North Baltimore's landmark Senator Theatre was showcased yesterday in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's annual list of America's 11 most endangered historic places, described as a classic example of grand -- but vanishing -- American movie houses.
Historic movie theaters were listed -- along with Midwestern prairie churches and barns, a California temple built by Chinese immigrants in 1880 and Jackson Ward, a historically black neighborhood in Richmond, Va. -- to warn that such places are slowly dying.
"These theaters are disappearing from America's main streets," Richard Moe, president of the Washington nonprofit group that compiles the list, said yesterday. Singling out the Senator, Moe estimated that 300 to 400 independently owned movie theaters are left.
Although the National Trust designation can't save the Senator and other designees -- it brings with it no money, legislation or protection -- it shines a public light on languishing homes, structures, districts and landscapes.
Making the endangered list garners "sympathetic attention," Moe said. Since the list began in 1988, only one recognized site, the Mapes Hotel in Reno, Nev., has been destroyed.
"It's a recognition that there's a crisis taking place. It's a call to arms," said the theater's owner, Thomas Kiefaber, who said yesterday that big movie chains are choking independently owned theaters by blocking "equal access" to first-run movies.
Kiefaber registered his outrage recently when the movie distribution system effectively blocked the city's only single-screen movie theater from showing "Pearl Harbor."
Moe also blamed the "distribution system that prevents first-run movies from being shown [in such theaters]. They can't hope to survive without first-run movies. The answer lies in persuading the movie industry to change their distribution system."
A spokeswoman for the National Association of Theater Owners in North Hollywood, Calif., declined to comment yesterday on booking practices.
Kiefaber said that in the age of multiplexes and stadium seating, the "rescreening of America" by conglomerates should not spell death for places such as his 900-seat house, where "It's a Wonderful Life" is shown every Christmas and the films of hometown directors Barry Levinson, John Waters and Edward Norton often premiere.
The 1939 vintage Art Deco-style theater harks back to an age when Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Judy Garland were screen stars and to when Pearl Harbor -- the real thing, not the movie -- jolted the nation.
Recently, the theater was the focus of a "CBS News Sunday Morning" segment by Charles Osgood, 68, who fondly recalled the Baltimore in which he grew up.
Moe said architectural significance is only one reason to cherish old single-screen movie houses. Just as important, he said, "these are community anchors."
Kiefaber, 49, who took over his family-owned property a dozen years ago, said yesterday's honor suggests that "there's a paradigm shift going on. People are turning back to the center of communities. We've got Main Street right here."
As a boy growing up in a family that owned 40 city theaters, Kiefaber remembers the Senator and the Govans library branches as "the first places I was allowed to go on my bike. I don't remember a time there wasn't the Senator. In fact, I thought there were horses back there, behind the screen."
He compared the loss of historic movie houses to closing libraries in Baltimore, a city with close-knit neighborhoods: "There's something soulless about that."
Frank R. Shivers Jr., a regional historian, said the theaters were social gathering places to which moviegoers thronged in the days before television: "Baltimore needs these vestiges of the past. They help define our character and keep us different."
Officials suggest that making the national list will help, as it has downtown Baltimore's west side, named in 1999 as endangered, and the Constellation, a Civil-War era ship in the Inner Harbor, listed in 1994. A revival is taking place in the west side, spearheaded by a state-funded renovation of the Hippodrome Theater, and the Constellation has been rebuilt as a popular tourist attraction.
The Senator's Belvedere Square neighborhood is targeted for revitalization. Janet Marie Smith, a vice president of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, who is working on a design, said yesterday that the listing adds momentum to the effort: "It's more than a movie house; it's a little bit of Hollywood in Baltimore and quite truly a national treasure."
Other well-known single-screen movie houses are the 1922 Castro Theater in San Francisco, the Byrd Theater in Richmond, Va., and the Uptown Theater in Washington.
The Senator appears to be more financially stable than it was a year ago. The nonprofit Abell Foundation, which holds the first mortgage, reports that payments are current. Kiefaber said a few "enlightened community residents" have helped the Senator.
Grinning, Kiefaber described the plight of vintage movie houses: "an ongoing cliffhanger -- will the runaway wagon clear the tracks before the train gets there?"