Nearly a decade ago, paperboys in button-down shirts and suspenders stood on the red carpet under The Suffolk Theater’s iconic marquee, wildly waving newspapers, shouting of its reopening.
In front of them, classic film searchlights set Riverhead aglow at the ribbon-cutting for the theater’s renovations that March 2013. Chatty guests donned period attire and rolled up in antique cars, references to the theater’s original opening in 1933.
The theater’s red marquee has long illuminated East Main Street, and recently shined a brighter light on Riverhead’s historic downtown and its many businesses as the town transitions out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For commitment to revitalizing Riverhead’s downtown and highlighting local businesses, the Riverhead News-Review has named The Suffolk its 2022 Business of the Year.
Bob and Dianne Castaldi have been at the helm there since 2005, and this year, the performing arts center rebranded from The Suffolk Theater to The Suffolk.
The idea for rebranding — which pivots the venue from its cabaret-style model of “dinner and a show” — was a joint effort by the Castaldis and Gary Hygom, The Suffolk’s executive director since last January.
“I said, ‘It feels odd that we’re describing ourselves as a theater when that’s a moniker that doesn’t really fit us,’” said Mr. Hygom, 62, who has worked in live theater and the music industry for over 30 years.
The trio made the shift to meet what Mr. Hygom said is an “imperative” at a performing arts center: working with the neighborhood.
“One of the things that a performing arts center should do is help grow the town around it,” he said. The Suffolk began referring its patrons out to local restaurants “to help keep them moving and growing.”
Ever since the venue was restored in 2013, it had functioned as a place for guests to enjoy a full meal and a show. Pre-pandemic, chef Noah Schwartz of Noah’s served up pre-fixe courses and in 2021, chef Jennie Werts from Ellen’s on Front in Greenport prepared full meals. Now, the venue offers plenty of cocktails, appetizers and desserts, but leaves the main courses to local eateries.
The shift comes amid massive revitalization efforts in downtown Riverhead. Earlier this year, the town received a $10 million grant that will be used to create the Town Square, implement floodplain mitigation projects and offset the costs of construction near the Long Island Rail Road station.
The Suffolk is also in the final steps of a planned renovation that Mr. Hygom said would expanding the stage depth from 16 to 30 feet. Mr. Castaldi first filed the site plan application for the expansion in 2018.
In April, the News-Review reported that planned renovations also include a 59-foot addition to the rear of the building to expand its backstage area.
Recently, Mr. Hygom said the project would also include backstage space for dressing rooms, a green room, production offices and a loading dock for equipment. New electric lines would also be installed and the stage grid ceiling would be replaced with steel and high-beams.
“It will so revolutionize what we are able to do as a venue, and what we can provide to the community,” he said. “It will really be transformative.”
Riverhead Chamber of Commerce president Connie Lassandro said The Suffolk serves as “an anchor in the community” and called the potential renovations “incredible.”
“They’re bringing in new performers and with these upgrades to the theater they will be able to bring in performances that could [previously] not be accommodated,” she said in a phone interview.
Locals, too, can look forward to seeing more plays at the venue, Ms. Lassandro added, saying, “It’s been nothing but positive for Riverhead.”
The theater continues to partner with Riverhead’s East End Arts. On Dec. 4, they co-hosted a seasonal vendor fair at The Suffolk, inviting 30 local artists to display work in the theater space The Suffolk also works with Riverhead Free Library to offer library members discounts on show tickets, Mr. Hygom said.
Next year, The Suffolk aims to extend the boundaries of its partnerships beyond Riverhead, seeking to collaborate with wineries, breweries and other businesses in Southold Town and on the South Fork. Diversifying programs — like bringing in world music artists, film series and activities/events for families and children — are also on the to-do list, Mr. Hygom said.
New York casting director and producer Stephen DeAngelis, who said he’s hired over 100,000 performers in his career, has hosted three concerts at The Suffolk this year. The venue appealed to Mr. DeAngelis — who crafts one-off concerts featuring Broadway stars — because it’s intimate.
“For me, it feels like Broadway in your living room,” he said. “I just have so much respect for Gary and the staff at The Suffolk – they’re what the arts and entertainment are supposed to be about. … Its about giving people a place to identify with what’s happening on stage, or to have a catharsis.”
In October, The Suffolk hosted DeAngelis’ “Broadway Fright Night” – a combination of horror, supernatural and sci-fi, with tunes performed by notable Broadway actors including Richard Todd Adams (title character in“The Phantom of the Opera” and Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables”) and Jackie Burns (Elphaba in “Wicked”). He’s now working to finalize the lineup for a show slated for February.
The Suffolk makes a conscious effort when selecting performers to be sure they benefit downtown businesses and encourage people to invest in downtown, Mr. DeAngelis said. “Gary works to make the theater a hub and a magnet, so people can appreciate the other good work that’s being done in town.”
Mr. Hygom, who grew up in Wading River from third grade, said Riverhead’s East Main Street was always “the place to be.” With The Suffolk, the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce and the BID now working together, he said, the town “will be a force to be reckoned with.”
“I think to the Town of Riverhead, [The Suffolk] can truly be one of the catalysts that begin to revitalize this town and really make a difference,” he said. “That’s our goal, that’s our hope — to be one of the engines that drives new businesses … and shows that we are not just Route 58.”
2021: John and Otto Wittmeier
2020: Jerry Dicecco Jr. and Jonathan Perkins
2019: Beth Hanlon
2018: Anthony Meras
2017: Irwin Garsten
2016: PeraBell Food Bar East
2015: Jim and Barbara Cromarty
2014: Riverhead’s craft brewers
2013: April Yakaboski
2012: Richard Stabile
2011: Dennis McDermott and Kayleigh & Tahir Baig
2010: Dee Muma
2009: J. Gordon Huszagh
2008: Ray Pickersgill
2007: Ray Maynard
2006: Jack Van de Wetering
2005: Jeff Hallock and Dr. Frank Arena
2004: Massoud Family
2003: Andrew Mitchell
2002: Christine & Peter Loew, EastEnders Coffee House
2001: Jan Burman
2000: Fred Terry
1999: Jim Bissett, Joseph Petrocelli
1998: Swezey’s Department Store
1997: Pat Frankenbach
1996: Chip Cleary
1995: Ed Merz
1994: Bill Talmage
1993: Joe Fischer
1992: Liz Strebel
1991: Barry Barth
1990: Bobby Goodale
1989: Mike Kent
1988: Stan Hagler