Rescue Mission

With the fate of the Senator uncertain, a look at how other historic theaters have been preserved

February 07, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach and John Woestendiek | Chris Kaltenbach and John Woestendiek,sun reporters

Life isn't easy for America's vintage movie houses.

Competition from gigantic multiplexes, booking practices that give the big, money-making movies to the chain theaters and tend to pass over the struggling independents, aging structures and bureaucratic red tape all seem stacked against them.

In the case of the Senator Theatre, the last of Baltimore's classic single-screen movie palaces still operating as such, overdue payments on a $1.2 million bank loan threaten its future. Owner Tom Kiefaber has until Feb. 21 to make good on $90,000 owed to 1st Mariner Bank. If the money is not paid back or other arrangements made by then, the 900-seat art-deco theater, which opened in October 1939, is scheduled to be sold at a foreclosure auction.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Today section yesterday incorrectly characterized Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber's attitude toward expanding his theater. While he opposes altering the theater's historic structure, he has had plans drawn up to add movie screens by expanding onto property he has purchased behind the building.
THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

Throughout the country, aging movie palaces like the Senator struggle. Some, like San Francisco's Castro, survive because of an unusually large and faithful audience base. Los Angeles' opulent El Capitan is owned by the Walt Disney Co., which uses it as a showcase venue. Just across Hollywood Boulevard, Grauman's Chinese Theatre survives because of its status as a national treasure that's been collecting the handprints and footprints of Hollywood stars since the 1920s.

But for others, survival is a continual grind - to play the right types of films, find other uses to help pay the bills and keep creditors at bay. Some are lucky enough to have a benefactor with deep pockets: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen paid $3.75 million in 1998 to save Seattle's Cinerama Theatre from the wrecking ball, then spent millions more to restore it. Others operate as not-for-profits, often with a mix of public and private money,

Kiefaber, who maintains sole ownership of the Senator, has been down this road before. In 2000, the nonprofit Abell Foundation, which a year earlier had combined with Baltimore to lend the theater $565,000, threatened foreclosure. At that time, an unidentified investor came up with enough money to keep the theater under the control of Kiefaber, whose grandfather built it. In 2002, 1st Mariner lent Kiefaber $1.2 million to shore up the Senator and begin operations at the Rotunda, which had been closed by its previous owner.

A tireless promoter of his theater, Kiefaber has resisted altering the building by adding screens. He also wants to maintain the Senator as a venue for first-run films, which increases costs. But with only one screen, poor attendance for one film can't be balanced by good attendance at another, as at the multiscreen complexes.

Although still heavily in debt, the Senator may yet win a reprieve. A sampling of some of the country's remaining vintage movie theaters reveals various strategies for survival:

Silver

In Silver Spring, the Silver Theatre (1938) is operated by the American Film Institute as a not-for-profit enterprise and has become a cornerstone of the area's business district. Ray Barry, the theater's deputy director and chief administrative officer, estimates that roughly 40 percent of the Silver's annual budget comes from private contributions.

"A single screen is a real challenge, there's no question about that," he says of the Senator's fight not only to remain solvent, but to do so without altering the building or adding screens. "We thought it was very important to have a significant range of offerings to show the public."

Renovation of the Silver, which reopened in 2003, cost about $25 million, Barry said. Much of that money came from Montgomery County, where officials were hoping to spur development. The original theater was largely untouched, although changes in the seating bowl reduced its capacity to 400 from 1,100. Additional screens, built on property adjacent to the original structure, have seating capacities of 200 and 75. The theater shows a mix of first-run films, limited-run independent films and revival series.

Commodore

The Commodore (1948) in Portsmouth, Va., was designed by John J. Zink, the same architect who designed the Senator. Even when he bought the vacant building in June 1987, Fred Schoenfeld knew that the days of the single-screen movie theater were numbered.

"I'd been in the business since the late 1950s," he says, "and I realized the traditional downtown movie theaters were falling to the wayside because the masses were going to the multiplexes."

Schoenfeld, though, had a trick up his sleeve. He put in a restaurant - not next door, not off to the side, but one whose dining area was right in front of the 41-foot screen. Diner/viewers place their orders via telephones on their tables (most entrees are less than $10, and movie tickets are $6), and enjoy dinner and a first-run movie simultaneously.

"It's what really saved the Commodore," he says. "If we didn't have [the restaurant], I don't think we would have survived."

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