It's a Wonderful Life Tom Kiefaber preserves joys of moviegoing

October 20, 1991|By Mary Corey

Frank Capra couldn't have come up with a better story line:

A wavy-haired rebel grows up, marries his high school sweetheart and takes on the responsibilities of the family business. Finances begin to unravel, disaster looms and when all is nearly lost, he rushes in with the cash to save the company's crown jewel.

For Tom Kiefaber, it's not a movie, though; it's real life.

As the co-owner of the Senator Theatre, he has played the valiant leading man, keeping Baltimore's grand dame of movie theaters alive during the heyday of the multiplex. Boyishly handsome and relentlessly upbeat (imagine a young, less cheeky Mickey Rooney), he is equal parts savior and showman, an ebullient host whose trademark is his onstage introduction nearly every night.

He does, in fact, see a slight similarity between his life and the hard-luck tales popularized by movie director Frank Capra, who visited the Senator in the '80s. "There are times when I feel like the downtrodden little guy fighting the powers that be. Yet even though the odds are stacked against us, something works in our favor," says Mr. Kiefaber, 39.

The only thing he seems to enjoy more than watching movies is talking about them. Yet when it comes to describing his feelings about the art deco theater, even he is forced to pause to sum up his thoughts.

"Everybody becomes a kid when they come back in here. It's like stepping into fantasyland. . . . My brother and I would come here every Saturday, take the No. 8 streetcar, wind up here in the

afternoon and walk home in the dusk," he says.

His commitment has not gone unnoticed. "Everybody who walks into the Senator rethinks the moviegoing experience," says Vicky Westover, executive director of the Baltimore Film Forum, a non-profit film exhibition organization. "In terms of putting Baltimore on the map, the Senator has made an important contribution. It's a place that's had world premieres. That kind of thing gives the city a higher profile."

For a building that turned 52 this month, the Govans institution still keeps up with the times. In a recent readers' poll in USA Today, it was named one of the top four movie houses in the country. The 11th premiere of a locally produced film, "Homicide," took place last Thursday. And Mr. Kiefaber is in the midst of securing financing for a $1 million refurbishment and expansion that would give the Senator two additional auditoriums.

The project, which has been in the planning stages for the last three years, would include a 300-seat room called the Ambassador and a smaller specialty theater called the Blue Mouse, both of which would be named after former local theaters. There are also plans for a diner across the street.

"We need to preserve what makes this theater beloved and successful, but also bring it more into conformity with the economics of the business," he says.

To those who knew Tom Kiefaber during his youth, his affection for the movie business comes as a surprise. Growing up in Homeland, the grandson of the legendary movie theater chain owner Frank H. Durkee, Mr. Kiefaber wanted nothing to do with the company owned and run by his and the Nolte families. (His mother was a secretary there; his father handled the printing.)

"When you grow up in a family business, there's this general feeling that somehow going to work for the family business is accepting less than your potential. Some people look upon it as a cop-out," he says.

So, instead, he became a rebel, leaving or being politely asked to leave several schools, including Roland Park Middle School, Gilman, Boys' Latin and McDonogh. "What I was up to -- not studying, skipping classes -- is not what people get expelled for today," he says. "I was like a preppy rebel; I wasn't James Dean or anything."

He eventually graduated from Baltimore Lutheran High School in Towson in 1971 and went on to study philosophy at Washington College in Chestertown.

During his senior year, however, he dropped out and moved to New York where his high school sweetheart Louise Connor was working as a Wilhelmina model. The two had met years before at Morgan Millard drugstore in Roland Park.

He lasted nine months as a photographer's assistant there. After returning to Baltimore -- and working in construction -- he became more receptive to the idea of a life affiliated with the silver screen. In 1977 Mr. Kiefaber joined the Durkee ranks.

For a man who once disdained the business, his love for it now sometimes borders on obsession. In a quick tour, he goes into sometimes mind-numbing detail about the intricacies of the Senator: proudly showing off the subwoofer in the sound system, the swirl in the upstairs carpet, the masking tape lining the screen.

These are things that moviegoers take for granted. But to Tom Kiefaber, they are as important to the experience as buttered popcorn.

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