Baltimore's Senator Theatre moves its fight for survival to an even more visible national stage tonight, as it kicks off a History Channel program spotlighting 11 of the country's most endangered historic sites.
The 62-year-old showplace, which is being cited by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a prime example of the endangered "historic theaters of America," is the first location visited during "Save Our History: America's Most Endangered 2001," premiering at 10 p.m. It also serves as home base for narrator Josh Binswanger, and pops up repeatedly during the hour.
The segment on the Senator includes interviews with owner Tom Kiefaber and two of Baltimore's favorite sons, director John Waters and writer Tom Clancy. All praise the experience of seeing a movie at a palace like the Senator as without equal.
Calling the theater "our Radio City Music Hall," Waters praises the old-style grandeur and ambience of the theater at 5904 York Road. He also can't resist chiding the modern penchant for amenities such as stadium seating, asking, "Why do people want that, unless `Gladiator' is playing? I just don't get it."
Clancy, who says of the Senator, "This is part of my life, this is where I grew up," recalls seeing "Saving Private Ryan" there. "It was just about like being on Normandy Beach," he recalls.
The segment also includes photographs of other movie showcases, such as Los Angeles' El Capitan and Chinese theaters. Praising their giant screens, cushioned seats, vaulted lobbies and other amenities, it calls them "working reminders of Hollywood's Golden Era, the age of the movie palaces."
Struggling with creditors, rivals and movie distributors to keep the theater family-owned -- as it has been since it opened in 1939 -- Kiefaber lauds the program for shining a spotlight on the nation's movie palaces.
"Our hope is that we, as a country, will now recognize that there has really been a horrific process, whereby thousands and thousands of theaters like the Senator have been essentially closed down because the business has evolved in a way that has no room for them anymore," he said yesterday. "The communities think of this process as just too bad, as just part of the business. And they're wrong. There's no reason the rescreening of America has to wipe out the remaining movie houses."
As the program notes, the danger to grand movie houses like the Senator is not so much that they are in disrepair. Rather, such theaters, especially those that are privately owned, suffer from business practices that allow large chains to block films from being shown there. Recently the Senator was prevented from showing "Pearl Harbor" by Massachusetts-based General Cinemas, which was exhibiting the film at its nearby Towson Commons theater.
But theaters like the Senator have a built-in advantage over the other sites mentioned in the program. As narrator Binswanger notes, "Anyone can help, for just the price of admission."
The other endangered historic sites featured on the program are: Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, site of an airfield during the Japanese attack in 1941; the prairie churches of North Dakota; the Miller-Purdue Barn in Marion, Ill., an example of rural farm buildings that are becoming obsolete; the Telluride Valley Floor in Colorado; the 1869 Bok Kai Temple in Marysville, Calif.; the decaying Carter G. Woodson Home in northeast Washington; the Historic Jackson Ward Landmark District in Richmond, Va.; the Stevens Creek Settlements, a farm community near Lincoln, Neb.; the 1957 CIGNA campus in Bloomfield, Conn.; and the Los Caminos del Rio Heritage Corridor, a swatch of 19th-century communities along the Rio Grande River.