Operators alter Senator plans in order to add three new screens

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The Senator Theatre's operators want to scrap plans for a small-plate restaurant and add more screens to the neighborhood theater that has become "Baltimore's movie palace."

James "Buzz" Cusack and Kathleen Cusack announced their new layout at a public meeting Saturday at the North Baltimore landmark. It will allow them to book more films and move them around — a flexibility they say is essential for the Senator to thrive as a first-run venue.

The Cusacks had already planned to build a 140-seat theater on the Rosebank Avenue side of the Senator building. They now aim to create a jewel-box theater with 50-60 seats and a bigger house seating roughly 120 customers, taking the place of the small-plate restaurant they had envisioned for the York Road side (in an area once occupied by a dry-cleaning business). None of this construction will intrude on the original auditorium. Customers will continue to enter through the theater's trademark picturesque rotunda.

It's not a done deal: the Cusacks must submit final plans to the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) and to the Maryland Historical Trust. But they've been working with both organizations to ensure that they meet guidelines for renovation of historic properties. Turned down for state historic tax credits in 2010, the Cusacks aim to re-apply this year. (They are also eligible for federal tax credits, but these would not kick in until the year the project is completed.)

"From a theater perspective, the more screens the better. Period," Kathleen Cusack said during a briefing for The Sun. "You want to keep things fresh." Not only will additional screens enable the Senator to book multiple new releases, but it will also allow the Cusacks to move blockbusters like the Harry Potter movies from the original 900-seat auditorium to smaller houses in the waning weeks of their engagements.

Adam Birnbaum, the theater's booker, said that four screens would enable him to maximize the Senator as a destination theater for both "tentpole, big-budget franchises like the 'Transformers' movies" and "the upscale, critically driven yet still commercial film, like 'The King's Speech.'" Birnbaum called these two types of film "the anchors for the Senator."

With four screens, the Senator would be able to showcase action blockbusters like "Transformers" and prestige hits like "True Grit" simultaneously. Birnbaum would also have the freedom to book "a third category of film: The all-time-great perennial classics, for fans who still want to go to see the very best movies in an old-fashioned setting, on a big screen."

The only sort of film Birnbaum thinks doesn't play well at the Senator is "the B-grade genre picture. Nothing against that kind of movie, but you're not going to fill the main auditorium with low-budget genre films." Birnbaum said he'd be more likely to program family movies like "Gnomeo and Juliet."

"There was something romantic and seductive about the restaurant idea," said Buzz Cusack. "Having two theaters and a restaurant is nice, it's engaging. But that configuration would put too much pressure on the restaurant to succeed commercially. And a lot of people have been asking us to show more movies, add more screens."

Design architect Alex Castro agreed with Cusack that the restaurant "was a romantic idea, but I'm having a lot of romance with this three-dimensional chess game, fitting three new theaters into the space we have. You move something one or three inches this way, you change the seating or the height."

For Castro and the Cusacks, the overall challenge is to follow tricky National Park Service recommendations — additions must be "compatible" with the original structure yet also be "differentiated from the historic building."

Castro said, 'You have to thread the needle and show that the new theaters have great vigor, but are still subordinate to the main theater."

The Cusacks say they will carry their new strategy to fruition no matter what. Without the tax credits, they will simply scale back on their ambitions. They hope to finish the renovation and expansion of the Senator by the summer of 2012.

Buzz Cusack can't wait to heal the damage caused by "deferred maintenance" — when the Cusacks took over the Senator, they discovered, for example, that eight of the building's nine roofs leaked. "Generally speaking, the building is faded, but not irreparably damaged," he said. "It's a very good prospect for a great renovation."