The sight of a few ladders outside the Senator Theatre did not prepare me for the scope of the restoration project that is transforming this Govans-Belvedere Square landmark, a Baltimore treasure being taken apart and reassembled. There will be three newly constructed boutique theaters, too, making a four-screen complex.
The $3.5 million infusion of much-needed capital improvements comes not a minute too soon. The 1939 movie house is a favorite address of many film fans, but let's face it: The beloved Senator was shabby. It took the city and state to come to the financial rescue of the beleaguered but grandly surviving picture house.
Jim Standiford, the site superintendent for the Cusack Co., led me through the place where I've been seeing movies since the 1950s. The circular lobby is due to get a spectacular new chandelier. Restorers have completed their work on the Senator's murals, which smokers had stained with their nicotine over the years. The murals were also badly repaired in the past — but at least they survived.
James "Buzz" Cusack, the theater's owner and Standiford's uncle, said the murals appeared to have been painted on Belgian linen. Each panel is 4 feet wide and 20 feet long. There's also considerable Art Deco plaster work, now gold- or silver-leafed anew. Because of the extensive work going on, the murals are protected by heavy plastic sheets. With a reopening planned for the spring, we'll have to wait to see how this part of the place looks.
Standiford, a graduate of Baltimore's Friends School and James Madison University, showed me a bolt of deep red fabric being considered to cover the walls in the expansive auditorium. The place is getting new seats too, as well as new restrooms.
"It'll be nice to have eight shows a night and a cafe in the neighborhood," said Standiford. Indeed, York Road never had a better ambassador than the Senator's neon-lighted facade.
He confirmed what I had long suspected: Despite the marvelous Art Deco facade and circular lobby, there were some unfortunate later architectural cover-ups and additions. Somebody had the idea to glue acoustical tile over a period painted lobby ceiling near the concession stand.
There's a gloppy mastic glue now attached to the delicate paint scheme; the ceiling will not be restored. It will be covered by a new ceiling.
"I'll leave that for a later effort," said Cusack. He also said the Senator has 11 roofs —
"and every one was leaking."
I noted construction workers ripping out the Art Deco carpeting that seemed to be trademark textile in the old Durkee movie chain. I knew that exact carpet pattern from the old Waverly and Boulevard theaters, two of many closed neighborhood film houses where we once congregated.
Later in the day, as I went south on York Road and Greenmount Avenue, I passed some of the old neighborhood movie houses I frequented in the 1950s and 1960s and thought how lucky we are to have a surviving Senator, with its expansive screen and generous sight lines, not to mention its fine lobby and embellishments.
In the 1960s, I would watch as Baltimore's film houses were plowed down faster than summertime weeds. I stood on Lexington Street as the old Century and Valencia fell and wondered what barbarians were in charge of city planning. I observed the wreckers smash up the palatial Stanley, whose spectacular auditorium cast a great golden glow when the house lights came up and it was time to go home.
I recall a day in 1968 (the film was "Planet of the Apes") when I was in the Senator after a few years' hiatus. I was then growing inured to Baltimore's mania to close and raze wonderful entertainment places. Maybe I had taken the Senator for granted. I looked up at those airy murals of ancient Hollywood cameras and thought: There is hope yet.