Sunday afternoon in Sag Harbor
Sunday afternoon in Sag Harbor

Now is the winter of Sag Harbor’s discontent made glorious by the spirit of its people.

Amid the chunks of fire debris still swirling in puddles throughout this bayside village this weekend, there were signs, already, that the community was feeling stronger for having pulled together through last Friday’s devastating fire.

Shoppers packed Main Street Sunday, bags brimming with Christmas gifts in hand, pausing briefly to gaze at the remains of the Sag Harbor Cinema, demolished over the weekend after its front wall began sagging toward the street, hugging each other tenderly and making plans for holiday celebrations.

The iconic Sag Harbor Cinema sign, which the community had banded together to recreate about a decade ago, was delicately removed as the façade was demolished by a track excavator from Keith Grimes, Inc. Friday night. It has been stored for safekeeping by Twin Forks Moving & Storage. 

In front of the Shopping Cove Sunday afternoon.
In front of the Shopping Cove Sunday afternoon.

Village police say the building next door to the cinema that houses Compass Realty will also likely be demolished. In total, five buildings, eight businesses and four apartments were destroyed or damaged in the fire.

State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, who is from Sag Harbor, said Friday that, in his role as chairman of the Assembly Small Business Committee, he has contacted the New York State Small Business Development Center, which will be working with the village to “pursue every available resource including the possibility of a disaster declaration to make resources available.”

“I am also concerned about any village resident who may be made homeless by this fire and providing them with the resources that they may need. We have contacted state housing officials to assist the village,” he added. “My goal is to address any human impacts from this disaster and then take the steps needed to rebuild and preserve our historic main street. At a time that is supposed to be all about peace and joy, this disaster hits hard. I am confident that the village again will join together to meet the challenge and we will emerge stronger than ever.”

Sag Harbor Cinema owner Gerald Mallow has told reporters since Friday that it’s too soon for him to talk about what happened, or about what the future has in store for his property.

Mr. Mallow had placed the cinema on the market with Saunders & Associates for $14 million in February.

While the front half of the building was demolished over the weekend, the theater’s long entrance hall, which contained its concession stand, was the width of the Main Street block. The auditorium itself is behind Main Street and was upwind from the deck behind Compass Realty where the fire is believed to have ignited. 

The roof, seats, and screen of the auditorium itself are intact, though damaged by smoke and water from the fire suppression.

Suffolk County arson investigators have ruled out arson as the cause of the fire, which spread quickly in heavy winds and dry air early Friday morning.

Singer-songwriter Nancy Atlas took to Facebook on Saturday with a plea to Santa Claus.

“I am wishing with my whole heart that someone could come in and rebuild the theatre with a similar essence to the one that burnt down. There must be an actor or producer out there with the means to rally the troops and make this happen. Lorne Michaels? John Stewart? Ralph Lauren himself? The actual town of Sag Harbor?,” she wrote.

“I know it’s a lot to ask but I promise you this… if you whisper in the right person’s ear to start the effort, the money will surely come,” she added. “Maybe you could also send George Bailey down to help out as I know he will get it. Santa, I can’t endure the thought of a corporate structure in that spot. We need things of magic and beauty more then ever and the Sag Harbor Cinema was surely one of them….. One last thing… could you all also make sure none of the firefighters or volunteers get sick from yesterday. That would be awesome.”

Piano man Billy Joel, a part-time Sag Harbor resident, gave a shout-out in memory of the cinema in a concert at Madison Square Garden Saturday night, after which he played a snipped of the theme to the film “Cinema Paradiso,” with a “New York State of Mind” twist.

Richard J. Demato, whose RJD Gallery occupied the same building as the cinema, took to Facebook to thank the community for their support.

“This is a wonderful community of artists, neighbors and friends far and wide,” he wrote. “We are busy rebuilding and so thankful that many works were stored off site and that we are able to continue our business.”

To the more than a dozen artists who lost work in the fire, he said, “we are deeply sorry and thank you for your tireless effort and for the beauty that you create and share with the world. Please find inspiration in the hundreds who support and are saddened by the loss of your work. May 2017 bring us a new gallery space, incredible new works from these talented artists and a greater appreciation and connection to each other.”

The Sag Harbor Partnership, which has been working to preserve history throughout the village, has said that the non-profit’s Historic Building Fund can be used to help rebuild Main Street, in addition to insurance money.

According to the partnership, “recipients of any available funds, whether building owners or tenants, will have to demonstrate need and the restoration of their building as part of the application process.”

They are also asking the community to give generously to the Sag Harbor Fire Department at Sag Harbor Fire Department, P.O. Box 209, Sag Harbor, NY 11963.

“The Partnership hasn’t been in touch with Gerry Mallow but we would like to be,” said the partnership’s Vice President, April Gornik, on Monday. “Both the Partnership and  local government would like to save the Cinema as such by purchasing and preserving it, if he’s willing to let us do so, but we don’t know if he’s willing. I’m sure he’s in shock at the horror of this fire taking so much of what he’s worked for decades to maintain for the community and his own sense of what is right. I honor that and we just hope he knows how much the Cinema means to the community at large, and I mean from Westhampton to Montauk.”

