Re-opening soon

The Senator Theatre is scheduled to reopen on Oct. 10, 2013. (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox / October 6, 2010)

There's a Kelly green aerial lift parked in the lobby of the Senator Theatre, and a steady sound of scraping as an art restoration expert in the auditorium carefully extracts paint samples from the proscenium arch flanking the stage.

A section of the shiny white vinyl that had covered the decorative pillars has been ripped away and the mottled plaster beneath is exposed. The original ceiling above the concession area is again visible, though pockmarked with the remnants of former adhesive.

James "Buzz" Cusack wanders amid it all, as happy as a man can be in search of buried treasure. He stops to run a hand over a section of walnut paneling that had been hidden for decades under plywood. The slice of wood was bookended — that is, split left to right and then top to bottom in perfectly mirrored quarters.

"It was very sophisticated, very high-end craft work done in the 1930s and '40s," Cusack says. He steps back to admire the size of the panels, and then adds, "This was such a difficult thing to achieve."

The 69-year-old Cusack has some inkling of what it's like to try to shape something costly, beautiful and irreplaceable, something that could be damaged beyond repair by the slightest failure of nerve or slip of the hand.

In July, Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen, took over management of the 1939 Art Deco movie palace at 5904 York Road. For the past few months, the giant marquee has been dark as the family — father, daughter and Jim Standiford (his nephew, her cousin) — has done preliminary cleaning and restoration. The theater reopens Friday with the star-laden action comedy, "Red."

For the previous 71 years, the Senator had been managed by the Durkee family, most recently by the founder's grandson, Tom Kiefaber. After struggling financially for years, the theater went into foreclosure in 2009, was purchased by the city of Baltimore and leased to the Cusacks. The process was drawn out, extremely controversial and painful for everyone involved.

The Cusacks prefer not to discuss the recent turmoil. The worst, they hope, is behind them. They'd much rather focus on their plans, which include the construction of a second, 120-seat theater on the site, plus two restaurants: a creperie and a small-plate restaurant.

Before construction can begin, the project must be approved by the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, the Maryland Historic Trust and the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Cusacks are aiming to open the additions in the fall of 2011.

Buzz Cusack owns the Charles Theatre, but he is a builder by trade. And he is keenly aware that with the Senator, he and his daughter have become custodians of an architectural gem.

The original wood paneling is a favorite recent find. Another: an elaborate mural on the ceiling above the concession stand that previously was hidden by dingy white tiles. Though the paint is badly faded and the theater interior is dark, a geometric pattern can be discerned consisting of parallel lines, large scrolls and a center medallion.

Though the family would love to bring back the mural to its original grandeur, Buzz Cusack says such a project would be cost-prohibitive. The renovation will carry a price tag of up to $1.5 million, and the Cusacks are fronting $400,000 of their own money.

"We might not restore it exactly as it was," Cusack says. "But we need to find out what the building originally looked like so we can then decide what to do about it. Maybe we'll pick a couple of the colors that appear in the mural and replicate them."

It was architectural conservator Bryon Roesselet who made the third discovery. Though the Senator has most recently been painted yellow to complement the carpet, which contains shades of mustard, orange and red, the theater's original color scheme was a reddish violet and a blue mixed with green and gray.

"All these old movie palaces," Roesselet says, "are painted in turquoises and pinks and purples, colors you don't see anymore outside of Miami."

Roesselet has worked on more than 150 historic buildings, and the Senator made an impression on him right away.

"To me, it speaks as much about a neighborhood as any theater I've ever been in," says Roesselet, who works for the New York-based conservation firm EverGreene Architectural Arts. "A lot of theaters get swallowed up by their urban settings, but not this one. As you come up from the south, you're in an older type of neighborhood, and then you get up here and the buildings are a bit grander. You can just imagine that this was the frontier of the city, that it had just got here in time for the Senator to be built. You can imagine families walking up to the theater from their homes."

Buzz Cusack is in charge of the construction side of things, and Kathleen Cusack, 30, is building the Senator's website and managing the business.

A lifelong Baltimorean (though as a boy, he lived briefly in California), Buzz Cusack is an important figure in the city. Through his ownership and management of the Charles, he has been instrumental in the revitalization of the Station North neighborhood.