Plans to expand the Senator Theatre in North Baltimore into a multiscreen showplace and restaurant complex won a $40,000 boost yesterday from city officials who see the project as critical to the survival of the venerable movie house.
The Board of Estimates, a five-member panel of the city's top elected and appointed officials, voted unanimously to give the city's grande dame of movie theaters a $20,000 loan for repairs and a $20,000 grant to develop expansion plans.
As the city's premier movie house and a rare surviving example of a neighborhood theater built during the apex of Hollywood's heady days of glamour and influence, the Senator has been the site of gala premieres of movies shot in Baltimore and films featuring Baltimoreans.
Just last week, for example, the Senator held the premiere of Baltimore native Charles "Roc" Dutton's made-for-TV-movie, "First Time Felon."
City officials hope the expansion will be a boost to the commercial district just south of the Baltimore County line.
"Supporting the expansion and renovation of the Senator Theatre will have a significant economic impact on the Belvedere Square community, an area that the [Baltimore Development Corp.] and other city agencies [are] working hard to revitalize," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the city's economic development agency.
The Senator, which draws about 160,000 visitors a year, generates about $100,000 in annual amusement taxes and $40,000 in annual property taxes, city officials said.
Tentative plans call for restoring the 900-seat art deco building to its original condition. The theater, which has a 40-foot-wide screen, was built in 1939 on York Road near Belvedere Avenue.
In addition, two auditoriums would be built. One would have a 40-foot screen with approximately 450 seats and an elevated party room and skybox. The other would seat 200 people and show specialty films on a 30-foot screen.
Also, a 175-seat 1940s-style diner, the Nibble & Clink, would be built near the theater. The Nibble & Clink is named after a canteen-style restaurant that once operated on the southeast corner of York Road and Belvedere Avenue.
Expansion plans for the Senator have been in the works since the late 1980s, but financing has been troublesome. Theater officials say it is essential that those plans be completed soon to allow the Senator to remain competitive with multiscreen theaters at nearby malls.
"We must now expand to remain viable," said Tom Kiefaber, president of the Senator Theatre Limited Partnership and grandson of the man who built the theater.
"I hope by the spring or summer of 1998, construction can get under way," he added.
Wendell Sutton, an assistant to the mayor, said yesterday that the project would cost "a little more" than $1 million.
"The whole project is coming together, and it will come back to the board" at a later date, Sutton said.
City officials seem open to providing additional loans or grants if they are needed to complete the project. "If there is a gap in financing, we would certainly look at it," Brodie said.
Under the loan approved yesterday, about $20,000 would be used to install safety features and repair chairs in the auditorium so the theater can continue operating. The rest of the money would be used to complete concept designs, construction cost estimates, a development budget, an operating plan and a business plan.
Half of the $40,000 would be repaid, at 7 percent interest, by the end of 1999. The other half could be forgiven if the theater's operators come up with an acceptable plan. The money is coming from the Baltimore Development Corp. and the Department of Housing and Community Development.
The vision for the Senator, which now can screen only one movie at a time, is to have more movies showing and to shuffle films that are not big draws out of the 900-seat auditorium into one of the smaller ones.
Surrounding neighborhoods have supported some expansion. But the community groups have not been told of the specifics.
"Generally speaking, people are supportive of the Senator Theatre. That's not to say that anything they come up with would win the support of the community," said Catherine Evans, president of Belvedere Improvement Association and chairwoman of the York Road Partnership, a coalition of neighborhoods and businesses in the area. "There are issues, but we have always managed to work them out together."
In 1988, plans were made to add a 235-seat theater alongside the Senator and to construct a six-story office building. But nothing ever came of the proposal.
Pub Date: 9/11/97