Vail-Leavitt Music Hall Is The East End's Portal To The Past, But It Needs More Than $1 Million In Renovations ASAP


RIVERHEAD, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — One of the oldest theaters in our area is in need of critical repairs, but it’s not on Broadway.

This theater predates Broadway by decades, CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported Tuesday.

Stepping into the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead is truly like stepping back in time. It is 137 years old.

“The first thing people say when they walk in the door is, ‘Wow, this is here? I didn’t know it was here,'” theater volunteer Ben Brown said.

The “wow” factor is the authenticity of the oldest theater in downstate New York that still operates. Its main stage was built in 1881 when Riverhead was the seat of Suffolk County government.

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Vail-Leavitt Music Hall (Photo: CBS2)

Here is where Thomas Edison ran the first experimental talkie films, Will Rodgers made the Vaudeville rounds and funds were raised to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.

Gas lights lit the opera house-style theater and dry ice was stored behind vents to cool the audience.

“It’s a unique treasure and too many of these have met the wrecking ball over the years,” said Bob Barta, president of the Council for The Vail-Leavitt Music-Hall. “It has been the cultural beacon of the community for 137 years and despite the advent of technology it’s something we should treasure.”

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The theater went through a mid-life restoration in the 1980s, but it now needs a hand if it’s going to get an encore. The roof is going and the sound and electrical systems are outdated.

The non-profit group that operates the music hall needs $1.5 million in donations for critical building repairs, but just as important volunteers to keep the gem alive.

It’s the gateway to the East End, surrounded by a downtown undergoing revitalization, with a new river walk and cafes.

“It’s really tying this all together to make it an experience when you come down to Riverhead,” Town of Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said.

So while Riverhead gets a makeover, there’s a push to keep this history a central part of its future.

The theater, which is named for its two founders, is listed in the National Historical Registry.