Not Just Another Multiplex

February 05, 1993

Area film buffs are understandably chagrined by reports that the Senator Theatre, a 53-year-old Baltimore landmark that is the city's last remaining art deco-style movie house, may face foreclosure. Though it's not certain the Senator's difficulties will force it to close permanently, the mere possibility of new ownership raises doubts about the ability of this venerable institution to retain its nostalgic character.

The Senator's unhappy predicament stems from a Byzantine financing arrangement that enabled the theater's owners to buy it five years ago but which has since gone sour.

In 1988, partners Thomas A. Kiefaber and J. Hollis Albert III purchased the movie house and a three-acre parcel across the )) street on York Road for $2 million, with the intention of using profits from the neighboring parcel's parking lot and a planned store to help finance the deal.

By 1991 the partners had contracted with a developer to build an office supply store on the parcel, using the theater across the street as collateral. But problems arose when they were unable to restructure their debt to pay off the contractor last summer. In December, the contractor finally filed court papers to foreclose on the theater.

Normally it might not matter so much how these owners fared. Since the theater appears healthy and commands a devoted following, one suspects a new buyer might not be too difficult to find.

Mr. Kiefaber, however, is a member of the Durkee family, which previously owned the theater, and he has tried to preserve its heritage as a single, large-screen, art deco movie palace in the face of pressures to adopt the potentially more lucrative, and now virtually ubiquitous multiplex format. There's no guarantee the next owner will feel the same commitment to keep the Senator's slightly campy, 1940s ambience.

Baltimoreans would certainly be the poorer for the loss of this landmark. That's why we hope Mr. Kiefaber's and Mr. Albert's confidence about securing new financing turns out to be well placed. The Senator has been the site of the premiere of all the filmed-in-Baltimore movies of the last few years, as well as the scene of several charity events and the critics' unanimous choice as the city's best place to see a movie. Having garnered a new lease on life just a few years ago, it would be a pity, figuratively speaking, to see the curtain close on this graceful monument to nostalgia even before the second reel begins.

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