As light beams tracked across the sky over Riverhead, big band music wafted across the hoods of the old Packards and Chryslers parked in front of the newly renovated Suffolk Theater and down to the river. Strong-jawed men in striped suits and black shirts with white ties mingled with gorgeous women in slinky dresses and feathers in their hair. Knickered “newsies” whipped copies of the Suffolk Theater Times from their muslin bags into satin-gloved hands punctuated by diamonds. “There’s always something to celebrate!” the headline declared. “Grand Opening!”
On March 1, all of downtown Riverhead was ablaze with the reopening of the theater after a careful and painstaking renovation. “We are perfectionists,” said owner Bob Castaldi, who spent 37 years as a contractor. “Every detail, every light, replicating the carpet, reproducing the bathrooms.” There were “Oohs” and “Ahhs” everywhere—on line at the bar and upstairs in the balcony where local folks sat and reminisced about their days growing up in Riverhead.
Cindy Clifford, of radio station WALK, is a lifetime resident. The theater has “always had a special place in my heart,” she said. It was the site of her first date with her husband. When they started the renovation, Clifford got three of the original seats as a souvenir. “It’s been my personal theater for 27 years,” she said. “We saw My Chauffeur here. I was so thrilled they restored it that I burst into tears when I walked in the door.”
While the bar was mixing period drinks and pouring local wines, wait staff passed tasty hors d’oeuvres designed by chef Tom Shaudel, who will be consulting on menus. There were fabulous little squares of grilled cheese, shrimp and veal meatballs, and quesadillas filled with barbeque pork.
Riverhead sculptor Gloria Kisch, whose work has been seen in numerous Hamptons galleries, was excited about what the theater will mean for the future. “I think this is the beginning of Riverhead,” she said. With another home in Bridgehampton, she prefers her 44 acres near the theater. “I have ponds with turtles and wonderful wildlife. It’s as close to heaven as you can get.”
This reporter shared scrumptious shot glasses of chocolate and vanilla mousse with Dhonna Goodale, resplendent in a platinum wig, sparkling black and white dress and a fur stole. She regaled the table with stories of first attending the theater when she was seven years old. She saw Mary Poppins. She recalled her mother warning as she got older to “stay out of the balcony!” “Tonight,” she declared, “I am finally getting to the balcony!”
The theater has not only touched the hearts of sentimental residents and artistic homeowners, it is fueling massive excitement in the business community. Rich Kruse, a realtor at Douglas Elliman, runs the Execu-Leaders non-profit business association and is handling public relations for local business owner Bill Schoolman. Schoolman, who owns Hamptons Luxury Liner buses, just opened Bolt Bus, a franchise of Greyhound. He has partnered with the theater to help get people into the seats. With exclusive rights for the Manhattan/Hamptons run, they will be making stops at East End hotels to help increase audiences.
Kathy Curran, director of the Suffolk County Historical Society brought sparkle and glamour to the evening, looking stunning in a gown of gold lamé, while the dance floor behind her was full of pearl-adorned ladies and gents in evening garb attempting to execute an authentic Charleston to the music of the Vince Giordano band.
The “Girls From Shirley” were dressed to the hilt with headbands and feathers and flapper dresses. Susan Mote, Ginny Sommers and Cappy Federer had come “to support Sommers Construction and the Castaldis,” Federer said. “And the return of the arts to the East End.“
Bob Castaldi surveyed the action from a table to the side of the orchestra where he sat with his wife, Diane, and their family. “We are not show horses,” he said when complimented for the umpteenth time on the beauty and detail of the renovation. “We are plow horses. Every guy here worked like it was his own house. We want this theater to be for everyone…There is magic in here.” And everyone in earshot agreed.