By Karl Grossman
It’s been a hidden treasure on Long Island. And the Suffolk Theatre in Riverhead has been brought back to life — beautifully.
The last remaining Art Deco theatre on the island, opened in 1933, it reopened last month as a performing arts center with a full schedule — 30 acts in 30 days! The mix was remarkably eclectic.
There was a gala opening that drew more than 600 people featuring a “Back to the Thirties” party, staffers and guests in period clothing, and music by Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks (featured in TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”). Then the acts — every evening or afternoon — including: “Happy Birthday Rex Harrison,” a tribute with his son, Carey Harrison; “Happy Birthday Toscanini” with the Bronx Opera Company; “Walking Man: James Taylor;” “Broadway Live!;” “The Women of Rock, Pop & More;” the National Circus Project; “Happy Birthday Lawrence Welk” with the Black Tie Affair Orchestra; Margaret Colin in a reading of “Trifles,” a 1916 feminist play by Susan Glaspell; “Happy Birthday Nat King Cole;” a Buster Keaton silent film double-feature; Roger Davidson and the Frank London Klezmer Orchestra; and a “Musical Salute to Danny Kaye.”
The interior of the theatre is — and I’m reluctant to use this currently too often-used word — awesome — but, yes, it’s awesome. “Except for the replaced carpeting, the interior of the theatre is exactly as it was in 1933,” noted The Suffolk Theatre Times, a newsletter distributed at the show I went to see, a Broadway-caliber salute to Danny Kaye honoring his 100th birthday.
“Woodland-motif murals and carvings, a mosaic water fountain…crane etched windows” were “meticulously restored,” it related. There is stunning silver and gold wall trim.
In 1933, “More than 2,000 people attended the opening night festivities and beheld what was hailed as ‘Long Island’s prettiest and most complete playhouse,’” it said. “The theatre did, in fact, enliven the town and was its central attraction for many years.” This true “movie palace” closed in 1987 — facing competition from that less-than palatial movie phenomenon, the multiplex. In 2005, Diane and Bob Castaldi of Cutchogue bought the theatre and “have lovingly refurbished every facet of the facility to its original concept and beyond.” The Castaldi company, Castle Restoration and Construction, specializes in historic restoration. Millions were spent on the Suffolk Theatre project.
Importantly, the Castaldi’s hired Bob Spiotto as executive director. Mr. Spiotto, for 22 years the artistic director at Hofstra University, not only knows music and theatre — he’s a highly accomplished performer himself. The Danny Kaye tribute I attended was a brilliant, one-person show by Mr. Spiotto presenting in song, story, dance and multi-media, the life of Danny Kaye.
Also, noted Long Island chef Tom Schaudel, behind the restaurants Allure in Southold, A Mano in Mattituck and CoolFish in Syosset, is the culinary director. There’s a restaurant inside the theatre and Mr. Schaudel has fashioned a food selection fitting with the Art Deco theme.
Riverhead Town was deeply involved in saving the Suffolk Theatre — an expensive, problematic, but ultimately wise move. The Cataldis purchased the threater from the town. “This one project has the ability to almost single-handedly transform Main Street into a vibrant downtown,” says Town Supervisor Sean Walter. “To have it open and add a thousand people a day to Main Street, or 2,000 on the weekend…this provides the critical mass we need for everything to survive.”
The theater joins the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center and adjacent Hyatt Hotel, new and excellent restaurants, the also historic and restored Vail-Levitt Music Hall and a major apartment boom now underway in Riverhead.
I wasn’t around in 1933, but saw Riverhead for the first time 20 years later. My family camped every summer at nearby Wildwood State Park in Wading River. As a kid from New York City, this was my first exposure to a very all-American town, a busy commercial hub and the county seat of Suffolk before county government shifted much of its operations west to Hauppauge. And it was also before the big box stores on Route 58 sucked business from Main Street, Riverhead. Riverhead has been trying in recent years to re-invent itself, and the Suffolk Theatre could be a key.