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Historic Greenport theater is listed for $5.5M — effort mounted to save it

A movie house that’s nearly a century old has hit the market in Greenport.

The historic Greenport Theater at 211 Front Street was listed for $5.5 million with John Catrambone of Dering Harbor Real Estate earlier this week. A real estate listing also notes that the property is being offered for sale or long-term lease.

It has been owned since 2004 by Josh Sapan, who recently stepped down from his role as CEO at AMC Networks.

“It’s been 20 years now that he’s been running it and he’s ready to transfer ownership to someone — or a group — that has a vision for running it,” Mr. Catrambone said Thursday.

“There’s this renewed interest in these older movie palaces as these community-centric event spaces,” he said, that could be used for cinema, music, theater and other art forms. “It’s set up in a nice way for those types of events and could be exciting for a community group.”

The original building dates back to 1915 and an earlier theater was destroyed by the Great New England Hurricane in 1938. It was rebuilt the following year by Prudential Theaters and designed by John Eberson, an architect renowned for his movie palace designs.

Over time, the single-screen cinema was turned into a multiplex with 632 seats across four theaters.

Mr. Sapan purchased the theater in 2004 as a passion project and began renovations to honor its art-deco glory, including installing a 23-foot neon sign along the façade, building a new ticket booth, updating the seats and adding a cafe. Infrastructure improvements like switching to digital projectors were also completed.

The iconic neon sign was installed as part of an extensive renovation effort. (Courtesy photo)

Mr. Sapan retired from AMC Networks at the end of 2022 and recently published a book, “The Third Act: Reinventing Your Next Chapter,” about aging gracefully and reinventing yourself in retirement.

In an interview Thursday, Mr. Sapan reflected on the last two decades and said he feels it’s an appropriate time to step away. “During [COVID-19,] we had to close and then my life took on this new stage,” he said. “It just seemed like a perfect time.”

In some ways, listing the cineplex for sale is Mr. Sapan’s own personal third act, as he plans to focus on independent films and personal projects, like a new initiative entitled “Marvels of Media” at the Museum of the Moving Image to celebrate moviemakers who are on the autism spectrum.

“I have loved movies since I was a kid and I love the Greenport theater,” Mr. Sapan said.

He first became enamored by the theater after purchasing a second home in Shelter Island Heights — technically within walking distance, plus a ferry ride, to the theater.

“The stories [of the theater] have been abundant,” Mr. Sapan said, recounting tales from old-timers who once worked as uniformed ushers during its heyday to couples that shared their first date there years ago. “Big openings would occur and cars would line up. It was the heartbeat … the pulsing center of Greenport,” he said.

Tony Spiridakis is among those with fond memories of the Greenport Theater.

“It’s the first place I ever saw a movie,” he said. “It was one of those gladiator films.”

Though  he can’t quite remember the exact title — the experience clearly stuck with him, as Mr. Spiridakis works as a filmmaker and 12 years ago, founded the Manhattan Film Institute with his partner Lisa Gillooly.

While Mr. Sapan typically operated the theater daily at the height of the summer tourist season, Mr. Spiridakis and Ms. Gillooly helped kickstart a winter film series in 2019 after funding repairs to a broken boiler system that enabled them to heat the theater.

Now, he’s hoping to be its next steward.

In an interview Thursday, Mr. Spiridakis said Mr. Sapan has given him “an amazing opportunity” to help save the theater if he can form a new nonprofit, assemble a board and raise $1 million for a new cultural arts center.

“It’s up to us now,” Mr. Spiridakis said. “The benefit to the community is going to be for generations to come.”

A donor has already pledged $150,000, he said, adding that he remains hopeful the community will rally in support of the iconic theater. “The thought of it becoming another hotel or bar or any other type of business other than what it is now just hurts my heart,” Mr. Spiridakis said.

Despite its local significance and eligibility, the theater is not listed as a landmark or within an official historic district. It is located within the village’s Waterfront Commercial zoning district which is currently impacted by a development moratorium adopted by the board last month.

Mr. Sapan said Thursday that Mr. Spiridakis is “a wonderful guy” that “embodies the spirit” of the theater.

“Tony is a gifted director and would make a great leader,” he said.

For more information on the effort to save the theater or to make a donation, visit http://nofoartscenter.org/