Tom Kiefaber

Tom Kiefaber has owned the Senator Theatre on York Road since 1988. (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / February 15, 2007)

Not wanting to see the Senator Theatre closed on their watch, city officials are offering $320,000 to keep it open - provided the 70-year-old movie house is turned into a nonprofit business.

"The Senator Theatre is a Baltimore icon," Deputy Baltimore Mayor Andrew Frank said yesterday. "It's ingrained in the psychology of Baltimore. ... Its closing would be felt in ways that would be manifest throughout the community."

Frank outlined the plan Monday in a letter to Senator owner Tom Kiefaber, who has warned in recent weeks that the landmark theater, deeply in debt, could close without financial help. Under terms of the plan, the city would turn over the $320,000 only after Kiefaber deeded the theater to a nonprofit corporation. Kiefaber did not return phone calls seeking comment last night.

In recent weeks, Kiefaber has put together a committee, including experts on nonprofits, theater management and fundraising, to study the theater's future. In public meetings last year, he outlined plans to turn the Senator into a multipurpose entertainment and educational venue, offering concerts, plays and a forum for community gatherings, in addition to film screenings.

Frank said the city aid, in the form of a no-interest loan, would come from existing funds, money already earmarked for economic and community development. The plan was worked out during meetings between Frank and City Councilman Bill Henry, whose district includes the Senator. The proposal would have to be approved by Kiefaber and the city's Board of Estimates. It is unclear what role, if any, Kiefaber would play in the nonprofit.

This wouldn't be the first time the city coffers have been used to stave off the Senator's debts. In 2002, the city agreed to guarantee half of a $1.2 million loan from 1st Mariner Bank.

The 56-year-old theater owner, who has been the very public face of the city's last remaining movie palace for more than two decades, has held two meetings at the Senator in recent months to outline the theater's economic doldrums and discuss turning it into a nonprofit.

"I think he's sincere," Henry said of Kiefaber, who has struggled for years to keep the Senator running as one of the country's few remaining vintage movie houses that still offer first-run films. "I think Tom is sincere in his desire to figure out a way to have the Senator Theatre come out of this on top, and for the focus to be on it, and not necessarily on him."

The letter, first reported in yesterday's Baltimore Messenger, also says that Kiefaber's home in Sparks, which has been mortgaged as part of previous loans, would no longer serve as collateral. Property on Orkney Road, east of the theater, would continue to serve as collateral.

The Senator, just south of Northern Parkway on York Road, is the last remnant of the Durkee theater chain started by Kiefaber's maternal grandfather, Frank H. Durkee Sr. Kiefaber, who often takes the stage before a screening to talk up the theater and voice his pet peeves, bought the Senator from relatives in 1988. He also operates the Rotunda Cinematheque in Hampden.

The Senator has endured financial woes throughout Kiefaber's stewardship, in part because of increasing competition from the suburban multiplexes. The theater stared down foreclosure in 1993 and 2000, when private investors provided last-minute cash infusions.

In February 2007, Baltimore-based 1st Mariner scheduled a foreclosure auction. Kiefaber raised the $110,000 necessary to keep the theater open.

Sun reporter Sam Sessa contributed to this article.


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