It really was the last picture show.
Baltimore's most passionate advocate of historic movie houses stood before the stage last night, and addressed a standing room only crowd of about 1,000. His voice cracking a little with emotion, he said, for the final time: "I'm Tom Kiefaber, and welcome to the historic Senator Theatre."
Kiefaber, 58, ended his at times controversial career at the Senator's helm — and the family history of 71 years of continuous operation — by presenting two free public screenings Wednesday of " Star Wars: A New Hope," the George Lucas classic about Jedi warriors fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds.
"We've felt kind of alone here in the past year or so," Kiefaber said. "But we don't feel alone tonight."
Throughout the evening, Kiefaber seemed saddened and understandably distracted, but determined to be gracious.
When asked what he'd miss the most about the landmark, Kiefaber said, "Opening the doors. Greeting the neighborhood residents who stopped by with their dogs to say hello. The daily miracle."
Kiefaber is the grandson of Frank H. Durkee, the man who built the Senator and opened it on Oct. 5, 1939. Today, Baltimore City, the Senator's current owner, hands over management of the cinema to James "Buzz" Cusack, operator of the Charles Theatre, and his daughter, Kathleen.
As the Senator's owner and operator, Kiefaber possessed unique strengths. But he also could be his own worst enemy.
When Kiefaber was asked at an afternoon news conference how matters had come to such a pass that he had lost control of the theater to which he had dedicated his life, he said, "Honestly, I have no idea."
And yet, the Senator has spent much of the past decade confronted by one crisis after another that threatened to turn off its floodlights for good, in part because the theater found it difficult to compete with the multiplexes that sprang up all over the Baltimore area.
It became a familiar cycle: Kiefaber would announce that because of its mounting debts, the Senator was in dire straits, and he would plead for financial help. There would be a dramatic, 11th-hour reprieve. And then the problems would begin anew.
Last year, the theater finally went into foreclosure. The city later bought the property at auction, and until its fate could be determined, Kiefaber continued to operate the Senator.
During the next six weeks, the Cusacks will nail down the details of their plan to operate the theater. The lights will remain on, and they have said they hope to get the Senator up and showing movies again as soon as they can.
But the change will break a rare connection between a current theater and the great movie palaces of the past. The nearly four dozen theaters run by Frank Durkee crisscrossed Baltimore for decades. (Kiefaber's father handled the printing for the family business; his mother worked for it as a secretary.)
Kiefaber fell in love with the Senator as a child.
"When I was growing up, I spent a great deal of time here, as many kids do in a family business," he said.
As an 8-year-old, he converted a storage area beneath the stairs leading to the balcony into his own private clubhouse, with a table, chairs, paper and crayons. The neon from the skylight flooded the space with a magical green glow, tinged with pink.
And he claimed that one particular velvet-seated but hard-backed folding chair might have been responsible for his choice of a career.
"One of the old-time operators told me that I was running one day and fell and hit my head hard on the back of that chair," Kiefaber said. "He told me, 'That's what made you get into this business.' "