When the Suffolk Theater reopened in March 2013 after three years of renovations, the revitalized art deco performing arts center featured Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks, a 1920s and ’30s-style swing band known for its black tie affairs.
One year after its opening, the East Main Street theater invited the band — which has won Grammy Awards for its work on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” — back to town for its birthday celebration, again partying in a style that would have made Jay Gatsby proud.
The theater has offered plenty of variety, but the last 12 months have revealed a marked shift toward bringing bigger name acts to downtown Riverhead. Catering to a younger crowd, performers like Joan Osborne, Nick DiPaolo, Ani DiFranco, Chris Robinson and others have taken the stage in the same theater, which went through three general managers in its first year while owners Bob and Dianne Castaldi looked for the right fit.
“My background isn’t in theater,” said Castaldi. “My expertise lies in restoring old buildings and contracting. So there’s been a learning curve.”
The theater’s current general manager, Dan Binderman, took the helm in early 2014.
Castaldi said each of Binderman’s predecessors “has been talented and very bright,” but the range of acts just wasn’t there before.
“I think Dan has the right attitude,” Castaldi continued. “It’s diversified. It’s starting to hit a younger crowd, a medium-aged crowd, an older crowd. There’s something for everybody.”
Yet Jeff McKay, owner of the beer and wine lounge Vines & Hops, located across the street from the theater, couldn’t say what kind of acts have appeared there. He said few theater patrons have bled across the street to his establishment.
“We get nothing from the theater,” he said. “The demographic they are aiming for is not the type to go out at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night to another venue.”
McKay didn’t sound optimistic about the impact future shows at the theater will have on his business, though Binderman said drawing a diverse crowd is something he’s been working on.
“We hope to hit things for various generations. We try to be inclusive,” said Binderman, who came to Riverhead via New York City and Boston, working in both music and improv comedy.
“We program to the various communities we see out there,” he said. “I would say certainly it’s no surprise that there is a solid classic rock community.”
There are also those big-name acts that cross generations. Booker T. Jones, Ben E. King, Arlo Guthrie, Mavis Staples and the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter have all performed at the Suffolk Theater in the past year.
“These are people you want to see once in your life,” Binderman said. “They’re masters. They’re some of the best at what they do.”
Although Riverhead is no stranger to well-known musical acts — and until a few years ago was known for its annual blues festival — this weekend will mark a new milestone in music on Main Street. On Saturday, the Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center will host the band 10,000 Maniacs, its biggest act to date, to close out Long Island Winterfest. This final show will be a fitting bookend for the music festival, once known as Jazz on the Vine, which opened six weekends ago with a performance by The Smithereens at the Suffolk Theater.
This is the first time the aquarium has hosted an event for Winterfest, which generally draws acts to winery tasting rooms.
“Instead of a couple of great small quality acts, we figured a couple real big ones would get “Live on the Vine” a little more on the map,” said Bryan DeLuca, the aquarium’s general manager.
“It all comes down to numbers,” he said. “Some of these acts are pricey, so what’s a reasonable amount to sell tickets for? And how many seats do you have? With tickets at $35 online and $45 at the door, we hope to sell out.”