The Westhampton Beach movie theater, shuttered for more than two years, has a new group of owners who are planning for a full renovation that they hope will usher in a new era for the beloved space.
“When we talked about doing this, the first thing we had in mind was our community,” says Inge Debyser, a Westhampton Beach resident and businesswoman, who is one of four partners who made the investment.
Their company, Enthusiasm LLC, purchased the theater at 2 Brook Road back in April for $1.15 million. While they were debating between two names, they have decided to go with Sunset Theater, a name inspired after they discovered arches made to look like sunsets after taking down old wooden wall paneling in the lobby. “Hence the building showed us its the new name — Sunset Theater,” says Debyser.
The original theater dates, the Hampton Star Theatre, at Six Corners, as the area was known, opened in 1927, though the building was lost in a fire and the theater reopened in the 1940s.
The Hampton Arts Cinema, as it has been known in recent years, was cleaned out in mid-2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the marquee has simply read “closed” ever since. The last known owner, Harvey L. Kaylie, an innovator in the radio-frequency/microwave industry who had a home in the area, died in 2018, and the theater’s future was unclear as the building was marketed as retail space.
Enthusiasm LLC’s plans call for the renovation of the two-screen cinema with a bar on the second floor. The number of seats in the theaters will be reduced — from 598 to 385 — to accommodate the bar and also because they are looking to install more comfortable seats. “The old seats are beyond repair” anyway, Debyser says.
Movie Theater Plans
On behalf of the limited liability company, Westhampton Beach architect Nicholas Vero appeared before the Westhampton Beach Planning Board on Thursday, November 10, seeking a waiver of site plan approval for façade alterations in conjunction with the renovation of the existing movie theater. He was met with plenty of enthusiasm — board members even used the word since it was in the LLC’s name.
The board noted an improvements to the building and the movie theater were appreciated. “A destination piece” all agreed it should be.
Vero’s plans calls for replacing the vinyl façade with something more modern, like a Hardy board, but remain white. The windows will also be replaced, Debyser says. “The brown ugly columns will be taken care of,” she says with a laugh.
“We need to bring it up 2022 standards,” she says of plans to make the building ADA-accessible, to an add elevator, upgrade bathrooms and make improvements by way of digital equipment.
In a recent interview, Debyser, who has been in the contracting business for a decade and holds a real estate license, says she was reading a Behind The Hedges article earlier this year about the movie theater being for sale and its long past. “I read it twice and the history of the theater,” she recalls.
“It really brought me into a nostalgic kind of mood. I thought it would be such a shame if it got sold” and no longer was a movie theater, she says, adding that preservation and community are important to her. A native of Belgium, she lived in New York City until her family grew and they moved out east full-time.
Her partners are also connected to the community. While she declined to name them, she notes they are all women in various other businesses. One partner is in the restaurant/bar business in New York City, another has an interior design background. The fourth is a silent investor. All four have a connection to the Westhampton area,with two living there full-time and the other two having secondary homes here for at least 15 years.
“The stars aligned,” she says, to bring them together and they were quickly able to make an offer — though they had to pay slightly over the asking price of $1.1 million, since there were two other parties interested. “It all went fast,” she recalls.
Two weeks later, they hired Vero with the idea of preserving and restoring the building as much as possible. “We did give him one thing — a picture of the Hampton Star that was provided in the article,” she says.
They wanted to capture an Art Deco look. “If you think about a movie theater in a nostalgic kind of way you think of Art Deco,” she says. It became their “mood book,” she says.
With the planning board preparing a favorable decision for the site plan waiver, the investors’ next stop will be the village architectural review board to go over the details of the facade. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We are trying to get the front side, give it curb appeal,” she says.
“Then of course we need to do all the work,” she says.
People have been asking her, “Will it be open by Memorial Day? It’s not going to happen,” she says. “It’s a big undertaking. It will take as long as it needs to take,” she says. “We are giving it our full attention.”
They immediately sought and received a permit for an emergency repair of the roof. “When the theater closed down, the roof was in bad shape. Nobody fixed three prominent roof leaks — we did that,” she says.
Business Plan in the Works
Debyser admits that while she and her fellow investors have no experience whatsoever in the movie theater business, so they are still working on their business plan.
It’s not an easy business and she says she understands why a lot of small theaters are closing. “The bulk of the ticket pricing go to licensing and distributors,” she explains. “That is why it is a dying business. ”
They hope to model at least the structure of the theater after seeing the successful Sag Harbor Cinema restoration, which was undertaken by a nonprofit after the fire in the building in 2016. “They have a bar, a couple of theaters, a concession that is more modernized,” she says, adding that as of now they are not looking to form a nonprofit.
“It’s one thing is to be in a nostalgic mood — we all live here and we love our village,” she says. “We are also going to have to make it work,” she says they are looking for ways to be creative. They are committed to making a longterm investment in “our community.”
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