By Julie Scharper and Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun
6:46 PM EDT, October 9, 2013
After 18 months of darkness, the lights at the Senator Theatre will shine again this week.
A new art deco chandelier gleams inside the landmark movie palace. Carefully repainted acrobats and Harlequin clowns prance along the lobby's circular mural. And, for the first time in the Senator's 74-year history, theatergoers will be able to watch movies on not one, but four screens.
Residents and film fans expect the $3.5 million renovation — which involved more than $1.6 million in public loans and grants — to invigorate the Senator's North Baltimore neighborhood while introducing a new generation to a theater that glows with the glamour of the golden age of cinema.
"It's always been our Radio City Music Hall," said director John Waters. "Now it's our Radio City Music Hall with four screens. It's going to be the best place in town to see a movie."
Waters will join the theater's current owners, the father-and-daughter team of James "Buzz" Cusack and Kathleen Cusack Lyon, at a sold-out showing of his movie "Hairspray" on Thursday night to mark the film's 25th anniversary and the theater's grand reopening.
The Senator has been dark since April 2012, when the Cusacks, longtime owners of Station North's Charles Theatre, began renovations.
They built three new screening rooms, enabling the Senator to show multiple movies simultaneously for the first time in its history. Having multiple theaters, Cusack said, should allow him and his daughter to sidestep some of the financial problems that beset its previous owner. A movie that doesn't draw large crowds can be moved to a smaller screening room to finish its run, opening the largest screen for a more popular choice.
"That's what makes it viable," Cusack said. "It won't work as a single-screen [theater], but it will work with three additional screens."
The old seats have been replaced with cushier and roomier seating, allowing patrons to stretch out further. Restrooms have been expanded and made accessible to the disabled. A restaurant space has been carved out of an adjoining building, though plans for a 100-seat Mediterranean restaurant have fallen through. Cusack and Lyon had previously announced that chef David Sherman, formerly of Nasu Blanca, would be opening a restaurant called Bar Zini.
"We will focus in earnest on finding an operator once the theater opens," Lyon said.
Meanwhile, Cusack and his daughter have sought to closely replicate the appearance of the theater when it originally opened on Oct. 5, 1939, for a showing of "Stanley and Livingtone," a Spencer Tracy film based on the American journalist's quest to find the famous British explorer in Africa.
Color restorers chipped away and pored over layers of paint to match the original palette. New draperies have been added to the side walls, and the original trim has been replicated throughout. The U.S., Maryland and Baltimore flags will be displayed on both sides of the auditorium, another feature suggested by old photos.
Civic leaders and residents hailed the reopening of the theater, which has weathered years of financial tumult.
The former owner, Tom Kiefaber, a grandson of original owner Frank Durkee, nearly lost the Senator in 2007 because of tight finances. After 1st Mariner Bank threatened foreclosure in 2009, Kiefaber briefly closed the theater; the city bought it from the bank at auction that year. City officials allowed Kiefaber to continue showing films until they decided to hand control to Cusack and his daughter.
They bought the theater from the city last year for $500,000, more than $300,000 less than the city paid for it at auction. Cusack and Lyon received public and private loans — $700,000 from the city, $560,000 from the state and $350,000 from M&T Bank — and put $1 million of their own into the project. A $425,000 Maryland Community Legacy grant and federal and state historic tax credits helped with construction.
Cusack and his daughter had hoped to finish the project last December but said that delays in securing tax credits, and the exacting work — the expanded theater uses 95 percent of the available space — slowed the process.
Kiefaber, who received public and private financial assistance during the two decades he ran the theater, has had a tense relationship with the current owners. Lyon obtained a restraining order against Kiefaber in 2011.
In an email, Kiefaber said that owning the Senator was "an enormous responsibility and a collaborative team effort. It's a unique privilege as well, and it's up to others now to continue The Senator's legacy by molding it from their perspective. It's an exciting time and I sincerely wish them well."
City officials who have monitored the project said they were pleased with the work.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake thanked Cusack "for being a strong partner who understands the importance of this community anchor and historical landmark."
"I have fond family memories of the Senator Theatre and know that many others share in my excitement that the tradition will continue," she said.
City Councilman Bill Henry, who represents the area and lives nearby, said he plans to watch "Gravity" with his wife while their two girls watch "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" in an adjoining screening room — the first time the girls would be allowed to see a movie alone.
"There's no other theater where I would feel the same comfort level in doing that that I feel at the Senator," he said.
Henry said the Senator's revival points the way for a greater revitalization of the area. A recent study by the Urban Land Institute indicated that the entertainment hub that centers on Belvedere Square and the theater could spread several blocks further south on York Road, he said.
Business owners expressed delight at the prospect of greater foot traffic, particularly in the evening. Restaurants in Belvedere Square plan to stay open later to accommodate moviegoers, operating until 10 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Atwater's, a farm-to-table cafe, will begin serving beer and wine. And Spike and Amy Gjerde, owners of Woodberry Kitchen and Artifact, had tentative plans to open a new casual restaurant, Shoofly, on Friday.
"We're super excited to have the Senator back up and running," said Stacey Pack, property manager for Belvedere Square, which comprises three acres of shops, restaurants and businesses.
Victoria Warren, who supervises the nearby Junior League store The Wise Penny, said she expects to see a surge of customers.
"In the past, the Senator has helped the community, staging events on weekends and things like that, which gave us a lot more foot traffic for our store," said Warren. "It was very missed when it closed."
The theater has an agreement with an office building about a block away on the same side of the street to allow Senator patrons to park in 70 spots there. Still, because the theater can accommodate more than 1,000 patrons, it appears more parking is needed.
Pack said theatergoers who plan to patronize the shops and restaurants at Belvedere Square are welcome to park there while at the movies.
Laverne Sipes, president of the Belvedere Improvement Association, said neighborhood residents are not overly concerned about parking.
"We're used to dealing with parking," she said. "When business is good, parking is going to be a problem. But it also means our property values go up. It means people come through and say, 'Oh that's a cute neighborhood.'"
Sipes, who has lived in the area for 25 years, said the neighborhood organization was considering asking the city to require residential parking permits for the blocks behind the theater.
It seems likely that the Senator will draw large crowds, at least to start. Thursday's reception and screening sold out rapidly.
Sarah Lapinsky Yesilonis, a retired hospital clerk, said she kept a close eye on the theater's website for opening-night tickets and even called and stopped by. She still wasn't able to get a ticket.
The 73-year-old Northwood resident is eager to return to the theater she has loved since childhood.
"It's old. It's historic. It's just fun," said Yesilonis. "It reminds me of when my mom used to take me downtown when I was 5 or 6 and we'd go to the movies."
Waters also shared childhood memories of the Senator. He attended birthday parties in the theater's private screening room. "It made me an elitist filmgoer from the start," he said.
He said he was thrilled that "I Am Divine," a documentary about his friend and muse, the late drag queen Divine, whose final starring role was in "Hairspray," would be among the first films shown at the renovated Senator.
Waters said he had the perfect date lined up for the reopening of a theater dear to generations of Baltimore families — his mom.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Larry Perl and Richard Gorelick contributed to this article.
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