The town of Sag Harbor, New York, located on Long Island’s South Fork, may at first glance seem like a natural fit for arthouse theaters to thrive. However, its only independent cinema was preserved not only from the economic downturn facing movie theaters, but also from the effects of a devastating fire.
A former whaling village, Sag Harbor has always had a more bohemian reputation than the nearby Hamptons, with more year-round residents including writers, artists, and movie-makers, and the theater has been part of the progression. Opening first as a vaudeville house, the theater showed its first movie on November 1, 1919. In 1936, the cinema was remodeled by famed architect John Eberson, at which point it received its distinctive Art Deco look, with a white facade and neon lettering reading “Sag Harbor” that would soon become a town landmark.
By the 2000s, Sag Harbor Cinema was the only arthouse cinema on the East End, and plans were readied for its long-term preservation. However, on December 16, 2016, a fire that had started at a nearby café reached the theater, severely damaging it and destroying much of the iconic exterior. The theater itself had survived, but its future was uncertain.
The theater saw an outpouring of support from volunteers and donations led by the non-profit organization that became its new owners. The neon sign (a replica of the original) was badly damaged in the fire but was salvaged and later repaired for free by local volunteers.
The theater, which had been a single screen for its entire history, was rebuilt as a triplex, with many of the historic details either salvaged or replicated from the original theater. With the neon once again abuzz, the theater reopened to the public in June of 2021.