Life isn't easy for America's vintage movie houses.
Competition from gigantic multiplexes, booking practices that give the big, money-making movies to the chain theaters and tend to pass over the struggling independents, aging structures and bureaucratic red tape all seem stacked against them.
In the case of the Senator Theatre, the last of Baltimore's classic single-screen movie palaces still operating as such, overdue payments on a $1.2 million bank loan threaten its future. Owner Tom Kiefaber has until Feb. 21 to make good on $90,000 owed to 1st Mariner Bank. If the money is not paid back or other arrangements made by then, the 900-seat art-deco theater, which opened in October 1939, is scheduled to be sold at a foreclosure auction.
Throughout the country, aging movie palaces like the Senator struggle. Some, like San Francisco's Castro, survive because of an unusually large and faithful audience base. Los Angeles' opulent El Capitan is owned by the Walt Disney Co., which uses it as a showcase venue. Just across Hollywood Boulevard, Grauman's Chinese Theatre survives because of its status as a national treasure that's been collecting the handprints and footprints of Hollywood stars since the 1920s.
But for others, survival is a continual grind - to play the right types of films, find other uses to help pay the bills and keep creditors at bay. Some are lucky enough to have a benefactor with deep pockets: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen paid $3.75 million in 1998 to save Seattle's Cinerama Theatre from the wrecking ball, then spent millions more to restore it. Others operate as not-for-profits, often with a mix of public and private money,
Kiefaber, who maintains sole ownership of the Senator, has been down this road before. In 2000, the nonprofit Abell Foundation, which a year earlier had combined with Baltimore to lend the theater $565,000, threatened foreclosure. At that time, an unidentified investor came up with enough money to keep the theater under the control of Kiefaber, whose grandfather built it. In 2002, 1st Mariner lent Kiefaber $1.2 million to shore up the Senator and begin operations at the Rotunda, which had been closed by its previous owner.
A tireless promoter of his theater, Kiefaber has resisted altering the building by adding screens. He also wants to maintain the Senator as a venue for first-run films, which increases costs. But with only one screen, poor attendance for one film can't be balanced by good attendance at another, as at the multiscreen complexes.
Although still heavily in debt, the Senator may yet win a reprieve. A sampling of some of the country's remaining vintage movie theaters reveals various strategies for survival:
In Silver Spring, the Silver Theatre (1938) is operated by the American Film Institute as a not-for-profit enterprise and has become a cornerstone of the area's business district. Ray Barry, the theater's deputy director and chief administrative officer, estimates that roughly 40 percent of the Silver's annual budget comes from private contributions.
"A single screen is a real challenge, there's no question about that," he says of the Senator's fight not only to remain solvent, but to do so without altering the building or adding screens. "We thought it was very important to have a significant range of offerings to show the public."
Renovation of the Silver, which reopened in 2003, cost about $25 million, Barry said. Much of that money came from Montgomery County, where officials were hoping to spur development. The original theater was largely untouched, although changes in the seating bowl reduced its capacity to 400 from 1,100. Additional screens, built on property adjacent to the original structure, have seating capacities of 200 and 75. The theater shows a mix of first-run films, limited-run independent films and revival series.
The Commodore (1948) in Portsmouth, Va., was designed by John J. Zink, the same architect who designed the Senator. Even when he bought the vacant building in June 1987, Fred Schoenfeld knew that the days of the single-screen movie theater were numbered.
"I'd been in the business since the late 1950s," he says, "and I realized the traditional downtown movie theaters were falling to the wayside because the masses were going to the multiplexes."
Schoenfeld, though, had a trick up his sleeve. He put in a restaurant - not next door, not off to the side, but one whose dining area was right in front of the 41-foot screen. Diner/viewers place their orders via telephones on their tables (most entrees are less than $10, and movie tickets are $6), and enjoy dinner and a first-run movie simultaneously.
