History & Renovation
Northport’s first movie house was built in 1912 at 256 Main Street, but movies were only one of its uses: Its grand opening included a vaudeville show, and over the years the space was used for high school commencement ceremonies, political rallies, children’s recitals and even basketball games, when space in the building was leased by the school system for use as a gymnasium. The early movies were silent films, accompanied by a pianist. Admission to evening shows was 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for children. The Northport trolley added an evening trip in 1913, so that East Northport residents could get home after the movies. Talkies didn’t come to Northport until about 1930, when a local businessman leased the theater and installed new projectors.
But two years later, on April 19, 1932, the theater caught fire, after a blaze started in the adjoining Chevrolet dealership. The responding fire departments found too little water pressure in the hydrants to fight the fire, and water had to be hauled up from the harbor by the truckload. To no avail – the building was a complete loss. The following August, the village board voted major improvements in the water system.
The first plan for replacing the theater was to rebuild on the same site, but theater builder William McNeil began constructing one on the adjoining property even as the old site was being cleared for a new structure. After much to and fro, Prudential Playhouses Inc. settled on the McNeil site, at 248-250 Main Street, that is occupied by the present theater building.
The new Northport Theater, with 754 seats, was opened with speeches and great ceremony on Nov. 23, 1932. Much was made of the fact that it was of fireproof construction, with major components of its electrical system isolated in a fireproof room in the basement. Uniformed ushers were recruited from the Northport high school, to be selected by the superintendent of schools. The theater would offer “the latest and most popular pictures on the cinema screen today,” a local paper noted. The initial attraction was “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Clive Brook and Ernest Torrence, which had opened in New York City only a week earlier.
The building erected on site of the old theater was used for a lunch room under various ownerships, including use by the Northport U.S.O. during World War II. In the 1970s it was converted into two stores.
In 1950 the Northport Theater, still operated by Associated Prudential Theaters, underwent major alterations: Most noticeably the stainless steel marquee was added. The lobby was remodeled, new seats installed, stage curtains and wall coverings replaced and a modern air-conditioning system installed. The cost of renovations was put at $100,000 — about as much as construction of the building had cost 18 years earlier.
As film industry economics and consumer tastes changed to favor more central theater locations, control of the Northport Theater eventually shifted to United Artists Eastern Theatres, which for years offered second-run movies at cut-rate prices. At 99 cents, later raised to $1.25, movie-going in Northport in the early 1980s was a bargain. But UA finally closed the theater in 1996, and a new owner’s plans to renovate the building for a reopening in 1997 were frustrated when the interior was vandalized. The Northport Theater reopened in 1999, but failed to make adequate commercial headway.
In 2005, the theater was purchased by Dennis Tannenbaum, a resident and local businessman, who in turn sold it to long time Huntington resident and entrepreneur Kevin O’Neill and his wife, Patti, on June 30, 2006. In tribute to Patti’s brother, Chief Warrant Officer Four John William Engeman, who was killed in Iraq on May 14, 2006, the O’Neill’s decided to rename the theater the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport.