TOPIC: One of my favorite soap operas: The Senator Theate
One of my favorite soap operas: The Senator Theate 26 Jul 2010 09:55 #34395
When the Senator Theatre this week rode off into movieland memory, set to re-emerge in different form, Investigative Voice was struck by how much of a metaphor the historic Art Deco movie palace provides for the city that’s trying to save it, to preserve the status quo in the face of overwhelming evidence that everything needs to change. As Baltimore gets ready to support the Senator yet again, this time with a different owner, I.V.'s Public Policy Reporter AL Forman takes a closeup look at the end of a movie era.
Tom Kiefaber's maternal grandfather, Frank H. Durkee Sr., opened the Senator Theatre in 1939. His family's 71-year affiliation ended this week. (I.V. Photos/Stephen Janis)
STUCK ON THE STATUS QUO; HOWEVER…
THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN.’
— Bob Dylan
The Senator’s family connection;
end of a Baltimore era for Tom
FORMER OWNER KIEFABER BITES THE DUST;
REMOVED AGAINST HIS WILL BY CITY BDC
By Alan Z. Forman
We’ve heard all the innuendo: the secret meetings, the charges of collusion, the favoritism. The rantings of the theater’s former owner who the City of Baltimore bailed out time and time again, only to see him ultimately crash and burn.
The unsubstantiated charges that the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), that quasi-public/private city agency which runs Baltimore like a shadow government, twisted the arm of Towson University President Robert L. Caret to back out of a WTMD-FM proposal to run the Senator as a community theater and home for the school’s radio station.
Did the BDC’s M.J. Brodie and the Abell Foundation’s Robert C. Embry Jr., presidents both, sneak out to Towson to get Caret to withdraw the university’s bid? Who knows? We have only the Friends of the Senator Theatre’s word on that, an organization that is hardly a neutral observer.
Then came the threats that former operator Tom Kiefaber would stay inside the theater and refuse to turn it over to his rival, Charles Theatre owner James “Buzz” Cusack, as mandated by the mayor. That Kiefaber would seize the projection equipment and remove it from the premises for what he termed “safekeeping.”
IF YOU DON'T LIKE SOMETHING, CHANGE IT.
IF YOU CAN'T CHANGE IT, CHANGE YOUR ATTITUDE.
— Maya Angelou
Our sentiments at Investigative Voice have always been with Kiefaber and the Senator, as have his many friends and countless numbers of Baltimoreans who wanted to see him given one last chance — again and again — only to acknowledge finally that it was time for him to go.
Tom leaves kicking and screaming, removed against his will by the city and the BDC.
His maternal grandfather, Frank H. Durkee Sr., built the Senator in 1939; Kiefaber has run it since 1977. Once part of a chain of theaters all around the area, it’s now a white elephant, one of the last of its kind in the country.
The movie business is different now from what it was in the 1940s and 1950s, when film was the primary form of entertainment for most people, and every neighborhood had its own movie theater, when kids went to Saturday matinees and couples spent their Friday and Saturday nights in movie houses.
Then came television, and the neighborhood theaters went the way of Vaudeville. Hollywood and TV competed for mass audiences.
But movies came back with a vengeance, and in recent decades, multiplexes — theaters with stadium seating — took center stage. Single-screen theaters like the Senator became a relic of the past.
Tom Kiefaber went against the trend, and for a while he was successful, connecting the two-screen Rotunda theaters to movie schedules at the Senator.
THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN.’
— Bob Dylan
And every time he got in trouble financially, the city bailed him out.
It’s in the city’s best interests to preserve this historic landmark, Kiefaber and others would say, and at the eleventh hour each crisis would pass and the Senator would live to show another movie.
This week was Tom's last picture show.
Kiefaber was an impresario, a showman who at first personally introduced each film (on weekends), then later did so via recorded message.
The 900-seat theater drew large audiences for premieres, such as films like Barry Levinson’s “Diner” and John Waters’ “Hairspray” (the original 1988 version with Ricki Lake, and Divine in the role reprised by John Travolta in the 2007 remake).