"It's what really saved the Commodore," he says. "If we didn't have [the restaurant], I don't think we would have survived."
Putting in a restaurant halved the number of seats from 1,000. There are now 190 on the main-floor dining area and 318 in the balcony. The food is prepared in what used to be the manager's office and a smoking lounge.
Schoenfeld says he makes a livable profit - "not a million dollars a year, but enough to put my two kids through college at Virginia Tech."
In the Boston suburb of Brookline, the Coolidge Corner Theatre (1933), was $300,000 in debt when Joe Zina signed on as executive director in 1999. He added two small viewing rooms to the theater, then started thinking up other uses that could generate additional revenue.
"It was a movie theater all its life until I came around and started making things complicated," Zina says. While the Coolidge remains primarily a movie theater, it also is home to children's variety shows on the weekends, a Sunday-morning opera series, summer jazz concerts, even a burlesque show.
"We'll do anything to keep us getting people in the door," he says, noting that the not-for-profit theater has operated in the black every year since he arrived. The Coolidge, a classic arthouse theater, has an annual operating budget of some $2 million, about 12 percent of which comes from charitable contributions, he estimates.
"I totally know the struggle the Senator is having," Zina says. "It's just impossible to sustain enough revenue from one screen."
In the borough of Newtown in Bucks County, Pa., when residents go to their movie theater, they are going to their movie theater. The community-owned Newtown Theatre dates to 1831, when it was originally built to serve as a town hall. It showed its first movie in 1906, and has shown movies ever since, laying claim to being the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the country.
The 325-seat theater is owned by the nonprofit Newtown Community Welfare Council, which also runs a local nursing home. But, even as a nonprofit, it struggles, said J. Eric Johnson, a member of the council's board of directors who, now in his 60s, remembers watching The Wizard of Oz there as a child.
"It's really like any other business locked into a certain size," he says. "We can't expand, we can't put in two more screens. Our hook is the ambience of the theater."
The council has been working to restore and maintain the theater's old charms, while adding modern conveniences. Air conditioning was installed just last year. It's also offering more varied entertainment, including live concerts - Leon Russell appeared there last summer.
At Oakland, Calif.'s imposing Grand Lake Theatre (1926), owner Allen Michaan insists single-screen theaters "can't make it, period. They are a thing of the past. A single-screen theater cannot compete with the economics of a multiplex."
Michaan took control of the Grand Lake in 1980. A year later, he closed off the original theater's balcony and converted it into a second auditorium. In 1985, he added two more. The four theaters range in size from 150 to 600 seats.
"Even with four screens, the Grand Lake is having problems," said Michaan, whose once-17-theater chain, known as Renaissance-Rialto, is now down to just two. "It is still profitable, but I have a fairly low rent." The profit margin, he adds, "is not nearly what it once was."
Michaan sounds pessimistic about the future of independently owned theaters like the Grand Lake and the Senator.
"Unless they are a publicly owned facility, or unless they are underwritten somehow, there's no way they're going to make it," he says. "The multiplexes are killing off the whole industry."
A push for landmark status
A member of Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation wants to ensure that the Senator Theatre remains a theater even if it gets sold at a foreclosure auction this month.
Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr., who sits on the commission, says he will move that the Senator be designated as a historic landmark when the group meets Tuesday.
Granting the 1939 art-deco theater city landmark status would prevent the building or site from being used for any other purpose. The process involves submitting a recommendation to the city planning commission. The City Council would have to approve it. The process could take two to three months, Embry said.
The theater is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that increases its profile and provides tax breaks, but does not provide other safeguards, Embry said.
"It's important that the Senator be maintained the way it has been in the past," he said. "It's an important part of the history of Baltimore."
An article in the Today section yesterday incorrectly characterized Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber's attitude toward expanding his theater. While he opposes altering the theater's historic structure, he has had plans drawn up to add movie screens by expanding onto property he has purchased behind the building.THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR