By Kerrie Vila
As you walk into the Greenport Theatre on the left hand side there is an old photograph. It shows the movie theater in its heyday, patrons adorned in top hats and fancy cars lining the streets. The grand Art Deco theater was the place to be that Friday night in 1939. “That photograph is a reminder of what my goal is, well the 2017 version of it,” said Noah Doyle, founder of the North Fork Television Festival.
The Greenport Theatre has become a hub for cinema and art on the North Fork. It was purchased and renovated by Josh Sapan, CEO of AMC, in 2007. His vision was to create a flexible space that supported a variety of art forms.
“He really wanted to make a theater where you wouldn’t just go to see a movie,” said Paul Fiore, the architect who renovated the movie theater. “There would be different kinds of events.”
Sapan has always been interested in cinema. As a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he was part of film societies. Then, after graduation, he set up mobile movie theaters and traveled throughout the Midwest showing films. Recently, in his tenure as CEO of AMC he has overseen the development of channels including IFC and SundanceTV.
Buying a movie theater? An uncommon, but understandable next step.
“I always liked the idea of movie exhibition and found the idea of a dark theater to see movies very appealing,” Sapan said. “And years ago I purchased a house in Shelter Island. I was not familiar with Greenport and looked at the Greenport theater and thought it was extraordinary.”
The original Greenport movie theater, The Metro Theater, was built in 1915 in a classic Art Deco style. After it was destroyed during the hurricane of 1939 — known as the Long Island Express — the theater was rebuilt in the same architectural aesthetic. Later, one of the owners divided the large theater into four smaller screening rooms to make it a multiplex movie theater. Besides that major change the Greenport Theatre has stood at the center of town since the 1940s and when Sapan purchased it in 2007, it was in need of renovation.
FoleyFiore, the architecture firm that renovated the theater, worked to maintain the integrity of the original structure, while updating the facility to modern standards. A lot of the original Art Deco style was lost when it became multiplex, with the exception of the lobby, which Fiore said retained those characteristics, with rounded corners and specific lettering, helping to inform the rest of the renovation. First they built a 23-foot neon sign that reads “Greenport” in Art Deco lettering. Then they built a new ticket kiosk and concession stand.
“When making all those spaces we really tried to make it look like it had always been part of the Art Deco building that had been built originally,” said Fiore.
The theaters were upgraded in a second round of renovations. Sapan’s cinematic background helped him develop a unique concept for each theater that allows for three different viewing experiences. The front two rooms are standard medium sized theaters that screen today’s hits. The back room is designed as an art-house black box theater. It plays independent films and can also host art openings.
“There is sort of a wide really ugly hallway on the way back to the theater so we capitalized on that and made an art gallery.He [Sapan] kind of always has rotating artists hanging their stuff in there which makes it really fun because you’re not just sort of walking back to the theater you’re experiencing an art exhibit on the way,” said Fiore.
Theater 4, the upper theater, has a stage that can be used for live performances, talks, readings or any variety of multi-media event. This flexible space has allowed the theater to be used by different groups in the community. Sapan provides the theater at no cost to arts organizations including the Maritime Festival and the Manhattan Institute. He also collaborates with East End Arts to bring art into the gallery that leads to the back theater.
“It’s like with any community our arts are vital. They really improve the fabric of life,” said Sapan.
This September, Sapan is opening the theater to the North Fork Television Festival, running September 7 to September 9.
Doyle, the festival’s founder sees Greenport as a summer version of Park City, in part because of the movie theater. “In Park City the main street has the Egyptian Theater and it just kind of has that old fun feel of Saturday night at the movies. I mean that is what Greenport Theatre has too, it just seems like the type of place that is meant for art to be discovered in,” he said.
Doyle also praised Sapan’s commitment to supporting the local culture. “Culture is the lifeblood of any community… People want to live where there are certain cultural icons and an independent theater, and independent bookstore, great restaurants this is why people want to live and summer in these areas. I think supporting and building more community is the number one reason you want to be in this community.”