After 17 months and $3.5 million in construction, the renovated and expanded Senator Theatre will reopen Oct. 10 with a screening of John Waters' "Hairspray" — 25 years after the original film had its premiere at the North Baltimore landmark.
The 1939 art deco showplace has been closed since April 2012 for renovation under its new owners, James "Buzz" Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen Cusack Lyon.
The project has included adding three small screens and a restaurant in space outside the original auditorium; restoring decades-old artwork and interior trim; replacing seats and giving patrons more room (thus reducing the seating capacity in the original theater from about 900 to 700); and sealing the building's 11 roofs.
"It's just daunting," Cusack said of the undertaking. "The whole thing has been such an incredible effort."
The theater complex will show newly released feature films starting Oct. 11, Cusack said. Waters said he was looking forward to re-living the February 1988 "Hairspray" premiere, where he celebrated with his cast. That included childhood friend and long-time collaborator Divine, who died less than a month later.
"That premiere was one of the happiest moments of my life," Waters said.
Workers have been trying to replicate as closely as possible the look of the theater when it opened in December 1939 with Spencer Tracy in "Stanley and Livingstone." The history- and movie-themed mural encircling the top of the rotunda has been restored, and a new chandelier has been hung from the entrance lobby's ceiling, to match one that could be seen in vintage photographs. Within the original auditorium, much of the original gilding and fine trimwork has been restored.
"The building tells us what to do," said Cusack, who also operates the five-screen Charles Theatre. The Senator's bathrooms have been upgraded to meet federal standards, Cusack said. Twice the former number of stalls will be in the renovated women's bathroom.
The three additional screens, with seating capacities ranging from 65 to 170, will allow for some smaller, more specialized films to be shown. They will also allow theater managers to move films from the main venue to the smaller screens as attendance starts to fall off.
The Cusacks originally said they expected to reopen the theater by the end of 2012. But delays in financing put off the start of construction until last October. In addition, the scope and intricacy of the project, plus delays caused by this spring and summer's rainy weather, pushed the opening date back even farther.
"It was a lot of pieces to put together," Cusack said.
The adjoining small-plates restaurant — which will be called Bar Zini and offer Mediterranean-style food — should be ready to open at the same time as the theater or shortly thereafter, Lyon said. The Senator is the last operating remnant of Baltimore's Durkee Chain of theaters, which once numbered nearly four dozen, including the Ambassador in Park Heights and Grand in Highlandtown.
Tom Kiefaber, the grandson of the chain's founder, Frank Durkee, owned the Senator from 1988 to July 2009, when, after years of financial tightrope-walking and last-minute bailouts, it was put up for sale at a foreclosure auction. Baltimore City, which owned the theater's mortgage, submitted the winning bid of $810,000.
City officials brought in the Cusacks to operate the Senator, then sold it to them in September 2012 for $500,000. At the time, Kimberly A. Clark, then acting president of the Baltimore Development Corp. and now its executive vice president, said the city never intended to retain control of the Senator.
"The city obtained ownership of the property and, ever since then, has been trying to get it back in private hands," she said. "We feel that it is in the best interest of the city to convey this property to the Cusacks. They have a lot of history with movie operations, and we feel they can make it again a viable part of the community."
The Oct. 10 screening will begin at 8 p.m., preceded by a reception. Both events will benefit the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Pratt Contemporaries, promoting children and teen literacy initiatives. Tickets will go on sale in September.