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North Fork Arts Center (courtesy photo)

A multi-faceted arts program is springing to life on Greenport’s Front Street and, not coincidentally, it marks the latest rebirth of the storied theater that has endured on that spot for decades. It is now the home of the North Fork Arts Center, bringing together programs to encourage the artistic bent of children, senior citizens, new arrivals to the North Fork and those whose families have sustained life in these communities for generations.

Infused with the energy of a hands-on board of directors, the center has been created as a nonprofit entity, giving a home to programs that started as concepts and are now about to flourish. The driving force for the group is Tony Spiridakis, who’s had a successful career in filmmaking. His commitment to bring the center into being persuaded the building’s owner, Josh Sapan, that the time was right to donate the theater that will be its home. 

Sapan, a Shelter Island resident, has led AMC Networks for decades, recently stepping down to pursue other passions. One of them is captured in a book he published, “The Third Act,” exploring how people — famous and not so — followed their initial careers by embarking on new occupations, avocations or volunteer work. 

“Seeing the theater become the North Fork Arts Center led by someone with the spirit, soul and capability of Tony Spiridakis is a wonderful next act for it,” he said.

His donation of the theater is the linchpin that has allowed the group to anchor these programs in the North Fork Arts Center, giving it the critical mass to have an impact on the surrounding communities.

Spiridakis plans to engage students from Shelter Island, Greenport, Southold and Mattituck high schools in theater arts programs, enlisting the talents of board members to offer guidance in auditioning, voice, scene study and more. Each of the schools has its own drama program, and they compete against each other for the local Teeny Awards for productions and performances. This will be a new step, bringing the students together to take advantage of “a creative clubhouse,” Spiridakis said.

The center has reached out to John Kaasik, who has directed musicals for several years at the Shelter Island School, to begin to discuss their plans.

“It’s nice to see more theater coming to the East End,” said Kaasik.

The center will seek to be a resource that will span not only the different cultures throughout the community, but different generations as well.

Spiridakis has shared his own expertise as a volunteer working with residents of Peconic Landing, helping senior citizens write their own life stories as if they would be captured on film.

He visited the theater recently with a group of board members to discuss the launch of the North Fork Arts Center with Times Review.

Board member Paul Henry spoke of the many people who have had successful careers, finding a way to give back to the community through the center’s new arts program. He will share his own background in puppeteering as well as teach a course in animation, for youths aged 16 and under in the summer months. “It’s a win-win-win.”

Seeing these efforts come to fruition is “exhilarating,” said board member Phyllis Ehrlich, an author, editor, producer and former senior executive at The Walt Disney Company, Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner.

Joel Ehrlich, a former actor and senior executive at Marvel Films, who co-chairs the advisory board, said they had received an enthusiastic response from people willing to share their expertise in law, publishing, entertainment and other creative fields. “The North Fork community didn’t just speak, it roared,” Henry said.

A full roster of programming is planned for the upstairs theater, which has 300 seats. Spiridakis plans to draw upon his network of show business contacts, such as asking Colin Quinn to do standup comedy and Chazz Palminteri to share his experiences in movie making. “We’ll pull more in to share their passions,” he said.

The theater will also offer a home to the Brooklyn Ballet for a three-week spring residency during which they can develop their choreography.

While Greenport is bustling during the summer, when the local population swells with seasonal residents and tourists, the quieter months — what Spiridakis calls the “shoulder season” — can use the boost the North Fork Arts Center will bring by scheduling programs during the fall, winter and spring. 

Selected shorts will be shown on Thursdays; patrons can dip in and out of the theater’s cafe for wine and beer, then return to catch a film running on a loop. Fridays will be Horror Nights; Saturdays can offer separate movies for adults and children in the smaller theaters, which seat 160 and 130 patrons, respectively. Sundays will feature Latino Cinema, chosen in coordination with the local community. 

“The local businesses are very happy,” he said. Not only businesses but individuals and families throughout the community have joined their support to the effort, contributing to a $1 million fundraising campaign. “We plan to have a Founders Wall to honor all the people who have contributed,” said Spiridakis. So far, there are 600 of them, in all size donations.

Eventually, coming full circle, the Greenport Theater is expected to show first-run films once more by the summer of 2024. It may seem like an ambitious goal right now, but then, so did the North Fork Arts Center not so long ago.