The shell of the Montauk Playhouse has always been there, it seems, waiting to be something else.
It’s been a journey from the ’70s and ’80s, when it gave Camp Hero a run for its money as haunted hinterland, to today when it provides a vital community hub thanks to the work of the Montauk Playhouse Community Center Foundation (MPCCF), which, incidentally, holds its annual Gala this weekend, during which you can contribute to keeping the kids off the beach and such.
We spoke with photographer James Katsipis and MPCCF President Emeritus Lisa DeVeglio, both lifelong Montauk residents and Gala honorees for their contributions to the Playhouse (James was honored last year and Lisa will be this year), to learn more.
Can you provide a little background on your life in Montauk and history with the Playhouse?
James Katsipis: My parents moved out here in the Late ’60s early ’70s—my dad was a grillman at Salivar’s and my mom, a waitress there. They had me here January 4, 1983. I attended Little Flower School, then Montauk public school. It was great. We had the best teachers in the world. Jack Perna our principle was and still is my hero. He goes beyond the call of duty for the kids.
People ask me all the time what it was like growing up here. I can best put it as we were real life “Goonies.” Or at least tried our hardest to be. We did a lot of exploring of the natural landscapes. Montauk is a giant playing field for kids to get lost in. Tons of spots that really let your imagination run wild. It was our playground. If we weren’t fishing off the dock or surfing we were sneaking into Camp Hero and exploring other rundown buildings. The Playhouse being one of them! Haha!
We were real life ‘Goonies.’
A lot of playful mischief. I won’t get into all the details. But as it lay dormant all those years, we all knew it was just going to waste and could be used for something to benefit everyone. As it was intended. But this time with a little tweak.
Since it has been up and running I’ve gone to the gym there, I’ve done physical rehab on my shoulder and we have hosted some of Montauk’s largest Town Board meetings with public hearings. And that’s just some of the great things to come out of it.
Lisa DeVeglio: I moved to Montauk from West Babylon with my family in 1972 and my father was the manager at the Montauk Shores Condominiums. I loved it here—attended one year of Montauk public school, then East Hampton High School. I worked at the Ranch, Herbs Market, Peter Joyce Landscaping, The Dock, and in 1984 opened a fish market in town with my sister. Around 1986 I started babysitting kids—I love kids—and had about 20 a day. Then after about 10 years of that, I opened Willow, a little gift shop next to Fudge and Stuff. I loved that little store and met the best people ever over the 18 years I was there. I am actually very good friends with a lot of them. At the same time, I started driving a school bus, which I still do…can’t get away from those kiddies. I sold my store in 2015 and now just drive the bus.
In 1990 I married my best friend Bing, and we own a lovely home in Camp Hero. We have two beautiful daughters Cory and Leah. They are all grown and live in California now. Back in the late ’60s early ’70s when we were coming out to Ditch Plains to camp, before it changed into a mobile home park, I met some of the greatest kids who also came to Montauk to camp for the summers. We would go to the Playhouse to watch movies back then. I remember seeing Live and Let Die there and also What’s the Matter with Helen?. It was such a cool old spooky building. The seats were director’s chairs and pieces of the ceiling tiles used to fall on your head during the movie. Those are the days in Montauk, I will never forget and cherish the rest of my life!!
What does the playhouse mean to the community?
JK: Well, being born and raised here I can attest that the winters out here are really hard sometimes and it’s hard to find outlets for the kids and even the adults. I think finishing this pool is going to be a great addition to the community. Not only for the athletic side but for the social side of it. It will give a lot of people a place to go and escape for awhile each day. I know I would want to go swimming when it’s 30 degrees outside and not have to put on a 5mm wetsuit.
LD: I see the Playhouse as a wonderful meeting place for our community, young and old. A focal point. Right now there is a lot of traffic in the building, people of all ages using it for different reasons. Body tech, senior nutrition, child daycare, physical therapy, pickleball, recreation, adult day care, and occasional events. So, you can see it pulls all ages of our community together.
Year-rounders and seasonal homeowners alike, even visitors. It’s a wonderful feeling to go into the building and see the young children performing for the seniors around the holidays, or the gathering around the flagpole on Veterans Day, listening to stories from some of Montauk’s oldest and cherished veterans, with 96-year-old-veteran Pat DeRosa belting out a tune on his saxophone. It gives you such a warm and fuzzy feeling, a real sense of community.
With the seats out, this will be an amazing music venue, comedy venue, a real place to go on a Saturday night and see a great show.
What will the next phase of the Playhouse mean for the future of Montauk?
LD: The next phase of the Montauk Playhouse will mean so much for the community. It will have a beautiful aquatic center and cultural center. The aquatic center will consist of a 25-yard, four-lane pool, along with a therapy pool. Light will shine down from the top floor roof windows to lighten up the pool area.
The larger pool will be great for our everyday swimmers for exercise as well as pool parties for kids in our community or perhaps a “Jaws” in the pool evening in the summertime where the movie would be shown while kids are floating in the pool in tubes! The possibilities are endless. Pool volleyball, synchronized swimming, or just after-school recreation. The therapy pool will be used for swim lessons (so important to our area), and therapy for young and old, Maybe exercise classes for the elderly, as this pool will be a little warmer.
The top floor will have a 240-seat theater, with telescopic seating, that can transform into one big room or two two smaller ones. With the seats out, this will be an amazing music venue, comedy venue, a real place to go on a Saturday night and see a great show. Once the seats are pushed in it becomes either one big room or two smaller ones that can house anything from a class to a convention, which will benefit everyone from our motel owners to local food establishments that will cater events.
I just try to convey my feelings through my photography—the moments I have experienced living around Montauk that you might miss if you are only out here for a short while.
James, how has being from Montauk affected your photography?
JK: I just tell people Montauk does its own modeling. I don’t have to tell it to do anything. I just click the button and capture it doing its thing. I have a hard time taking credit for some of my photos because Montauk just makes it too easy to not take a good photo.
But seriously, I love to just try to convey my feelings through my photography—the moments I have experienced living around Montauk that you might miss if you are only out here for a short while. You have to be on the ball to capture some of Montauk’s moments, because they can last just a second sometimes. Those are the photos that usually resonate with me and my audience.
What are you looking forward to at the Gala?
JK: The live auction! So fun! Gets my adrenaline pumping. I always love to see what’s up for grabs.
So, I have a story about that. I was photographing the Gala the year I got married and Chad Smith the drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers donated four VIP passes to any live show you wanted to see. The chili Peppers are my favorite band. I never have been able to catch a show. I was working the event, so I couldn’t bid on them but boy did I want to get my hand up so bad. I was dying watching them going back and forth on the tickets. Just cringing.
Finally this really great woman, who I knew, won the tickets and comes up to me and she could tell how badly I wanted those tickets and says “You just got married right?” I said “Yes, ma’am.” And she said, “Here’s your wedding gift.” And handed me the ticket papers. I lost my mind! I got home that night and was jumping up and down with my wife. Went to the concert and they put on the best show I have ever seen. Dream come true. Thank you, Chad Smith! And thank you to that lovely generous woman for the tickets. I will never forget that. Still have my VIP necklace.