By Stephen J. Kotz
it wasn’t the last picture show after all. This week, the nonprofit Sag Harbor Partnership announced it had struck a deal to buy the remnants of the Sag Harbor Cinema from its long-time owner, Gerald Mallow, for $8 million.
The theater, on Main Street in the heart of the village, has been closed since December 16 when it and several adjoining buildings were badly damaged by an early morning fire. The partnership estimates it will cost another $4 million to $5 million to renovate the cinema so it can be opened again.
In an interview on Monday, Nick Gazzolo, the partnership’s president, and April Gornik, its vice president, said they were launching a fundraising drive to raise the money needed to close the deal and finance the renovation of the building. So far, “an angel donor” has pledged $1 million, Ms. Gornik said.
“We are actually hoping to secure through pledges enough money to insure this is a viable project within three month’s time,” Ms. Gornik said, adding that the group has “a drop-dead date” of the end of the year to close on the purchase.
The partnership, which held a successful community party to raise money for the John Steinbeck Park last July, will hold a similar party this summer to raise money for the cinema project and to honor Mr. Mallow.
“He deserves major respect. This has been a gift to the community for nearly four decades,” Mr. Gazzolo said of Mr. Mallow’s management of a theater that has shown independent, foreign, and often quirky films to a sometimes small, but dedicated, audience. When it came time to negotiate a deal to sell the cinema, Mr. Mallow showed he wanted to help preserve it, he added. “We are really grateful to him,” Mr. Gazzolo said. “This could not have happened without him making major concessions.”
When reached on Tuesday, Mr. Mallow, who bought the theater in May 1978, was reticent. He did offer that he had developed his love for movies — especially foreign films — when he was a student at Erasmus High School in Brooklyn in the 1950s and spent much of his free time at the Astor Theatre on Flatbush Avenue, an early art house.
Mr. Mallow said he was confident the partnership would be able to make the Sag Harbor Cinema work. “They’ve got enough talent involved in it,” he said, adding that he hoped to become a patron of the new theater.
The plans have also drawn support from village officials. “The effort of a group of citizens to take action and turn the loss of the iconic building and landmarked sign damaged in the fire into a community arts center for the residents and citizens of the village is both appreciated and lauded by the board,” Mayor Sandra Schroeder said in a release.
Trustee Robby Stein, who is also a member of the partnership, added, “the village board hopes to work closely with the cinema group in expediting this project.”
Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele this week said the state budget contained $10 million for capital funding for cultural organizations.
If the partnership’s plans move forward, “not only is there money under the cultural affairs budget, but there might also be money available under the state’s economic development funding,” he said. “Regional councils for economic development and main street revitalization administer those types of things.”
Since the fire, which destroyed the lobby and concession area, while leaving the auditorium intact, but damaged by smoke and water, the theater has sat boarded up and forlorn. Once the sale is finalized, the partnership hopes to start immediately on the huge task of resurrecting the building.
“In just the last five days, it has been encouraging how many people from different fields have stepped forward to say, ‘Hey is there anything I can do?’” added Mr. Gazzolo. “You can really feel the community support.”
The work will include the restoration of the cinema’s famous Art Deco façade and its beloved neon Sag Harbor sign, which has become an unofficial trademark of the village and has been kept in storage by Twin Forks Storage ever since the façade was razed on the night of the fire.
Although plans are only preliminary, the partnership has been working with architect Allen Kopelson of NK Architects on a design that calls for the division of the existing 480-seat auditorium into two separate screening rooms, one with 250 seats, the other with 150 seats. The ground-floor portion of the building that was once home to the RJD Gallery will be transformed into a café serving locally sourced food. Above that, there would be a 30-seat screening room that would double as a classroom and be available for private events.
Ms. Gornik said the group hopes to salvage the theater’s large, “curved scope” screen, as well as the frames of chairs, which would have to be reupholstered.
During the renovation process, the partnership will spin off a not-for-profit organization, the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, to take over the operation. Both Mr. Gazzolo and Ms. Gornik said the center would not compete against Bay Street Theater but complement it as a cultural resource in the center of the village.
One member of the partnership’s cinema committee is Susan Lacy, a filmmaker and the creator of the American Masters documentary series on PBS.
In a press release issued by the partnership on Tuesday, she said the new arts center “will provide an opportunity to draw on the talents and experiences of an ever-expanding, year-round community on the East End.”
On Tuesday afternoon, she elaborated. “Obviously, we want to keep the theater going,” she said. “It’s not going to become a first-run cinema. It will still show foreign and independent films, documentaries, off beat things.” But she said organizers want to hold retrospective series and bring in visiting directors and actors for film-related activities, including a link to local schools.
Ms. Gornik said she has been involved with efforts to preserve the cinema since 2009 when she helped form a committee to look for ways to save it when Mr. Mallow quietly put in the market for $12 million, and there were fears the space could be converted into retail shops.
Those initial sale plans fizzled, but Mr. Mallow once again put it on the market, this time for $14 million, a little more than a year ago.
Last July, Mr. Mallow and his wife, Francoise, attended the partnership’s John Steinbeck Park fundraising party on Long Wharf. “He had a look of a pleasant sort of shock,” Ms. Gornik said. Shortly afterward, the Mallows met with Ms. Gornik and her husband, Eric Fischl. “He said, ‘You get things done. I want to sell the cinema, but I want to preserve it,’” she said.
Ms. Gornik reconvened the cinema committee, and the group began to seriously pursue the purchase of the property, analyzing the finances and doing other due diligence. It made an offer, which was accepted, and a December 28 closing date was set. “Then the morning of December 16 came, and everything changed,” Ms. Gornik said.
After the fire, Ms. Gornik said Mr. Mallow told her, “For all those years, I’d go into the cinema and feel like I was 16 again. Then the fire came, and I feel like I’m 80.”
Mr. Gazzolo and Ms. Gornik agreed that a piece of the village’s heart was torn out with the fire. They cited the social aspect of people coming into the village and shopping or eating at restaurants before or after a show.
“If it doesn’t come back, where would you see movies?” Mr. Gazzolo said. “Downloading a movie at home is just not the same.”
“Sitting in a theater is like a collective dream,” Ms. Gornik said. “It’s such a deep, subconscious experience that bonds you to other people in a really fundamental way.”