Art Deco Theater’s Digital Makeover

1930s movie house transforms for multi-use.

It’s now movies and live stage in a digital age at Riverhead’s Suffolk Theater on Long Island. The landmark movie house has transformed itself from celluloid film on reels to digital projection, as well as adding live stage events to the multi-use venue. Accordingly, we’ll be exploring the venue’s audiovisual and lighting updates. Before we launch into those AV aspects, here’s a backgrounder based on information from the theater’s website (

Last Of Its Kind
The 350- to 900-seat (depending on configuration) Suffolk Theater is a unique art deco movie theater located on Main Street in historic downtown Riverhead. Suffolk is the last remaining movie house built by original architect R. Thomas Short and is the last remaining large art deco theater on Long Island. The theater opened on December, 30, 1933, with more than 2000 people attending the opening night festivities. It was hailed as “The Radio City Music Hall of Long Island.”

Times changed, and the theater closed in 1987. It sat idle until 2005 when Dianne and Bob Castaldi purchased the building with the vision of creating a unique, state-of-the-art performing arts center. Although many repairs and updates were required, much of the interior beauty of the theater remained intact. Despite a series of ups and downs, the restoration project tenaciously continued.

When the Suffolk Theater officially reopened to the public last year, an audience of more than 500 dressed in 1930s attire arrived in period cars. For the red carpet event, Riverhead’s Main Street was lit up with Hollywood-style searchlights. Digitally projected feature movies in surround sound are now shown in the renovated 81-year-old movie house, which has been turned into a multi-use dinner/performance theater with a cabaret-style dinner theater environment.

The AV/lighting technical aspects were handled by System Designer Stuart J. Allyn, President of A.D.R. Studios, Inc., Irvington NY (, and Integrator Charles Stursberg, Director of Audiovisual Theatrical Lighting and Theatrical Rigging Sales, Young Equipment Sales, Hauppauge NY ( Stursberg did design work, as well, on the project. To update the business, Young Equipment Sales acquired Theatrical Services & Supplies, Inc., including all staff.

AV Overview
Taking an overview of the AV challenges and scope of work for the Suffolk Theater project, Allyn noted that the challenges these days for a fine auditorium/theater generally are very much the same. Regarding audio, he said a goal is “perfectly smooth, even coverage throughout the audience/seating area(s) with proper time domains so as to always create the impression of all sound emanating from the stage.”

In addition, he pointed out that high resolution video has to be viewable from all audience/seating areas. Surround sound should function for both video playback/movies and for effects used in theatrical-style productions. Other considerations include high quality, flexible monitoring for onstage and backstage, flexible and adaptable communication systems and flexible, high quality lighting systems for full stage coverage.

“Control systems shouldn’t be complex,” he emphasized. “They should be distributed to multiple locations. Dressing rooms should have audio and video feeds from the stage.

Ancillary rooms, including lobbies, entryways and bars should have feeds from the stage, as well. The client should have the venue future-proofed as much as possible, with additional wiring runs and extra connectivity. Impact on aesthetics should be minimal, to not negatively impact or detract from the extraordinary restoration of the theater. And lastly (in good humor), AV has to be done within a budget that is never really large enough and a timetable that is never long enough.”

Expanding on budget concerns, he said, “We sit down with the client and have a serious heart to heart discussion about where our reality and their reality can intersect. At some point, this has to happen. We try to explain to them that there’s no point in having a Rolls Royce amplifier and a Yugo loudspeaker. Just like a chain is only as good as its weakest link, the AV systems are only as good as their weakest links.”

AV/Lighting Solution
Specifically, the solution for the Suffolk Theater audiovisual and lighting systems was to replace the aging infrastructure and technology while maintaining the building’s original character and aesthetics. The result of the combined efforts of the designer and integrator was an integrated, multipurpose venue, which includes an Avid VENUE console,

Renkus-Heinz arrays and subs, Innovox surround sound speakers and ION lighting control with ETC high-end lighting. The client’s limited budget has been maximized by prewiring for eventual expansion of the combined audiovisual and lighting systems.

