The curtain rises on the Suffolk Theater’s new act

Almost a decade after its rebirth as a performing arts venue, the Suffolk Theater is about to make a new transition under new management.

The 1930s Art Deco movie palace reopened in March 2013, recently restored and refurbished to function as a dinner-theatre-cabaret.

With new executive director Gary Hygom at the helm, Suffolk is now moving away from the dinner theater model. In the years since it opened, the theater, which has a full kitchen, has had an on-site chef and partnered with restaurants — most recently Ellen’s on Front in Greenport — to run the kitchen.

Going forward, the theater will direct its guests to the various downtown restaurants for a meal and will only offer snacks, and possibly small plates, as well as specialty cocktails, wine, and beer.

It’s more in line with the theater’s vision for the future as the centerpiece of downtown Riverhead — and as a place that draws crowds to the city and boosts surrounding businesses, Hygom said. A performing arts center like the Suffolk Theater is “intended to be the center of a town”, he said.

“I think it’s important that we start to partner with not just the businesses that are in the city, but also the arts institutions that are in the city, and make it really mainstream – an attraction for more than the theatre, but for the restaurants they can go, the gallery where they can go, the aquarium, the museum, what have you got,” he said.

The theater will continue to host weddings, he said, although the happy couple will have to hire their own caterers. The theater hosts about 15 to 20 weddings a year, Hygom said.

“It felt like an opportunity to look at doing things differently, to break out of that original mold and plan theater,” Hygom said.

Focusing on shows rather than catering will also allow Hygom to work on improving artist programming.

Hygom said that while the theater will continue to book acts based on ’60s music, they won’t be as mainstream as they have been in the past. He said he wants to expand the audience the theater attracts with a diversity of music and performance genres, including rock, jazz, comedy, musical theater cabaret shows and more.

“I really want to start doing family programming and make it a place where kids can come and watch shows on a Sunday morning or Saturday morning,” Hygom said.

But Hygom said that as the theater moves away from the dinner theater format, it will host a special “supper club” series once a month, when food and drink are “paired” with the evening’s show. Hygom said the theater is in the process of finding a chef to collaborate with for the supper club series.

Hygom also wants to embrace the theater’s origins as a movie theater and begin a series of rock and roll films and documentaries.

The theater began to pursue its goal of becoming a full-fledged non-profit performing arts center. Owners Bob and Dianne Castaldi are planning an expansion at the rear of the building which will provide a much larger stage and create wings and a backstage area with a green room and dressing rooms. The expanded space will accommodate larger groups and other types of shows. Castaldi’s plans, which are being reviewed by the Town of Riverhead, call for a five-story expansion, with retail on the ground floor and 28 market-priced rental apartments above.

The city plans to support the theater expansion with part of the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant announced by the state last week. The city was seeking a $20 million prize and planned to allocate $2 million to the theater. Allocation of grants to theater and other projects will be reassessed to reflect the lower grant amount, said community development director Dawn Thomas. How the money is spent will be determined by a strategic planning committee that will include state, city and community representatives.

The historic theater will be a visual centerpiece of the new Town Square which will be located directly across from the theater and connect Main Street to the Peconic Riverfront.

Once the theater expansion is complete, the number and type of acts the theater will be able to book will “change dramatically” to include touring companies for theatrical productions and acrobatic acts, Hygom said.

“It will have a huge impact on who we are and what we can offer,” he said. “It’s very exciting. When it happens, I think it’s going to change the city. I really do. I think we’ll see an increase in everything that’s happening in the city because of who we can bring in,” Hygom said.

Hygom has had deep roots in the theater community for over 30 years. He is the former executive director of the Patchogue Theater for the Performing Arts and production manager for 20 years at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. He joined the Suffolk Theater in October, when general and artistic director Daniel Binderman resigned after eight years in the role.

Hygom has remodeled and expanded the Patchogue Theater’s programming to include more diverse and higher caliber performers as well as educational efforts and community initiatives, the Suffolk Theater said in a press release in October.

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