Landmark Senator Theatre becomes caught in cliffhanger

Delinquent on loans, movie house scrambles for funds to stay open

July 30, 2000|By Tom Pelton and Jamie Stiehm | Tom Pelton and Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The Senator Theatre, a landmark 1939 art deco movie house in North Baltimore known for its lavish premieres of films by Maryland directors and actors, is delinquent on its taxes, mortgage and other loans and is scrambling to find money to stay open.

Although the closing of the theater, at 5904 York Road, does not appear imminent, the Senator is about three months behind on the loan payments it owes the nonprofit Abell Foundation.

The foundation has held the mortgage on the theater since lending it $375,000 in May last year to stave off previous financial problems.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, said Friday that he hopes the theater's operator, Thomas A. Kiefaber, will make good on assurances that he will come up with the late payments soon so the foundation won't have to take legal action against the theater.

If the theater doesn't come up with the money, the foundation may be forced to foreclose, Embry said.

"It's a very tough job running a single theater in a multiplex world these days, and the Senator has always had financial problems," said Embry. "They say they have a plan to correct the problems. ... Our concern is with the debt service being paid."

Kiefaber, general partner of the Senator Limited Partnership, declined to comment.

The theater, which seats 900 people and books big, new movies for extended runs, is one of the few surviving examples of the elegant neighborhood theaters built across the city and nation in the 1930s.

It features a two-story lobby with art deco murals and black and white photographs of now-closed Baltimore movie palaces. The theater has a pair of bright red carpets welcoming visitors and a sidewalk inscribed with the names of Maryland-raised filmmakers from Barry Levinson to Charles Dutton.

The Senator is scheduled to preview John Waters' new film, "Cecil B. Demented" on Wednesday. It has been the site of the local or national premieres of Levinson's "Diner," Dutton's "First Time Felon" and Edward Norton's "Primal Fear," among many other films.

"It would be a catastrophe to lose the Senator," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The theater has a long history of inspiring film buffs even as it has struggled to remain open. It is across the street from the partially vacant Belvedere Square shopping center; the administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley is considering an ordinance to help renovate the center and attract tenants.

"We think the Senator Theatre is an important piece of the puzzle in the Belvedere Square area," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp. "There has been discussion of adding more screens to help make the theater more competitive. But before we consider that, we have to right the ship financially."

After failing to pay $18,089 in delinquent tax and water bills in September, the city slapped a lien on the theater and in May sold the right to collect that bill plus interest to a Florida-based collection company, according to city records.

This company, American Bankers Insurance Co., could take title to the theater if it doesn't pay the debt plus 18 percent annual interest by May 2002, said Brook Mamo, budget analyst for the Baltimore Finance Department.

The theater's delinquent tax bills also went to a collection company in May 1998. But the theater paid those bills June 15, 1999, according to city records.

The theater also faced financial troubles in 1993. In previous years, the bills have always been paid off.

"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," said Kiefaber in a 1991 interview with The Sun.

The money owed the Abell Foundation and the bills are not the Senator's only debts.

In an attempt to fix up the theater and save it from its financial troubles, the state Department of Housing and Community Development lent the theater $385,000 in June 1999 and $10,000 this June, according to state records. The city lent the theater $180,000 on July 14, 1999, according to records.

Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the state housing department, said the Senator is in default of its 1999 loan. He said the state is not taking legal action because officials are optimistic that the theater will work out an arrangement with the Abell Foundation that will allow the theater to pay its debts.

For more than a decade, the theater's owner has talked about adding screens to draw larger audiences and compete against suburban multiplex cinemas.

The city gave the theater a $20,000 grant and a $20,000 loan in September 1997 to develop expansion plans and repair the building.

Architects drew up plans for the project, which would add two auditoriums beside the main movie hall. But construction has not begun. Kiefaber also talked about building a diner across York Road from the theater, but that has not happened.

Jim Stevens, a 65-year-old Homeland resident, said he remembers the Senator being built in the late 1930s when he was a child growing up nearby on Rosebank Avenue.

"We'd spend the whole day there as children for 25 cents. Everybody went on dates there. It was a whole tradition," said Stevens. "It would be very, very sad for the neighborhood and the city to lose this lovely theater. It must be preserved."

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