities involved in giving the project the green light.
To tell the story, Heller interviewed as many of the players involved in the redevelopment project, including architect Allen Kopelson. He also interviewed many of his fellow firefighters who arrived that day to help fight the fire. He attended the Sag Harbor Partnership’s big tent party on Long Wharf in July 2017 and was at the cinema property again on June 16, 2018, the day the partnership broke ground on the project.
From that point on, I documented the entire construction every two weeks,” said Heller. “Scott Tucker, the site foreman, said there were things he had to do that were crazy. They were still gutting the back of the cinema while putting in the first steel in the front.”
Heller added that one day, the steel workers toiling in the front of the building told Tucker that they were Hell’s Angels, while adding the guys working in the back of the cinema were members of the rival motorcycle gang, the Pagans. The physical separation of the two groups of workers was apparently sufficient, as there were no incidents as a result.
When asked why he likes spending so much time photographing construction projects, Heller said: “I think I’m like a young kid. I like machines and I do have an interest in seeing how things are built.
“It’s kind of fascinating to see the steps they take to do certain things. Scott Tucker is a young guy, but his wealth of knowledge is amazing,” he added. “For me, it’s about seeing how they build and what goes into the construction — and under pretty brutal conditions. What was impressive is these guys really do take pride in the work they’re doing. They work hard to do a good job.
“I decided I’m doing this to document the process for an accurate record — here’s how it looked before and here’s how it looked after.”
Responding Agencies — Sag Harbor Main Street fire, December 16, 2016
1. Sag Harbor Fire Department
2. Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps
3. Sag Harbor Village Police Department
4. East Hampton Fire Department
5. East Hampton Volunteer Ambulance Corps
6. East Hampton Town Fire Marshals
7. Amagansett Fire Department
8. Bridgehampton Fire Department
9. Springs Fire Department
10. Montauk Fire Department
11. Southampton Fire Department
12. Southampton Volunteer Ambulance
13. Southampton Village Volunteer Ambulance
14. North Sea Fire Department
15. Hampton Bays Fire Department
16. Shelter Island Fire Department
17. Quogue Fire Department
18. East Quogue Fire Department
19. Flanders Fire Department
20. Riverhead Fire Department
21. Eastport Fire Department
22. Gabreski Airport Fire Department
23. Suffolk County 7th Division Fire Coordinators
24. Suffolk County 9th Division Fire Coordinators
25. Suffolk County Office of Fire, Rescue & Emergency Services