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Efforts underway to ‘Save the Vail’ as Riverhead’s historic theater plans restoration

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and forced businesses and theaters to shut down, Riverhead’s historic Vail-Leavitt Music Hall was no exception.

“Once I saw the way that COVID was going, that’s the end of it,” said William Miller, president of the music hall’s council. “We shut down to save all the money we could and we lived on Shuttered Venue Operators Grants, [which] kept us going through.”

Those grants provided emergency assistance for eligible venues affected by the pandemic. 

The theater, which was established in 1881 —making it the oldest theater on Long Island or in New York City, according to its website — finally reopened almost a year and a half later.

Vail-Leavitt Music Hall is a nonprofit organization and its building is on the national and state Registers of Historic Places, but in order to raise funds for needed repairs, the hall’s technical director, James Gorman, reached out to connections in the music industry — and that became the Save The Vail program.

The Save the Vail program is a series of concerts that are held at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in which the performers donate their talent and time to help build funding for the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall Restoration and Preservation fund.

“That funding all goes to just paying the bills and trying to set up a war chest to eventually get to the bigger stuff that has to get done,” Mr. Gorman said.

The top priority repairs include replacing the roof and the theater seats, electrical work and more.

“We’re starting from scratch,” Mr. Miller said, “You have a building that needs everything done to it, including literally turning it around — so we are no longer bringing in people off Peconic Avenue — to work with this town for the riverfront.” There have been four Save the Vail concerts so far. Frank Latorre and the King Bees kicked off the series in August and returned just before Halloween. Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks performed in September and Who Are Those Guys in October. 

Their latest show was with Frank Latorre and the King Bees just before Halloween on October 29. The concerts have been $20 for general admission, except for their last show which was $30 and included a raffle ticket.

The series has done very well and efforts to save and restore the 200-seat theater are spreading quickly through word of mouth, said Laura Gorman, who assists with public relations for the events.

“The best thing about [the concerts] is, it’s gotten rid of the impression that we’re closed,” Mr. Miller said. “There are people coming in; I haven’t seen an unhappy face in this place yet.”

The effort to restore this historic building is a labor of love, Mr. Gorman said. “It has to do more than just survive,” he said. “You have to feed it, it’s a living thing in a lot of ways, it can’t just exist.”

Donations are being accepted through PayPal and a GoFundMe campaign that are linked online at savethevail.org. To keep up with “Save the Vail” events, visit facebook.com/vailleavittmusichall.