Is it curtains for the Senator Theatre? The historic and beloved movie house is heavily in debt, and the bank has decided to foreclose. An auction could come as quickly as next month. If the right bidder steps forward, a sale could potentially give the landmark a fresh debt-free start.
But a public sale on the sidewalk that resembles the walkway outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre would leave the fate of the Senator in the hands of the highest bidder, who might prefer to hold church services in the grand old palace instead of movie premieres. And that's not a Hollywood plot line.
In better days, the city would have likely paid off the Senator's primary loan to gain control of it and maintain its anchor hold in the popular Belvedere Square area, then sought a buyer with imagination to transform it into a clone of the restored theaters in Easton and Silver Spring. Today, that's not an easy sell, but it's not mission impossible either.
Owner Tom Kiefaber has kept the Senator in business through the force of his personality (and the taxpayers' generosity) and at personal expense (his home is among the properties posted as collateral). But there's little left that he can do now, despite plans once again to rally support from fans and neighbors.
One proposal under review had been to convert the movie house into a nonprofit cultural center as a solution to the Senator's ongoing problems and its continued operation, but the theater's multilayered finances have complicated the picture. Without a delay in the auction, city officials and other stakeholders are pressed to find an area businessman with experience in the industry or a movie buff with deep pockets to rescue the Senator, buy it at auction and keep it going as a movie house. Some have shown interest, and a scenario like that would get the historic theater out from under more than $900,000 owed to 1st Mariner Bank.
As we've said before, the Senator is a cultural and community asset worth saving. It needs a patron with a new business plan and money for a makeover. Preserving the theater as a cultural and entertainment center would be a gift to residents in the York Road corridor and across the Baltimore metropolitan area.
If the theater is sold at auction, the city would have to make good on any shortfall in the 1st Mariner loan it guaranteed for Mr. Kiefaber; a state loan also is at risk. They both may be the price for keeping the house lights on.