“This was a very fast-track project,” said Stursberg. “We got most of this done within a month. It was a lot of effort between design work and the installation. The equipment and wiring were brand new. The floor was chopped up and new conduits went in.”

Taking a long view, Allyn asserted, “It’s all about preparation. That’s why we have drawings. That’s why we do documentation. That’s why we do all the prep work. Then it’s just a matter of implementing it, making it all work. I’m proud of the drawings we put together. Our drawing packages are eminently readable. Clients like houses of worship say, ‘I can understand this.’ These are lay people.

“They should be able to, because the drawing package is their insurance going forward, if something should happen to me or my company, whatever. Any qualified engineer can pick up where I left off to troubleshoot, deal with or add on what might be needed. Without drawings, you’re lost. So I’m a big fan of having it all on paper.”

This segment of one of A.D.R.’s drawings shows a main arrayed pair on top and subwoofer below. S1, S2, S3 and S4 are surround speakers.

Various Renkus-Heinz speakers were chosen for the main arrays, delays and subwoofers. The main speakers consist of left and right arrays with subwoofers, which are all in recessed openings behind curtains. To blend in with the surroundings, speaker enclosures had to match the paint where they were placed in the venue. “The main arrays are actually set behind the proscenium walls in the corner area,” explained Stursberg. “We used acoustically transparent fabric to match that area with the same color as the theater itself.

It was a bit of a challenge because of the angles we had to work with there.” In addition, there are eight custom-painted Renkus-Heinz 2-way delay speakers located above balcony and under balcony.

Allyn explained that Innovox were selected for the surrounds because of the physical dimensions of the space. “I wanted to use very small arrays because one of the nice pluses of line arrays is the way they function,” he said. “You don’t have to blast the person close by in order to reach the person further away. So, the concept of using line arrays for surround can be extremely effective when trying to reach across a theatrical space.” The Innovox surround enclosures are custom colored to match the theater walls.

Eight Worx Audio stage black monitors are strategically placed for theater presentations as needed. However, they are placed out of sight during a movie. Two Renkus-Heinz four-inch coaxial white enclosure speakers are unobtrusively mounted inside the skybox.

Ancillary spaces, including the dressing rooms, have, variously, TOA and Tannoy speakers. Those areas include the exterior front awning, inner and outer lobbies, two bar areas, rest rooms and offices. Sound fed to those areas can be background music or stage audio when a show is in progress. The dressing rooms have two separate speaker feeds. There’s a theatrical paging announce and a show audio feed for during the show, so performers know when to make their entrance. A TOA amplifier drives the paging system speakers in the green rooms and the stage manager area. On the video side, there are five Samsung 51-inch plasma TVs for viewing in the ancillary spaces. A production camera covering the stage will be described later.

Sonic Virtues
There are 20 Crown main power amplifiers. “The sonic virtues of most everything in professional audio today is amazing,” said Allyn. “So, it becomes much more about features, functions and dollars. Crown makes a vast array of amplifiers at all kinds of price points and the specific features I need. I had to have some DSP in the amplifiers based on how my system was designed, and I needed a lot of power. So Crown was an excellent choice in value for dollars within the budget framework I had.”

Allyn chose a 36-in/20-out Symetrix SymNet Radius 12×8 Dante scalable DSP system, which works in conjunction with the Crown amplifiers’ DSP. He pointed out that he went with the SymNet Radius 12×8 processor because it was cost effective and totally flexible for his needs in both processing power and the DSP’s input/output count.

The 350- to 900-seat, repurposed art deco Suffolk Theater in Riverhead NY.

Allyn detailed how DSP functions in the Suffolk Theater install. “In order to meet the value proposition of our design, we split the DSP processing between Symetrix doing the heavy lifting for all of the various zones throughout the theater and most of the zones throughout the auditorium,” he said. “But when it came down to things like left and right, Symetrix would, for example, send one signal to the left cluster, and the Crown amps would take over the DSP to the individual drivers within that cluster, so the individual variances between those things were handled by the DSP and the Crowns.

“Then the overall left, right and subs were handled by the Symetrix processors. The same thing was true in the over balconies and the under balconies, where we would send one overall signal to the under balconies, for example, through Symetrix. Then it would go to the Crowns, and the Crowns would then split the timings to the individual speakers where there were timing differences that had to be added to the overall time that Symetrix was sending.”

