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.
He is affable and low-key, a bearlike man with a salt-and-pepper beard. But unless his customers happen to have met him personally, city residents are likely to know very little about Cusack, who avoids the spotlight. During the past two decades, he has been quoted in newspaper articles no more than a handful of times, and rarely for more than one or two sentences. Personal details, such as that he lives in Bolton Hill, are few and far between.
As he puts it: "Why set yourself up for someone to take a shot at you?"
But Cusack is at his most voluble and enthusiastic when discussing examples of fine craftsmanship, now obsolete, or the composition of historic paints. He seems a builder down to his bones, and in the broadest sense of the word. He aims to construct not just physical structures but, with luck, neighborhoods.
He allows that the career he has chosen is intrinsically about hope.
"I'm an optimist," he says. "My wife would say that I'm too optimistic sometimes."
Cusack had no previous experience in the movie business when he took on a failing movie theater in 1993 that the former operator had just walked away from, abandoning the rental agreement but leaving the theater and projection equipment intact. At the time Cusack and his nephew, John Standiford, renegotiated the lease, the 1700 block of N. Charles St. was widely perceived to be unsafe.
Despite the odds, the Charles did well, and Cusack began considering expansion plans. He reasoned that to survive, he would need more than one screen and revenue stream.
In 1998, Kathleen Cusack was a senior at Friends School. She and a cousin devised a survey of the movie house's patrons for a class project.
"People had really strong opinions about whether the Charles should stay one screen or increase to five," she says. "Some people felt that it was important to the integrity of the Charles that it should remain as it was. But the majority favored the expansion."
Her father and cousin considered the survey results before going ahead with the $1.5 million project — a decision that quickly proved to be a resounding success.
Kathleen Cusack, a lawyer, was a prosecutor for the city of Baltimore for two years, and later a civil defense attorney. But even then, she was contemplating a career change.
"I really believe in the arts, and I always liked the kind of movies that play at the Charles," she says. "And I had this idea that I was going to come work with my dad. It feels like it's in my blood, a little bit."
One day she took her father out to dinner and made her pitch. He told her she was crazy.
"He didn't want me to rush into anything," Cusack says. "So I worked on him and worked on him and worked on him for three years."
And then, the Senator went up on the auction block.
"I was still working on my dad, and he finally said yes," Cusack says.
That was three months ago, and since then, the father-daughter team has been putting in seven-day weeks making minor repairs, sprucing up and uncovering the occasional hidden treasure.
On Friday night, the Senator's marquee will be lit up again for the first time since midsummer. The lobby will fill with the smells produced by the new two-kettle popcorn machine. Customers will settle into their seats, and the house lights will dim.
Gradually a story will unfold, a story filled with uncertainty, suspense and reversals of fortune.
And Buzz and Kathleen Cusack will be just as curious as any of their customers to find out how it ends.