The Storied History of the Sag Harbor Cinema

“The Last Show” by Carl Bretzke, 2017 - oil on canvas. Courtesy of The Grenning Gallery
“The Last Show” by Carl Bretzke, 2017 – oil on canvas. Courtesy of The Grenning Gallery

By Michelle Trauring

Dread rippled through her as she listened to her husband’s footsteps ascending the stairs. It was barely dawn. He had news — bad news — and she could feel it.

He walked into the room. “Sag Harbor’s on fire.”

“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “Where?”

“I think it’s around the cinema,” he said.

“Oh God.”

In full reporter mode, Annette Hinkle jumped out of bed, grabbed her keys and raced down to the former Bulova Watchcase Factory, driving through a thick black cloud of soot as she tried to find a parking spot. When she finally did, she ran back to Page at 63 Main.

There, for several minutes, the line between journalist and local blurred as she watched the Sag Harbor Cinema burn — flames shooting up in the air, black smoke billowing, her neighbors crying and hugging one another.

“It was like a big crush inside me — and I even kind of knew. It was like one of those premonitions,” Hinkle recalled. “The day of the fire was incredibly windy and incredibly cold, and there was a really strong wind coming out of the north and west. At that point, it felt like, ‘Wow, this could be really bad,’ to the point where it takes out everything.”

She sighed. “It felt like your identity going up in smoke.”

Because the Sag Harbor Cinema — which is still standing, though it did sustain heavy damage — represented so much more than a movie theater with sticky floors, foreign films and bad popcorn. It represented one of the last few pillars of Americana still standing, a symbol that is hard to come by anymore, let alone on the East End, Hinkle said.

“That’s why, when it burned, it was such a kick in the gut,” she said of December 16, 2016. “Sag Harbor looks like such a posh place for anyone who just rolls into town these days. But knowing about the tough times and the factory closing and the years it struggled, you realize the cinema must have been an incredible bright spot, especially in those years right after it was built. I can imagine the Depression era leading into World War II wasn’t always the most uplifting of times.

“To see those glowing Sag Harbor marquee letters — red, white and blue — lighting up the street, it was that old-time Main Street Americana, in a way that very few towns have anymore.”

That night, Hinkle would watch the famous neon sign come down, and as she did, the reporter couldn’t help but wonder what would happen next.

She never expected it would be a book. Or that she would write it.

The front and back cover of “Sag Harbor: 100 Years of Film in the Village” by Annette Hinkle.

“Sag Harbor: 100 Years of Film in the Village” — a 128-page, coffee-table-sized homage to the cinema and the village, to hit bookstores on Tuesday, July 4 — ended up being more than Hinkle thought it would be, the first-time author said. It’s also about the people who live in Sag Harbor and the relationship they had with the theater, she said, noting that a portion of the proceeds will benefit the theater’s renovation.

“People had first dates there, people remember getting flashlights shined in their faces when they were laughing a little too hard, or throwing candy at girls,” she said. “It does embrace Americana and everything about Sag Harbor that people really love about the village and are hoping to recapture.”

At its core, the Sag Harbor Cinema was an “incongruent throwback” in a sea of Hamptons grandeur — the village it called home neither a Hampton by name or design, Hinkle said, but always a cultural hub.

“I found out there had been seven theaters in Sag Harbor since 1907, which I thought was interesting, because everyone thinks of the Sag Harbor Cinema and that being it,” she said. “The first part of the book tells the history of these many theaters, most of which started out as vaudeville. The films were actually the in-between bits they’d show between these live vaudeville acts, and there was a transition from the days films were second to these performances to when they became a main player in the theaters in Sag Harbor.”

John Eberson portrait. Courtesy of the Theatre Historical Society of America

In the 1930s, theater designer and builder John Eberson was looking for work, his grand movie palaces that seated upwards of 6,000 people — some of which are still standing in the Midwest, Hinkle noted — no longer in demand with the onset of the Great Depression.

And so, he found himself in Sag Harbor.

“He was doing these theaters that look like Italian villas, the ceiling painted like the sky with stars, and then he switched to little tiny cinemas like the Sag Harbor Cinema,” Hinkle said. “I was able to track down the original schematic drawings that he did of that theater in 1935, which is in the book with tons of old photographs. You actually see all of his design ideas for the colors and the neon sign.”

The “Sag Harbor” sign would become iconic, seeing the theater through its days as a blockbuster haven — screening classics such as “Jaws” and “The Towering Inferno” — to its nearly four-decade tenure as the last independent, single-screen theater on the East End, under the tenure of Gerry Mallow.

“If there’s any one building in Sag Harbor that links the old-time locals to the newcomer weekenders, it’s gotta be that cinema because they both have fond memories of it, but at much different time periods,” Hinkle said. “It was so quirky and weird. Some people didn’t like all that, but a lot of people didn’t mind the clanking radiators, the questionable nature of the popcorn, or the odd smell that it had. The fact that the film started right on time with no previews, and even in July, there was a good chance you’d have the whole thing to yourself.”

Despite all odds, the actual cinema box itself is still standing, thanks to the efforts of more than 150 volunteers from 19 East End fire departments and ambulance companies on December 16 — and the nature of the winds, Hinkle said. According to the Sag Harbor Partnership, they are in contract to buy the cinema and form a new not-for-profit, but need $6 million pledged by July 1 in order to proceed.

The purchase will cost $8 million — with another $5 million slated for renovations — and will include restoration of the famous Art Deco façade and its neon sign, as well as a new interior design. As proposed, the existing 480-seat auditorium will be divided into two separate screening rooms—one with 250 seats, the other with 150 seats. A 30-seat screening room above would double as a classroom, and the ground-floor portion of the building once home to RJD Gallery would become a café serving locally sourced food.

To date, the Sag Harbor Partnership has raised over $4 million, with artist Eric Fischl recently revealed as the angel donor who has pledged $1 million. Other contributors include Martin Scorsese, Harvey Weinstein, Andy Cohen and Billy Joel, who dedicated his concert at Madison Square Garden to the cinema’s memory the night following the fire.

With the clock winding down, Hinkle said she remains hopeful.

“There are so many heavy hitters involved that it makes me optimistic they will succeed, that they’ll make this happen,” Hinkle said. “If anybody can do it, I think it’s them.”

“Sag Harbor: 100 Years of Film in the Village” by Annette Hinkle, with a foreword by Jay McInerney, will launch with a book signing on Saturday, July 8, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Sylvester & Co. in Sag Harbor. Copies of the book will be on sale for $35, and available starting Tuesday, July 4, at local bookshops. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Sag Harbor Partnership and its efforts to rebuild the cinema.

Main Street parade. Courtesy of The Sag Harbor Express