It is as if "Avalon" and the Senator Theater were made for each other. In fact, as anyone who has seen director Barry Levinson's Baltimore family epic knows, an uproarious scene from "Avalon" was actually filmed in the wonderful art deco cinema on the 5900 block of York Road.
Since it opened in Oct. 5, more than 75,000 people have seen the film at the Senator. "We have the highest gross in the country," says the theater's owner, Thomas A. Kiefaber. The only other film that comes close to the success of "Avalon" at the Senator is "The Hunt for Red October," which attracted 65,000 viewers over the same amount of time, Kiefaber says. ("Avalon," which has grossed more than $14 million nationally, according to Variety magazine, continues at the Senator through Dec. 18.)
In the early weeks of the movie's run, a special kind of chemistry was struck between the film and those who came to see it.
That is, those who got into the theater. On sold-out weekends, a traffic jam gummed up the York Road/Northern Parkway corridors. Saturday night of the third weekend, the box office opened at 5:30 p.m. and sold out at 6:15. Hundreds of people were turned away.
In the lobby, moviegoers could study a historical display with 1914 photos of Baltimore's Masonic Arch, Levinson's inspiration for the mythical arch Sam Krichinsky walks through upon his arrival in Baltimore that same year.
In the theater itself, organ music welcomed viewers and Kiefaber introduced the film with a good-hearted warning not to exclaim in recognition of local landmarks: "We all live here. We all know that's Charles Street, that's Fells Point, that's the Senator."
As the movie unfolded, the audience became a community watching itself as Sam Krichinsky, his brothers and progeny settled and grew in their (our) town. Although the film is specifically about Russian Jews who emigrate to Baltimore, it is also a more universal film about family and place. Watching "Avalon" in the city where it was made became a collective affirmation and celebration of the same, enhanced by the Senator's community spirit.
One night, after the film, an elderly woman told Kiefaber, "It's a wonderful movie. I can't believe it's about these characters who used to hang my wallpaper. All they ever did was argue, and I would never let them smoke their cigars in my house. But they were the best."
Although many films have been made in Baltimore, "Avalon" took on a special meaning. "People made their way up to me who had obviously been moved to tears. They'd come up and say, 'I thought I was going to see a movie made in Baltimore. But this movie is incredible,'" Kiefaber relates.
Others, overcome by the movie's tug on the emotions, had to sit for awhile in Kiefaber's office and collect themselves before leaving the theater. "It really hit people at heart center," Kiefaber says.
And, just as "Avalon" returned viewers to a strong sense of family, the Senator returned them to their past. Again, Kiefaber remembers, "A much older woman came up to me and said, 'I forgot how nice the theater was. I haven't been here since the place opened'" 51 years ago.