Operating the 79-year-old Senator and Charles theaters requires multi-tasking to the extreme.
“I do payroll, and we’ve got to make sure the movies get delivered. We’ve got to make sure we have popcorn. And I always joke that I’m the chief birthday party planner,” said Kathleen Lyon, who owns the venerable theaters with her father, James “Buzz” Cusack.
And then there’s an unwritten job: caretaker of Baltimoreans’ memories.
Like old movies themselves, the theaters — both built in 1939, the same year “Gone with the Wind” was released — tend to evoke nostalgia.
The Charles once showed news reels, but The Senator, an Art Deco building, played Walt Disney films and hosted other popular attractions. “People have a very strong emotional connection to it,” Lyon said.
She said she regularly hears comments such as, “My grandparents had their first date here,” or “I remember when you could smoke up in the balconies.”
“It’s a unique thing to be a steward of,” Lyons said.
The five-screen Charles has long been a showcase for art house films. The four-screen Senator shows popular films, including the recent “Black Panther.”
The Cusacks had previously leased the single-screen Senator from the city, and purchased the building in 2012. It closed for a major renovation and expansion before reopening in 2013.
The theater selected “Hairspray” — the film of Baltimore director John Waters — for its re-opening night feature. Guests included Waters, Emmy-winning casting director Pat Moran and then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Reaching that moment required a bit of multi-tasking as well.
“It was incredible,” Lyon said. “We had been getting plans, zoning, permits, historic tax credits, financing. It was my father and I doing it all. It was all-consuming.”
But it was worth it, she said. “We sold out opening night in 15 minutes. It was an avalanche.”
The Charles went from one screen to five in 1999.
Lyon has plenty of her own memories of the theaters, and recollections of long engagements.
“We played ‘Moonlight’ two years ago,” referring to last year’s Academy Award winner for best picture. “We played ‘La La Land’ for five months. The longest-running one I can remember was Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris.’ That played here for six months. There were lines around the block for ‘The Blair Witch Project’ before I was here.”
Lyon said winters are an especially good time at the theaters because “we always get wonderful movies — basically for consideration for the Academy Awards. The holidays are a fantastic time.”
Title: Co-owner, Charles and Senator theaters
Education: Tulane University, bachelor’s degree 2001; University of Baltimore, J.D., 2005.
Family: Husband, Chris Lyon; son 4 and daughter 3.
Hobbies/Interests: Reading, travel