Throwback Thursday – ‘Historic Place’ Is Right

The indoor tennis auditorium opened in 1929. | Carleton Kelsey Collection, Montauk Library Archives

TENNIS … An imposing monument to the thrilling sport of tennis, near the Manor, is the new glass-enclosed tennis auditorium, with two courts, a ring for boxing matches, a stage for dramatics, and seating arrangement for 6,000, where programs of any nature are held for the entertainment of Montauk Beach residents and guests.

So gushed a promotional booklet published by the Montauk Beach Development Corporation when Carl Fisher completed the tennis auditorium, the Montauk Manor, the Surf Club (originally called the Casino), golf club, a polo field, and the Yacht Club, some of the keystones in his plan to create a “Miami Beach of the North” out of Montauk. Fisher’s dream never came to full fruition, but when the tennis auditorium opened to the public in 1929 it was said to rival Madison Square Garden, drawing the likes of New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker to a well-attended inaugural boxing match.

The indoor tennis auditorium in the 1930s. | Carleton Kelsey Collection, Montauk Library Archives

In the 1930s, after Fisher lost his fortune in the Depression, the building was abandoned. The auditorium was taken over by the military during World War II, when boxing matches, drills, and lectures were held there, and remodeled in 1946 after the Navy gave it up. According to Dan’s Papers, the building was at around that time used to train horses for horse shows. It was also used to hold cattle that had grazed at Deep Hollow Ranch and were to be transported by train to the slaughterhouse.

By 1959 the structure had been remodeled again and reopened as the Montauk Manor Playhouse. A resident acting company put on summer stock productions such as The Boy Friend and South Pacific for one season. Beginning in the summer of 1960, the theater screened movies under the management of the Prudential Theatre Circuit, which launched the season with Our Man in Havana starring Alec Guiness and The Fugitive Kind with Marlon Brando.

Montauk Manor Playhouse playbill | Phyllis Monte, Montauk Library Archives

“I remember seeing many movies here during the summers of my childhood,” recalled a reader of a website called “And I remember sitting on those director chairs and looking at the masks of Drama and Comedy on the walls of either side of the screen whenever I got bored with the film.”

The East Hampton Star reported that a Montauk Music Festival was held at the Playhouse in 1964 and a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored beauty pageant in 1967. In 1963 the Blue Marlin restaurant, which sat across the street, ran ads boasting about its proximity to the theater.

In 1963 the Montauk Beach Company asked the town for a zoning variance to allow a “commercial-industrial operation for the prefabrication of [Leisurama] houses,” a project that did not move forward. In 1975 the Star reported that the movie theater would not be reopening for the season, apparently because of “rising rent and declining patronage.”

The abandoned Montauk Playhouse in 1992. | Jane Liebell, Montauk Library Archives


Once again the building sat vacant and deteriorating, as controversial plans for demolition or affordable were tossed about. The Playhouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, and in 1999 the would-be developer donated the property to the town. Thanks to the newly formed Montauk Playhouse Community Center Foundation, the building was restored halfway, and in 2006 it reopened as a community center with a senior citizens center, day care, a gymnasium and fitness center, and a town clerk’s annex. Meanwhile the foundation worked for more than a decade to raise money to repurpose the other half of the building.

“[A] swimming pool has been the ultimate vision for the Playhouse since the cavernous building … was donated to the town in 1999 and the Playhouse Foundation was formed,” The East Hampton Press reported last month.

Work on that 25,000-square-foot, $16 million project is set to start in April – an aquatic center with two swimming pools as well as a cultural center for the entire Montauk community.

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