Dark days for fans of art movies

Cinemas: Until such time as the closed Rotunda theater finds new tenants, some of its patrons will lose the joy of walking to the picture show.

April 03, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The movies were usually good, but the seats and the sound frequently weren't; the film occasionally snapped and sometimes you could hear the sound bleeding in from the screen next door. But the Loews Rotunda Twin Cinemas was a going theater in a good location in a city with precious few, and now it's no more.

The two-screen theater specializing in the more arty fare produced by big studios ran its last movies on Thursday and went dark, creating another vacant space in the north Baltimore shopping center and leaving two movie theaters in Baltimore City not specializing in triple-X material. The Rotunda theater is one of dozens of movie theaters across the country that the Loews Corp. will close as the result of its bankruptcy.

"It wasn't a total shock for us," says Michelle Kvech, marketing manager for Manekin LLC, which operates the Rotunda. Rumors about the theater's closing had been afoot for months, and when Loews filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month, little doubt remained.

In January, the Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. announced plans to close more than 100 of its theaters in the United States and Canada.

Kvech says Manekin is talking with prospective tenants for the theater and a few other vacant spaces at the small 30-year-old shopping center, anchored by a Giant Foods supermarket, where several businesses have left in the last year. Kvech declined to discuss specifics of discussions with potential tenants.

The Rotunda theater had its problems with seats, projection, scratchy film prints and sound, but it did offer less edgy art movies of the variety of "Life is Beautiful"; "Requiem for a Dream"; or "Chocolat" that otherwise could only be seen at the Charles Theatre, says local cinephile Gabe Wardell.

"The news hit a lot of people with mixed feelings," says Wardell, the host of Cinema Sundays at the Charles. On the one hand, he says, it's a "huge loss"; on the other, "it could ultimately be a good thing" if it means another owner will take over who can give the films a better showing.

Both James "Buzz" Cusack, co-owner of the five-screen Charles, and Tom Kiefaber, owner of the one-screen historic Senator Theatre, say they have spoken with Manekin representatives about the theater, which has 250 seats for one screen and 236 for the other. "I don't know where it'll go," Cusack says. "I called them about a year ago."

He says that either way, the closing helps the Charles, which would often be competing at a disadvantage with the Rotunda for first crack at the same movies. Chain theaters, which have more clout with distributors, generally trump individually owned theaters in their area for the right to show a particular film.

"I'm very interested in the Rotunda theaters, I think they're an excellent location," says Kiefaber, who has also found himself aced out of movies by Loews. "Running the Rotunda in conjunction with the Senator would allow me to play more films I would like at the Senator."

Both theater owners say it's too soon to be specific about their discussions with Manekin. Since the Harbor Park movie theaters closed a year ago, the only movie theaters left in the city are the Apex Adult Cinema on South Broadway, the Charles on Charles Street and the Senator on York Road.

That's small consolation for many of the Rotunda theater's most loyal customers who live across the street at the Roland Park Place retirement community.

"This is going to be a great loss to the residents here," says Betsy Willett, director of marketing and admissions for the community, whose residents were in the habit of strolling across West 40th Street to the theater, often making a day of lunch and a movie with their grandchildren.

"This is just a neighborhood where people walk all over the place," Willett says, adding that some of the community's 300 residents wrote letters to Manekin asking that the theater not be closed.

"To walk to the movies is just neat," she says. "It's sad."

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