Two years, five months and nine days after a wind-blown fire gutted the Sag Harbor Cinema on an icy mid-December day in 2016, its beloved “SAG HARBOR” neon sign — salvaged from the wreckage and restored free of charge by local craftsmen — lit up the newly reconstructed stucco façade of the future Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center at about 8:20 p.m. on Saturday evening above a cheering throng on Main Street.
After all those days of darkness at the vacant space where the art deco emblem of the theater had blazed for decades, the newly illuminated sign looked just like its good-old self, instantly back at home.
The crowd began gathering before 7:30 p.m., gradually filling up central Main Street. Growing impatient with the event’s speakers, some began chanting “Light it up! Light it up!” at about 8:15 p.m. By then, the speakers were winding up their remarks.
The speakers were April Gornik, who emceed the event on behalf of the non-profit Sag Harbor Partnership and the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, the cinema project’s sponsors; Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.; Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, and Mayor Sandra Schroeder.
“Okay, are you ready?” asked Ms. Gornik. As the crowd yelled “Yes!” in unison, Ms. Gornik said, “I want you to count down with me from 10. Ready? Ten, nine, eight …”
When the count reached one and the sign burst with neon light, the dusk sky filled with cheers and whistles and applause.
Assemblyman Thiele, who helped the Partnership win $1.4 million for the cinema arts center in state funding, grew up in Sag Harbor and choked back tears as he spoke about what it meant to him.
“For me it was 35-cent tickets for a double feature on a Saturday … It was also a first date when you were in high school. And my wife makes fun of me all the time because I still do this today … I take a ride through Main Street to make sure everything is still there.
“This last year and a half, to ride through Main Street and not see this theatre here and not see this sign: it’s a hard thing to deal with for those of us who love this village.”
In her introductory remarks, Ms. Gornik said, “It has really taken a village to make this moment possible,” and went on to cite the organizations and people “who have made extraordinary contributions to bring back our beloved cinema sign.”
She first thanked “our first responders,” who fought the December 16, 2016 blaze that ruined the cinema and two other buildings. She went on to thank Mayor Schroeder and other village officials “who made sure the sign could be saved” as the theatre’s façade was demolished the day after the fire.
She thanked “the people who brought the sign back from its darkest hour,” Chris Denon of Twin Forks Moving and Storage, “our archangel”; metal craftsmen John Battle and FranklinPaucar, Mr. Battle’s assistant; and neon artist Clayton Orehek. She also thanked the all-volunteer boards of the Sag Harbor Partnership; the Sag Harbor Cinema Advisory Board; project architect Allen Kopelson; and ConRac construction “and our amazing construction committee.”
She went on to thank “everyone who donated, from the big help from Eric Fischl,” her husband, who donated $1 million, “and Bill Joel and Dorothy Lichtenstein,” to the Pierson Class of 2017, which turned over its fundraising for the year to the cinema project and “the little girl who gave us 35 cents at HarborFest last September.
Ms. Gornik finally thanked Mr. Thiele, County Executive Steve Bellone and County Legislator Bridget Fleming as well as Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and the town government, which “gave us the easement” payment through the town’s Community Preservation Fund “that put us over the top last year” to secure enough funds to begin construction.
“We are not done building. This is important. I know the sign is here, I know it’s going to light up,” Ms. Gornik said. “We’re all very happy but please keep your support coming so we can open this fall.”
To make a donation, go to sagharborcinema.org, she said.
An additional $3 to $4 million in funding is needed before the cinema will be fully functional, she has said. The final round of fundraising will pay for the expansion of the new third floor, seats for all three theater auditoriums, film and sound equipment, restoration of historic fixtures, café and concession equipment and supplies, computer equipment and salaries.
“This sign that we are going to illuminate tonight has stood as an icon for the East End and you know, like many of you, it’s this backdrop to my life and our parents’ lives,” said Councilman Schiavoni, and the lives of “countless residents and visitors here on the South Fork and especially Sag Harbor.”
“We cannot underestimate the effort of our first responders,” he added, “the Sag Harbor Fire Department, along with 18 other departments that rendered mutual aid and battled the fire in 14-degree weather and 20-mph sustained winds and they stopped that fire right there. It was a good stop and they saved the village again.”
Mayor Schroeder’s comments were mostly inaudible above the rising murmur of the restless crowd. Thanking several officials “for getting this done,” she said it was “a great thing for Sag Harbor.”
The sign that once again presides over Main Street is a duplicate that was made 15 years ago after then-theatre owner Gerry Mallow created an uproar by removing the original in 2004 to make way for a new, modern version he had ordered. Led by filmmaker Brenda Siemer, a group of opponents secured the sign but later agreed it was not salvageable. They negotiated an agreement with Mr. Mallow to allow them to install a duplicate if they raised the money to pay for it.