By Emily J. Weitz
It’s hard to conjure up an image more iconic in village than that of the bright, neon Art Deco “Sag Harbor” cinema sign on Main Street, located in the literal heart of downtown.
So when last Friday’s fire ripped through several storefronts and scorched the cinema, the sign was on everyone’s mind. After structural engineers on Friday evening concluded that the façade of the movie theater had to come down for safety reasons, the fate of the sign itself had not been decided.
This was not the first time the iconic sign was in peril.
In 2004, Gearald Mallow, the owner of the theater, removed the original, rusted-out sheet-metal sign with the intention of putting up a neon replacement. People were outraged, and preservation-minded constituents led by painter Brenda Seimer and playwright Joe Pintauro began a fundraising campaign to build an aluminum replica.
A year and a half after the sign’s removal, a near perfect replica was erected. 18-feet long, the sign cost $20,000, and paid for by local residents.
When Keith Grimes’ crew arrived on the scene Friday night to take down the sign, Scott Ficorilli was shouting commands from the ground to Keith’s son, David, who was operating the excavator. Mr. Ficorilli, who has lived in Sag Harbor for all of his 54 years, had no doubt that the sign, which had painted the backdrop to his entire life, needed to be rescued.
“I saw my first movie there with my mom,” said Mr. Ficorilli, “The Godfather.”
His wife, Kerri Gilbride, has roots run just as deep in Sag Harbor. She remembers selling Girl Scout cookies every year in the alcove of the Sag Harbor Cinema.
“We stood this tall,” she said, motioning to her hip. “All in our little sashes, always in front of the movie theater.”
Once Mr. Grimes got word of the fire, they got their machines ready for action. An excavator was brought over from Shelter Island even though, barring an emergency, there would be no need for it for many hours. First and foremost, Mr. Ficorilli said, this was a safety precaution.
“Keith Grimes is a Montauk fireman and he knows if anybody fell in, we’d need to have a recovery machine on site.”
On the scene, as well, was Christopher Denon, a Sag Harbor resident for the last 35 years. He was at dinner at LT Burger just before the façade came down.
Mr. Denon, who owns Twin Forks Moving & Storage, watched as Grimes’ team expertly retrieved the letters and placed them delicately on the street.
“I looked at the chief of police,” said Mr. Denon, “and I said, ‘I can have a truck here in 20 minutes. I’ll put it in storage.’ He told me to get it.”
So Mr. Denon’s team careened in from Bridgehampton on a mission. They packed it up and brought it to safe storage, where it will be held free of charge.
“We’re going to clean it and build a wood crate for it and protect it and hold it until Mr. Mallow tells me what to do with it,” Mr. Denon said. “Am I emotional about it? Yeah. It’s a symbol of the village. It really is.”
“I have heard from everyone the extraordinary effort by firemen and the people of Sag Harbor in trying to preserve the sign,” said Ms. Seimer in a phone interview from Vermont, where she now resides. “It is the people of Sag Harbor that erected that sign, it’s the people of Sag Harbor that paid for an exact duplication of the late 20s, early 30s Art Deco sign and that is so symbolic of our village and the energy of Sag Harbor.”
“It’s a symbol for Gerry, and for all of us and I love that it will go on. It represents so many people – we had contributions from California, Florida, and New York, and the nickel and quarter jar from Gwen at the Wharf Shop,” she added, noting Mike Zaccardi, of Huntington Station, to created the replica is available to repair the sign — if it can in fact be repaired.
“Anything I can do to help I am more than happy to do,” said Ms. Seimer. “I will be there when it has to go up on the façade on whatever building goes back in there, be it a new theater or anything else Gerry decides to do.”
Additional reporting by Kathryn G. Menu