Under a smoke-choked sky, more than 150 volunteer firefighters from 19 departments milled about Main Street, their helmets and jackets encrusted with ice and ash.
It was December 16, 2016, and they had just extinguished one of the most ruthless fires in recent East End history — a battle fanned by strong, bitterly cold winds that they ultimately stopped, but could not win.
The flames gutted two adjoining buildings and claimed several businesses, including the iconic Sag Harbor Cinema, its white stucco façade tarnished by black soot before the village would demolish the front portion of the building amid safety concerns; the cinema’s iconic red and blue neon sign safely removed just minutes before.
For months, local residents paused in front of the gap on Main Street — a missing piece in the village both architecturally and culturally — and mourned the carnage, ash still lingering in the air.
Two and a half years later, they will gather again. But this time, it will be in celebration, to cheer on the piece of the fire that survived.
Finally coming out of storage is the “Sag Harbor” sign, which found a home at Twin Forks, where metalworker John Battle and neon artist Clayton Orehek repaired it, free of charge.
On Saturday night at 8 p.m., they will join the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, county, town and village officials, and the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce to turn the light back on — marking a significant milestone in the reconstruction of the cinema, due to open its doors this fall, but not nearly the end.
“The community has been our backbone and our strength and our inspiration all this time,” according to Cinema Chair April Gornik. “So now that we can put the sign back up, to delay it or to withhold it just seemed wrong to us, so we’re like, ‘Let’s put it up and celebrate, and maybe people will be inspired.’
“But we hope when we light up the sign that people don’t look at it and think, ‘Oh, they’re done. That’s nice,’” she continued. “That would be, of course, problematic. It’s a little mountain we’ve been climbing right now, and we’re about a third of the way up, as far as finishing and raising money.”
Nearly $4 million away from a fully functional three-screen cinema, the final round of fundraising will complete the expansion of the new third floor — including a lounge, rooftop terrace and a potential virtual reality area, with a classroom— as well as seats for the theaters, film and sound equipment, restoration of historic fixtures, café and concession equipment and supplies, computer equipment, and staff salaries.
Come July, the cinema’s inaugural executive director, Amagansett native Gillian Gordon, will report to her post and begin programming for the year-round calendar, kick-starting a big push to draw patrons back into the venue.
“We haven’t had a cinema for three years. We do have our work cut out for us,” Ms. Gordon said during a telephone interview from London, one month before her move to Springs. “We want all kinds of people to come to the cinema. We also don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, they’re just going to showing arty-farty movies.’ We’re going to be showing Disney movies, Marvel, we’ll show the best films we can get our hands on.
“We’re going to be up and running sooner than you think, and I really hope lots of people turn up for the putting the light on,” she continued. “I think it will lift everybody’s spirits who have been working so hard on this.”
The approximately 9,400-square-foot project will be home to three theaters — a 220-seat large cinema and 90-seat repertory theater on the first floor, and a 30-seat screening room that will double as a classroom or event space on the second floor, each outfitted with top-of-the-line sound and projection systems.
Once home to RJD Gallery, the ground-floor portion will be transformed into a café, stocked with locally sourced products, as will the concession stand in the lobby. Carefully replicated wallpaper, lighting fixtures and even hardware will be instantly recognizable to former cinemagoers, Ms. Gornik said, with a fresh twist.
“It’s a bit of a hard-hat area right now, so it’s not an easy area to visit, because there really is a tremendous amount of work going on,” she said. “It’s starting to look like what it’s going to look like. It’s thrilling, really thrilling.”
Across the Atlantic Ocean, Ms. Gordon has kept tabs on the cinema’s progress through photo updates — most recently, the reconstructed art deco façade, which will welcome back the neon sign on Thursday, to be wired for Saturday night’s ceremony.
“To actually be involved in something like this, an important cultural institution, from the very beginning is really amazing,” she said. “For me, it’s a combination of a career in the film and television business, as well as a career and working with non-profits and education. It combines the three aspects of my life that matter to me. That’s why it’s so exciting, to be able to put it all together.”
Come fall, the Sag Harbor Cinema will join a network of non-profit and independently owned venues across America — each architecturally significant theaters that believe in the preservation of cinema culture, Ms. Gordon said — with programming that will range from first-runs to art house films, and foreign releases to independent flicks, she said.
Retrospectives and special series will dot the calendar, perhaps including a film noir festival, a horror movie marathon, even “Star Wars” and Disney days.
“This cinema is going to be on a level with any cinema in London, or New York, or Paris, or Los Angeles,” she said. “The kinds of films we’re going to be showing will be commercial, but we’ll also be showing films that people hadn’t thought of seeing, and we’re really interested in developing new audiences and bringing people who have gotten addicted to Netflix back to the cinema, back to that experience of being with people.”
Once the cinema is established, Ms. Gordon will introduce the educational component, a series of master classes and panels on film and screenwriting for a variety of ages, including a focus on Pierson students and various charities to start.
“This will be a community center, a place where you can finally see a decent movie that also has the potential for all kinds of education, for all different ages,” Ms. Gordon said. “This is a small town that punches way above its weight, and it is a very, very important cultural hub on Eastern Long Island. And we want people to know, who have so generously donated, that their money has been well spent — and we want to say, ‘Hey, coming soon!’”
The person who will manually turn on the “Sag Harbor” sign remains to be decided, Ms. Gornik said, though it is far from a solo effort, in the end.
“When the cinema first burned down, and even before that, when Gerry Mallow put it up for sale, we thought, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to save the cinema. Because if we don’t save the cinema, we won’t save Main Street,’” she recalled. “It’s very important to us that we’re all participating in it, that it’s a success for everyone. It’s a draw, something that will bring people to the village and make them shop and wander and be amazed by its history.”
The neon sign itself is a part of that legacy, and when it glows red against the white stucco façade once again, Ms. Gornik said she isn’t entirely sure how she will react.
“I think I’ll feel elated,” she said. “It’s not the milestone we’re trying to ultimately reach — because it’s not the opening of the cinema — but it is still a milestone that we’ve come this far, this fast, thanks to everybody in this community. It’s literally taken a village.”
For more information, visit sagharborcinema.org.