It was 1987. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed a missile treaty. The stock market reached an all-time high but also dropped 22 percent in one day. On television, The Tracey Ullman Show featured animated vignettes about a family called “The Simpsons.” And in a movie theater in Riverhead, viewers were having the times of their lives watching Dirty Dancing.
That however was the last anyone heard about the Suffolk Theater, which closed its doors 26 years ago when multiplexes mushroomed across the land. It marked a sad but not atypical end for an old movie palace, a grand and historic venue that premiered with a Jimmy Cagney film in 1933 and a year later was complimented by the Riverhead News-Review as, “Long Island’s prettiest and most complete playhouse. No matter which way one turns, there is luxury and comfort.”
Before you sigh with nostalgia over an unreclaimable loss, know that Bob and Dianne Castaldi feel your pain. More than that, the couple went ahead and bought the theater in 2005 and have gone through painstaking time and expense restoring it to glory. In September 2011 they lit up the building’s new marquee and this March an official ribbon-cutting ceremony followed by a gala grand opening will usher in the next era of the Suffolk Theater. This time not just as a movie house but as an all-purpose performing arts center.
Even more enthused than the building’ s owners is the theater’s executive director, Bob Spiotto, especially since the venue’s rebirth coincides with a relaunch of his own. After more than two decades as executive producer of Hofstra Entertainment, a stint that encompassed administrative duties, coordinating festivals, directing and creating Shades of Grey and Courting the Jester, musical tributes to Joel Grey and Danny Kaye that he also starred in, Spiotto was shown the door in 2012. “I don’t use the word fired,” Spiotto says. “Because it had nothing to do with my abilities and stellar service to the university. But budgets were being cut and the mission there changed.”
By the time Spiotto finished out his last season at Hofstra, he had already locked in his new position at the Suffolk Theater. “It was bashert, an old Sicilian word,” Spiotto jokes, knowing it’s Yiddish. “Granted, it would have been wonderful to be here months ago and involved in all the aspects being researched and decided upon. But I’m getting caught up and setting my own pace in everything from rugs and wall coverings to office design, phone systems, computers, projectors, lighting and sound. This has become a major ‘act two’ in my creative and personal life.”
As for the theater’s second act, Spiotto sees it as a multi-use facility for films, live music, special events, lectures, children’s programs, staged readings, plays and original works. Spiotto notes with pride that a recently purchased, rare 1927 mahogany Steinway will serve as the venue’s piano, and that seating for the space will incorporate both traditional and flexible, cabaret-style settings. Among cabaret concerts eyed for the spring are tributes to Rosemary Clooney, Rodgers and Hart, Joel Grey and Duke Ellington.
“People have been waiting for this space to reopen,” exults Spiotto, “with so much interest and enthusiasm. The mere rebirth of this space is celebratory. The building didn’t burn down and it wasn’t knocked down. The same lighting instruments that hung here in 1933 are still here! All the beauty is being lovingly restored. Wait till you see it—the wow factor is incredible.”
Happenings at Suffolk Theater
March 1—Ribbon Cutting
March 2—Gala Grand Opening
March 5—An Interactive Tribute to Rex Harrison
March 6—Lynn DiMenna’s Dinah Shore Cabaret Show
March 10—Courting the Jester
March 22—Broadway Live!