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Baltimore's beloved Senator Theatre is in good hands

Expansion to four theaters an impressive architectural achievement

Dan Rodricks

3:13 PM EDT, October 19, 2013

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The Senator Theatre is like your favorite old aunt — the busy, independent one who never married but who loved her nieces and nephews and spoiled them with candy and fantastic stories. She dressed like a Hollywood starlet, with rhinestone glasses and lots of lipstick. She always looked glamorous and classy — several notches above Hon.

She was all that, and for the longest time.

Then, you noticed things, troubling things — a ripped sleeve here, a stain there, a run of bad-hair days. She showed up with a black eye that made everyone shudder and cringe.

That's kind of how we felt about the Senator — a beloved member of the Baltimore family whose troubles made us shudder and cringe.

As she tottered and doddered, we wanted to do more to help. She came around and asked for money, but that seemed so out of character. That she never seemed to exhibit the benefits of the financial support we gave her made us suspicious and sad.

But, I am happy to say, that's all over now. Auntie has been to the spa.

She's under new management and looks great again.

The 74-year-old Senator reopened this month after a $3.5 million renovation.

Not only has the grand Art Deco theater been preserved, but it has been enhanced in a way that — knock on wood veneer — should make the Senator commercially competitive for years to come.

For the first time in its history, the Senator can offer four movies at one time.

For the first time in all my years of patronizing the York Road theater, I have been able to watch two major motion pictures in two days under the same roof — first, Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips," then Sandra Bullock in "Gravity." While Hanks confronts Somali pirates on the 40-foot screen in the main theater, Bullock gives a breathtaking performance as a novice astronaut lost in space in the Senator's new Theater No. 2.

Theater No. 2 is a surprise, almost a shock. Located in what had been a space on the Rosebank Avenue side of the Senator, this second theater, with 168 seats, appears to be roughly the size of those found at the Charles Theatre, which is owned by Buzz Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen Lyon, the Senator's new owners and renovators. Theater No. 2 has stadium seating, like the Charles, and a screen of cineplex size.

I would have enjoyed seeing Bullock and her co-star, George Clooney, floating through "Gravity" on the Senator's main screen. The film's special effects strike me as pioneering and, with space and Earth providing awesome background to almost every scene, "Gravity" seems to be made for the Senator's 40-footer.

I asked Lyon if switching films from the main house to Theater No. 2 was a possibility in the future. "We will switch films between [theaters] if the attendance at each suggests there is greater demand for the other," she says.

Before I go on, I would like to note two things about "Captain Phillips."

It has connections to Baltimore: The setting of the first half of the film is a Maersk container ship like those we've seen call on the port of Baltimore over the years, and the real-life hero of the story, Rich Phillips, trained to navigate and dock ships at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies in Linthicum Heights, south of Baltimore.

One other thing: Linda Delibero, who teaches film at the Johns Hopkins University (and who takes part in monthly film discussions on my radio program), was correct about the last 10 minutes of the movie — they are astonishing, with Hanks, thoroughly convincing as Captain Phillips, in full command of the skills that made him one of the top actors of our time.

But back to our featured attraction: the Senator Theatre.

What is most impressive about the renovation is that the architect, Alex Castro, and Cusack's construction crews were able to add three theaters without any discernible exterior expansion to the building. I keep looking for it, but can't find it. They worked on what is primarily the same footprint the Senator occupied for years.

"What made the project so technically difficult," Lyon says, "was that we had very little room and were able to fit the additional theaters inside of the property lines. Alex Castro is incredible."

So Theater No. 2 is to the far left, after you pass through the Senator's lobby, while theaters No. 3 and No. 4 are to the right. Theater No. 3, which occupies space that had been an office, seats 68, while No. 4 seats 56. It will be interesting to see what films are booked in those small rooms. Lyon says they will be available for rentals in 2014, as will the Senator's balcony.

Management is also making use of a space that, years ago, had been a dry-cleaner and tailor shop, facing York Road. A cafe will go there.

The Senator Theatre, our beloved old aunt, is in good hands and being treated well. Make sure you visit her.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com