For almost two decades, the story of the Senator Theatre has been Baltimore's longest-running cliffhanger. Will owner Tom Kiefaber be able to stare down the multiplexes and continue showing first-run films? Will the theater's creditors call in their loans? Will a deep-pockets benefactor emerge, with enough cash to keep the movies unspooling and the popcorn popping? Will the city's oldest continually operating movie theater live to show films another day?
After years of nerve-wracking anticipation, it looks like the final chapter is about to be played out. Kiefaber, some $1.2 million in debt, has been frantically searching for a nonprofit organization that would be able to take over the theater. Ed Hale, chairman and chief executive of 1st Mariner Bank, has said his institution, mired in its own financial difficulties, can no longer afford to let the Senator's mortgage slide; a foreclosure auction is tentatively set for next month. City officials, realizing the theater's value as a cultural touchstone and an economic anchor for the surrounding neighborhood, have offered a $320,000 loan, but only if the building is turned over to a viable nonprofit.
If this were a Hollywood movie, there's no question how the saga of the Senator Theatre would end. With the auctioneer's gavel about to fall, local boys Barry Levinson, John Waters and Edward Norton would come to the rescue, buying the beloved film showcase and ensuring that future generations of movie lovers will be able to enjoy the city's last great movie house.
Unfortunately, this isn't Hollywood, and none of the city's celluloid sons have ever expressed an interest in running the Senator, no matter how much they all love it. Says Waters, invoking the name of a shuttered X-rated movie house on Belair Road, "If I do anything, I would go back and open the Earle."
When it comes to the Senator's future, anything appears possible. Even those closest to the deliberations over its fate refuse to predict, with any degree of certainty, the next chapter. But here are a handful of possible scenarios:
The favored option, at least by members of the community around the Senator, would have the building run as a nonprofit arts and education center. That way, proponents argue, it could continue not only as a movie theater, with occasional Hollywood-style premieres, but also as a concert hall, exhibition space and neighborhood gathering point.
"This is our community, and this is a theater that has been standing in our community for nearly 70 years," says April Yvonne Garrett, an area businesswoman and member of The Senator Community Trust, a group seeking $70,000 in donations to make the theater's loan current, thus buying time to ensure neighborhood input about its fate.
For years, Kiefaber has talked about turning the Senator into a nonprofit; efforts to do so intensified late last year, as it became clear he could not meet his debt obligations. The bank's decision to foreclose galvanized the community; witness the 500 people who gathered at the theater Monday night to review their options. The city has offered a $320,000 interest-free loan, provided a nonprofit group is found or established that can operate in the black.
Perhaps the trust board, made up of area business and civic leaders, could be that group. Or perhaps another organization, which has yet to step forward, could give it a go. Developer David Cordish, while insisting he has no interest in buying the Senator, has said he would be willing to run it - much the same arrangement he has with Baltimore City for running the Pier 6 Concert Pavilion. Maybe the city and Cordish, or someone like him, could work out a similar arrangement for the Senator.
It appears unlikely a nonprofit could turn up and prove itself in the next few weeks. But if the auction is delayed, the chances of a viable nonprofit taking over the Senator increase greatly.
Says Sean Brescia, owner of a management and promotion company who has been working with Kiefaber for weeks to keep the theater from foreclosure: "There's no question that more time is in the best interests of the Senator, the best interests of Tom, the best interests of the community."
The folks at Towson University's radio station, WTMD-FM (89.7), have an idea: Let them take over the Senator. The station could move its broadcast and production studios there and turn it into a performing arts venue.
"WTMD would act as a curator for concerts from all genres," says station General Manager Stephen T. Yasko, "from opera to classical to jazz to rock to indie. We could even be doing live simulcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, those kinds of things."
Yasko envisions moving WTMD studios into a wing of the building, and then turning the Senator into something like Philadelphia's World Cafe, a joint effort between a private company (Real Entertainment Group) and Philly's public radio station, WXPN. World Cafe, in an old factory building, includes station offices and studios, a restaurant and two performance spaces.
A space like that in Baltimore, Yasko says, would give musicians and other artists a place to gather and for the general public to enjoy their work. It could even be used for the occasional Towson film festival or movie showing.
"We would really curate a community arts center," Yasko says, allowing himself to dream. "And it would draw people to that building much more frequently and much more intensely than [the building] does now as a movie theater. That can only be good for the surrounding community."
Of course, government (and education money) being as tight as it is, it appears unlikely Towson will be able to scrape together the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to buy the Senator and make it compatible with such a use. Quiet inquiries have been made, sources acknowledge, but the odds still seem long.
The best chance of the Senator continuing to operate as a first-run movie theater might be to let it go to auction and hope some civic-minded local businessman with a love of the movies buys it. Someone like James "Buzz" Cusack, who, in 1994, teamed with his nephew, John Standiford, to reopen the shuttered Charles Theatre.
Since then, he has added four screens (by expanding into an adjacent building; the original auditorium was not altered) and quietly turned the Charles into a favored hangout for Baltimore's cinephiles.
Cusack, 67, hesitates when asked about the Senator. He doesn't want to be seen as taking advantage of an unfortunate situation and says he wishes Kiefaber nothing but the best.
But he says he's also convinced that, without the $1.2 million-plus debt monster Kiefaber continually has to stare down, the Senator is a viable business proposition. By buying the building at foreclosure and starting afresh, Cusack believes the theater under his ownership could keep showing first-run movies for a new generation of film buffs. Cusack says he'll be there if the auction happens, be it next month or whenever.
Just a facade
Here's the nightmare scenario: Some scavenger swoops in from out of town, outbids all the locals who have Baltimore's best interests at heart and turns the building into a department store, mini-mall or maybe even the world's biggest doughnut shop.
It could happen. Although its historic designation protects the theater on the outside, there is, as of the moment, no protection for the inside (a hearing to provide that sort of protection, called by the city's Council for Historic and Architectural Preservation, has been set for April 14). Plenty of former movie theaters have been converted over the years - the Northway, on Harford Road, closed in 1975 and later became a drugstore (its facade remains; the auditorium has been demolished), while the old Rex Theatre on York Road is one of a handful of former theaters that house churches.
Senator supporters insist the risk is too great to allow the North Baltimore landmark to go to auction.
"There's no way to guarantee there's an outcome, from that, that truly preserves the future and integrity of the Senator," says Brescia.
Nothing at all
Then again, here's the real nightmare: Nobody buys the building and it just sits there and rots. Or someone buys the building, but lacks either the money or the inclination (or both) to do something with it. So it sits there and rots.
That's what happened to the Hippodrome, which sat for years after going dark in 1990. It took $62 million in public and private money to reopen the Hippodrome as a showcase for live theater 14 years later. The nearby Town, closed in 1990, and the Mayfair, dark since 1986, lie dormant, despite plans to restore the buildings.
A similar fate for the Senator "would be awful," says City Councilman Bill Henry, who has been working almost nonstop for the past several weeks to ensure the building's future as a theater. "The idea is to have it back open again in a couple of weeks, not years."