On the first weekend in six months that a Baltimore movie theater was open to the public, the Senator Theatre’s massive marquee bellied over York Road, big black letters spelling out the greeting: “Welcome back to the movies, Baltimore!”
The message was as much a question — or perhaps multiple questions — as a statement.
Would people come back to movie theaters? Would customers follow the rules? How would it feel?
The movies have always been a communal experience. A bunch of people sit in the dark and watch events unfold on a brightly lit, larger-than-life-size screen. The murmured voices, creaking chairs and shuffling feet can weave together into a subliminal group conversation. Would social distancing measures aimed at eliminating contact between strangers ruin the magic?
A Sun reporter visited the Senator during its opening weekend to find some answers.
“It’s exciting to open the theater again after we’ve been closed for so long,” said Chris Lyon, whose wife, Kathleen, owns the Senator and Charles theaters with her father, James “Buzz” Cusack.
“But getting going again also comes with anxiety. We have spent the last six months working for this day. We have done all the upgrades and updated all the systems, but until you open, you don’t know how things will go. We just want people to feel safe."
For now, the Senator seems to be the only movie theater inside the city limits offering in-person screenings. The Parkway Theatre and the Landmark Theatre at Harbor East remain closed. So is the Charles, though Kathleen Lyon expects to resume live showings in a few weeks.
However, some theaters have reopened in surrounding communities (including Towson and Pikesville), where capacity limits are less restrictive than in Baltimore.
“Some theater owners would say that it’s not worth opening for 25 people, and that’s a valid financial argument,” Kathleen Lyon said. “But we are doing it anyway, because we want to turn the lights back on.”
Evidence of COVID-19 precautions was evident throughout the 1939 Art Deco movie palace. Displayed prominently in the lobby is a sign indicating that the Senator adheres to CinemaSafe guidelines, which were developed by a nationwide consortium of theater owners in consultation with epidemiologists to promote safe movie-going.
Even the first image viewers see once the house lights dim — the black-and-white “Welcome to the Senator Theatre!” screen written in old-timey script — has been altered to include a COVID-19 safety message.
The Senator’s capacity has been reduced from 736 before the pandemic to no more than 80 now (25 movie-goers apiece in the two large auditoriums and 15 each in the two small theaters).
One result is a change most movie-goers will welcome: lines in front of the box office, concession stand and even in the under-sized women’s washroom (the plague of female movie-lovers everywhere) have disappeared.
Now customers purchase tickets in advance for specific seats. After patrons arrive, employees behind plexiglass shields scan a bar code from either a paper ticket or mobile phone.
Chris Lyon acknowledged that he prefers to talk to customers face to face instead of behind a sheet of glass. For him, the shield will require a mental adjustment.
“It’s going to take me a while get used to it," he said.
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Customers seduced by the familiar smell of popping corn — nutty, steamy, faintly sweet — can now march right up to the concession stand and place their order, no waiting required. But now, a gloved server salts and butters the popcorn for them, minimizing how many surfaces moviegoers touch. That’s the same rationale behind a less felicitous change, the elimination of low-cost drink refills. (Passing a cup back and forth seems unsanitary, so the thirstiest patrons must cough up enough bucks to buy a second drink.)
With relatively few people in the audience for even sold-out screenings, the Senator seems vaster and more echo-ey. But, people still whisper to one another during the coming attractions. Audience members still sat spellbound while watching Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet," a movie about the ancient human desire to undo present disaster by discovering a trick to reverse time. And yes — when they weren’t eating and drinking, the mostly twentysomething audience members wore face masks.
Dan Hunt, 28, of Baltimore attended a screening with a close group of buddies: his brother, a cousin, friends. He had missed the movies, and the risks inherent in seeing “Tenet” at the Senator seemed acceptably low.
“I won’t hang out with people I don’t know. I won’t walk around downtown Towson at 10 p.m. on a weekend night. But here people are wearing masks. They’re following the rules. As long as people are responsible, I think we’ll be O.K.”