But the theater didn’t change, and neither did Kiefaber’s business plan. Why change? When the going got financially rough, the city could always be counted upon to take him off the hook.
When his creditors finally foreclosed a year ago, the city bought the building at auction, to preserve it as a theater and so it could continue as an anchor for the revitalized Belvedere Square business neighborhood at York Road and East Belvedere Avenue.
Most of the 14 restaurant owners in the Belvedere Square area want the theater to remain, they just don’t want the two restaurants the Senator’s new owners, Cusack and his daughter Kathleen, current owner/ operators of the Charles Theatre and its adjacent restaurants in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, say they must have in order to make running the Senator financially viable.
Everyone wants change along with status quo.
IF THE FACTS DON'T FIT THE THEORY, CHANGE THE FACTS.
— Albert Einstein
The Cusacks plan to destroy the architectural integrity of the theater’s interior, most notably tearing out its spacious Art Deco ladies’ restroom, to put in a crêpe shop, much to the chagrin of the Friends of the Senator (FOTS), a support group for Kiefaber which insists that the city should act to prevent such changes from occurring.
Even further, Laura Perkins, a/k/a Laura Serena, a/k/a AstroGirl’s Galaxy Guide, a member of FOTS, went so far as to purchase a house at auction on a street adjacent to the theater, where the Cusacks say they might consider putting in a second screen at some point, apparently to throw a monkey wrench into their works.
And of course Tom Kiefaber has a vested interest in seeing his rival Cusack unsuccessful. If Buzz and his daughter succeed where Tom has failed, it makes Tom’s tenure at the Senator look all the worse.
Most financial experts believe there’s no way the Senator can be successful as a single-screen movie theater.
The Cusacks also intend to replace the current seats, an undertaking which could necessitate closing the theater for up to a year. Businesses in the neighborhood are not happy about that prospect.
Like the theater, the City of Baltimore is resistant to change.
People opposed the Charles Center Project of the 1950s which began the revitalization that saved downtown. Current Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s father, Thomas J. D’Alesandro Jr. was mayor back then and pushed the project through.
Later came the Inner Harbor redevelopment, championed by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer before he became governor, who also pushed for the Camden Yards sports complex against naysayers who insisted it would bankrupt the city and not fulfill its promise.
I LIKE THINGS TO CHANGE, NO MATTER WHAT.
— ‘Night Moves’ (1975 film)
As for the Senator, the jury is still out on whether the Cusacks can make it without the multiplex that makes their other venue so successful.
But I.V.’s position on that is, let them take a shot. Let them bring change to this old relic of a theater that’s one of the last of its kind in America.
Never mind that it’s not the most beautiful example of Art Deco architecture — it’s the only one we’ve got.
Never mind that it won’t have its historic men’s and ladies’ lounges and restrooms. What good are Art Deco restrooms if the building that houses them goes bankrupt? Isn’t it worth sacrificing a bathroom or two to make a business venture viable?
Without change, this city cannot grow. It should be trying new things, not sticking to the old, except in cases like the Senator, where an old landmark is being employed to stimulate new business.
It’s like the Urban Housing Program of previous decades, that was so successful it’s been adopted by cities all across the U.S. Instead of tearing down old homes Baltimore encouraged citizens to refurbish existing structures, some so dilapidated they were sold for as little as a dollar.
The result: inner city and other old Baltimore neighborhoods retain the architectural flavor of times past while at the same time moving boldly into the 21st century.
Nothing however is immutable. The city should not hold on to the past to the point of self-destruction. Like the rest of Baltimore, the Senator has to change.
Hopefully the new owners will prevent the city’s being on the financial hook again. They’re getting a sweetheart deal: $1 a year rent for 40 years plus a city guarantee on a more-than-half-million-dollar loan.
Let’s hope they don’t fail. This should be the last time the citizens of Baltimore have to bail the Senator out.
SO WE BEAT ON, BOATS AGAINST THE CURRENT,
BORNE BACK CEASELESSLY INTO THE PAST.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
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