The 70-year-old Senator Theatre, the last holdout from the golden age of Baltimore movie houses, is scheduled to go on the auction block Wednesday. Owner Tom Kiefaber, while insisting he accepts that his days of running the theater are numbered, is determined not to let something as arbitrary as an auction decide the building's fate.
Kiefaber, who has been showing classic films and selling memorabilia out of the theater lobby since shortly after showing his last first-run film on March 15, accuses city officials of playing "Russian roulette" with the theater if they allow the auction to go on as planned. When members of the Theatre Historical Society visited the Senator recently, he used the occasion to excoriate city officials, arguing that they should postpone the auction and concentrate on finding a way to have the Senator run as a nonprofit community-based film and performing arts center.
Last week, he joined actor David Arquette in a clear plastic box atop the Madison Square Garden marquee. Arquette was there to raise awareness of world hunger. Pictures of Kiefaber's visit were posted at astrogirlguides.blogspot.com, a site that has been espousing the Senator's cause for months.
Baltimore City, which bought the theater's mortgage from 1st Mariner Bank in May, has about $1 million invested in the theater and likely will not sell it if it's unable to get at least that much at auction. Should no new owner emerge Wednesday - and several city officials have said it is unlikely anyone would be willing to pay more than $1 million for the Senator given current economic conditions, the cost of needed repairs to the building and the borderline profitability of a single-screen urban movie house - there will be a nationwide search for someone to come in and operate it.
Kiefaber, who did not return repeated phone calls last week, has been raising the specter of what could happen at the auction. He notes that there's no guarantee that a private developer or organization won't swoop in at the last minute and buy the building, intent on turning it into something other than the nonprofit facility he and his supporters want.
In public and private conversations, city officials have said that appears unlikely. City Councilman Bill Henry, whose district includes the Senator and the surrounding community, says that zoning restrictions on the building would prevent some uses, while the lack of parking in the area would prevent others. His best guess, he says, is that no one will buy the Senator on Wednesday and that the city will quickly look to find someone to come in and run it.
"The city went into this eyes wide open, with the willingness to be the owner if no other party was able and willing to step up," says Henry. "I'd like to see the Senator back open regularly as quickly as possible."
But Kiefaber has said he doesn't trust the city to do what is best for the Senator, noting the fate of the Mayfair Theatre, which is owned by the city and sits vacant and neglected on Howard Street, its roof having collapsed years ago.
Kimberly Clark, executive director of the Baltimore Development Corp., says comparing the Senator's fate with the Mayfair's is comparing apples and oranges. "Our goals are much different for the Senator and the Mayfair. Our goal is for the Senator to remain open, to be a viable theater and be the anchor for the community."
Still, Kiefaber says he believes that city and development officials have long been trying to take the Senator from him, accusations he painstakingly details in an extended conversation with writer Laura Serena, who maintains the astrogirlguides site and lives near the theater.
And lately, Kiefaber has leveled particular criticism at Henry. He has even taken to posting on the theater's Web site and taking shots via the Senator's brightly illuminated marquee. "Councilman Henry won't meet with the community about the auction," the marquee read for several days this month.
Henry, however, counters that he has met with Kiefaber and with supporters of the theater (although not, he acknowledges, as often as they would like). He says he has also met with other groups and believes the auction, as well as the city's post-auction plans, are in the best interest of the Senator and the community.
"At the end of the day, this is not about Tom and anybody in particular, it's about the Senator Theatre," Henry says. "It isn't some grand conspiracy against Tom, it isn't any group of people meeting in rooms, scheming up ways to get control. It's about how do we preserve the theater for the next generation."
Auction The auction is scheduled to take place at the Senator Theatre, 5904 York Road, at 11 a.m. Wednesday.