“We chose Crestron to control all systems,” explained Stursberg, “so Crestron is actually doing a lot in the background. It does some routing and it also controls the projection screen and the projector. In addition, it has overall control of the house lighting system, and switches various audio and video inputs throughout the theater.” A Cisco managed switch is used for Crestron networking.

Touchpanel access is provided at FOH and at the stage manager’s position. There’s also the flexibility to give additional touchpanel access elsewhere in the venue. “The infrastructure is there, and the touchpanels are there, to provide quick and easy changes from movie mode to other functions,” said Allyn. “The Creston and the Symetrix talk to each other because the Crestron is doing all the video switching. Thus, we’re using a Crestron DM for video distribution and as a video switching box.”

The FOH console is an Avid VENUE S48, which is situated two-thirds of the way back from the stage. As is the stage and club-style custom, the console combines FOH and monitor mixes. There’s an LG 32-inch LCD monitor, as well. Two Oppo Blu-ray players can be accessed for the movie source or CD stage entrance music. There’s also a rack-mounted TASCAM CD for another music source. Thus, there’s the flexibility of having music play in various zones throughout the building. There are eight Sennheiser EW500 G3 wireless vocal microphones for performers, with a choice of handheld or the tiny lavalier elements used on Broadway shows. As long as we’re talking about entertainment, there’s also the disco area, which is served by two Renkus-Heinz two-way black enclosure speakers mounted on the main truss.

The Middle Atlantic equipment racks are spread around the building. “The amp racks are backstage near the main speakers to keep the speaker runs to those amplifiers as short as possible,” said Allyn. “And there is a series of FOH racks, which the console sits on, to access equipment like Blue-ray players and other in and out of the console iPod feeds and cable television feeds in the console. There’s a Cat6 patchbay. From FOH, there are multiple runs of Cat6 all over building. It’s all for the future with digital extensions and stage boxes.

Stage Management Rack
“The stage management rack is in the stage manager’s booth. The rack houses the main intercom station and the paging system for the dressing rooms. And, a rack in another room at the opposite end of the building handles all the amplifiers for the ancillary spaces such as the offices, lobbies and bar areas.

“We want to keep speaker cable runs and all the other signal runs as short as possible. So, to best facilitate cabling, signal runs and speaker links, we split the racks up into different locations. And then, of course, we had to get power to all of those places along with protective power and proper grounding. You have to make sure all the power for all of the audio systems comes back to one audio electrical panel, with one ground that everybody shares, so we are all on the same ground.”

Stage Area
A Clear-Com four-channel intercom system provides private conversations for sound, lighting and stage management positions. A fourth channel is there for the future if the stage back is extended, at which point that channel it would be used for scenic personnel communications.

There are monitors and cameras designated for the stage area. Five Delvcam seven-inch LCD monitors are provided for previewing by FOH stage workers and stage management.

“These people can see the video from the Blu-ray player before it’s projected onto the screen,” explained Allyn. “There’s an ARM Electronics night vision camera, so the stage manager can see in the dark by virtue of this special camera, infrared light and a monitor. This allows the stage manager to see when the stage is clear, to call lights on or out.”

A Samsung HD-SDI production camera equipped with a Fujinon Vari-Focal lens shoots the stage and provides that imagery to the dressing rooms and other parts of the venue when a stage show is in progress.

Stage lighting includes an ETC ION console with an assortment of moving and fixed instruments located on two trusses and two side tormentor positions. There’s an SR48 ETC dimming system. There are Elco and ETC USHIO Source Four fixtures, Elation Design LED par zooms and ETC Vivid LED fixtures.

“It’s a comprehensive lighting system,” said Allyn. “The client has all the infrastructure they might want to have down the road. There’s coverage and fixtures to get them up and running for every area that’s required.”

Upon completion, Allyn & Stursberg and their team(s) performed a comprehensive acceptance test and fully certified audio and video system tuning and calibration in order to ensure that the systems.

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Sound & Communications: March 2021 Digital Edition
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