“As to why our Historic Building Fund is important, the mayor agreed that we will need to raise money to do what we can to preserve the Cinema,” she added. “Sag Harbor Partnership is in fact committed being lead agency for the potential purchase of the Cinema until a not-for-profit dedicated to the Cinema can be formed, which would continue its avant-garde programming and expand it to become a Cinema Arts Center, involving artist-in-residence and school programs as well. But I must emphasize that nothing can be done at the moment until and if Mr. Mallow wants to continue to talk with us about this. And we are very cognizant of the pain he must be in and  the time he may need. In addition, we want to respect what he has done and what his legacy deserves to be.”

Ms. Gornik also started a Crowdrise campaign Saturday to raise money for a friend, Fred Kumwenda, an employee of Highway Restaurant whose apartment was among several apartments destroyed in the fire. By Monday morning, it had already raised nearly $36,000.

“He rented an apartment where the fire was and thankfully was away at the time but he lost literally ALL his possessions. His clothes, laptop, guitar. Everything,” said Ms. Gornik on Sunday.

GeekHampton in Sag Harbor has agreed to replace Mr. Kumwenda’s laptop, she said, and supporters are also working to find him a place to live. 

“The outpouring of support and love from this community is unparalleled. We may have a hole in our village, but we have a village full of good will,” she added. “I’m trying to find out who else was affected by the fire, and have asked various village officials for more info when it’s available. The crowdfunding is relatively easy to get going, and I’d be happy to help make it happen for someone else.”

Baron’s Cove Inn on West Water Street has been putting up people who were displaced by the fire, and they also opened up their dining room to firefighters Friday for a hot meal, after they spent hours being drenched with water in the freezing cold.

Harbor Books at 20 Main Street will be serving hot toddies and snacks and is inviting the community to come in and share their Sag Harbor stories this Wednesday, Dec. 21 from 6 to 9 p.m. A portion of proceeds from the evening’s sales will benefit the restoration of the cinema.

Musicians on Main Street Sunday said there’s word afoot of a benefit concert in the works. We’ll have more details as they become available.

The storied history of the Sag Harbor Cinema sign, now packed carefully in storage, was on the minds of many on Main Street Sunday.

The cinema sign was a rallying point for the village back in May of 2004, when Mr. Mallow attempted to replace the sign with a newer one that didn’t maintain the idiosyncratic art deco lettering of the original.

Brenda Siemer, wife of actor Roy Scheider, had just walked out of yoga class across the street from the cinema when she saw the sign being removed, and she rallied bystanders to carry off the sign to try to have it repaired, but it was too badly damaged, and volunteers ended up auctioning off letters from the sign in order to finance the $70,000 construction of a new one identical to the original.

Here’s WLNG’s video of the new sign being installed in 2005:

At the time, the oft-contentious saga of the cinema sign proved a flashpoint in the debate over the balance between the needs of community and the needs of private business owners in a small town. After all, it’s one of the few business signs that doesn’t advertise the name of a business. It simply reads “Sag Harbor.” 

While the future for the cinema remains uncertain, the sales brochure prepared by Saunders & Associates for the sale does offer some clues as to possible futures.

The booklet proposes a three-story floor plan, with 7,000 square feet on each floor, with restaurants, offices and retail on the first and second floors of the space currently occupied by the auditorium, and apartments on the third floor. 

The Sag Harbor Cinema on the cover of a brochure prepared by Saunders Realty when it was put on the market in February.
The Sag Harbor Cinema on the cover of a brochure prepared by Saunders Realty when it was put on the market in February.

According to the booklet, “The Sag Harbor movie theater, designed by renowned theater architect John Eberson in the 1930s and recognized for its classic art deco neon sign….currently exists as a 7,000 square foot cinema with at two-story art studio. The lot is situated in the village business zoning district, which allows for a 21,000-square-foot renovation with three stories and a height of 35 feet. The iconic sign has been designated to be forever memorialized and will remain.”

“Everyone wants it restored if possible,” said Ms. Gornik of the sign, though she was unable to confirm whether a volunteer effort was yet underfoot to restore it.

Active Sag Harbor community member Ken Dorph, who had just left town for a business trip, got off an airplane in Tunis to see the images of the fire in his social media feed.

“Watching all this tragedy and poignancy from afar makes me feel more than ever that Sag Harbor is a snippet from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,'” he wrote. “The stupendous reaction to April Gornik‘s request to help Fred Kumwenda, who lost all in the fire; the fervid outpouring of love and memories for the theater and its iconic sign (which was, more or less, saved); the heroism of our uniformed protectors (not a single injury); the determination to raise up a phoenix out of ashes: I see great things emerging from this.”

“2016 was in many ways annus horribilis, ending with that terribly divisive election, the fire an exclamation point. Perhaps this is a chance for a fresh start,” he added. “Sag Harbor has witnessed many horrific fires in its rich history. Maybe we can make this its last. Maybe some new incarnation of the theater will thrill us all. Maybe the rescued sign will glow again from some new perch, welcoming all and echoing the brand new sign on the revived theater. Soon enough, I will again be savoring my double espresso at the permanent kaffeeklatsch known as Sag Town. I can’t wait.”


Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at

3 thoughts on “In Sag Harbor, Spirit Trumps Fire As Recovery Gets Underway

  1. Actually, the music Billy Joel played in tribute to the Sag Harbor Theater was the theme from ‘Cinema Paradiso’.

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