Kiefaber pauses to consider the future

Exhausted but exhilarated, the owner of the Senator Theatre said yesterday he would immediately begin working toward long-term solvency for the landmark Art Deco auditorium, which came within hours of being auctioned off in a foreclosure proceeding.

"I'm really running on empty at this point," said Tom Kiefaber, who acknowledged he had been so drained by a two-week fundraising drive that he could not sleep Tuesday night after staving off the auction. "This has been a physical ordeal. But it's just the beginning of the process."


Kiefaber's next hurdle - after raising almost $110,000 to placate officials at 1st Mariner Bank, which holds the mortgage on the 900-seat theater - is coming up with next month's $8,000 mortgage payment. But he said he was confident he would.

"We'll be fine next month, and the month after that, and the month after that," said Kiefaber, who bought the business from relatives 18 years ago. While he could not be specific about how he hoped to accomplish monthly payments, given the theater's difficulties with staying in the black, Kiefaber said he has revived a plan to establish an "association" with nonprofit institutions under which students might participate in programs at the theater.


One such program, he said, might involve inviting schoolchildren to screenings of classic films at the Senator as part of field trips: They would be given a tour, learn some history about movies, receive a strip of film and study the meaning of a particular movie.

"I'm anxious to move forward on having relationships with non-profits through which we can seek donations," he said. The Senator itself, he specified, "should not be a nonprofit."

He also plans to hold a town-hall meeting at which he would solicit ideas from the public for keeping the theater running. The idea, he said, is "to bring together all the stakeholders in the Senator's future who wish to have input into the process."

Kiefaber vowed to "demonstrate that the vote of confidence" cast by donors to the theater is well founded. He has faced foreclosure three times, only to ward it off with last-minute outside investments, governmental grants and donations.

He tied the Senator's future to that of Belvedere Square's, the upscale shopping and dining development across York Road from the theater. The center was refurbished in recent years with help from city and state funds.

"It would be very helpful if those concerned with the Senator's future better understood where the theater fits into the larger context of Belvedere Square," he said.

Both Kiefaber and Catherine Evans, president of the Belvedere Improvement Association, a neighborhood group that comprises 650 residences, agreed on a need for governmental assistance, even though officials are on record as being reluctant to help the theater again.

"The people who are in charge of the purse strings - the city, the state, the Baltimore Development Corporation - need to support what is a real asset, a treasure, not just for our community but for the city and the state," said Evans, who helped persuade her neighbors to contribute money toward saving the Senator from the auctioneer's gavel.


"If you sever the building from Tom, and vice versa, you are destroying the Senator," Evans said. "What people love is not just the building - it's the way that it's run. And, of course, the way that it's run is Tom."

Evans said that, now that the "crisis" of the imminent auction is a thing of the past, she has arranged for Kiefaber to speak with representatives of nonprofit organizations and "fund developers" as part of seeking a long-term solution to the theater's woes.

"With good faith and good intentions, it's very doable," she said. "I would hope that the glass-half-empty people would change their posture. There is a depth of support they really have to factor in."

About 3,000 people, some from as far away as the United Kingdom, contributed money to the theater since The Sun reported on Feb. 6 that it would be sold at auction unless Kiefaber paid up the arrears on his mortgage.

Gayle Grove, a manager at the Senator for 15 years, said she had been overcome by people's generosity, especially those who made a personal trip to the theater to give money.

"I hug people when they come in with a donation," she said. "When they come in, you have that eye-to-eye and you can tell them right there what this means. It goes beyond dollars and cents."


As she spoke, Grove was interrupted by Kris Lier, a project manager for Constellation Energy, who gave her a check for $80 toward gift certificates for tickets to movies at the Senator.

"It's a way of saying I'm optimistic, I'm hopeful," Lier said. "We'd love to keep coming to the movies here."

Meanwhile, theater historians and preservationists were predictably happy about the news of the Senator's last-minute reprieve. Karen Colizzi Noonan, president of the Theatre Historical Society of America, said from Geneva, N.Y., that the Senator is "absolutely the poster child" for historic single-screen theaters.

"A huge sigh of relief goes up all over the country, but now the real work begins," she said. "The community needs to ask itself, what must be done to avoid this kind of drama in the future?"