Going dark?

Tom Kiefaber and his Senator Theatre are facing a foreclosure auction, yet another threat to a Baltimore landmark

Sun Profile

February 18, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach and John Woestendiek | Chris Kaltenbach and John Woestendiek,SUN REPORTERS

If Tom Kiefaber loses his Senator Theatre on Wednesday, the day the revered art deco movie house is slated for a foreclosure auction, it would mark the closing chapter in a two-decade odyssey filled with equal parts Hollywood glamour and backroom sniping.

The Senator under Kiefaber's watch has been a saga of mounting debt and last-minute bailouts, of political deal-making and business hardball - played against a backdrop of the last of Baltimore's grand movie palaces.

But whatever happens this week, many agree that if Kiefebar loses the Senator, it will not be because he has not fought hard enough.

Passionate. Indefatigable. Relentless. Start talking to movie types, Baltimore officials, even banking and real estate executives about Kiefaber, and those adjectives keep coming up. Since taking over the Senator in 1988, Kiefaber has struggled almost without break to keep alive the last remaining vestige of a cinema chain his grandfather started nearly a century ago.

But even some of Kiefaber's closest allies, people who adore the Senator, admit he can be his own worst enemy. He can be difficult to deal with, they say, especially if your take on what's best for the Senator doesn't quite mesh with his.

"In some way, he's the kind of guy you want to have in your corner," says Gabriel Wardell, a former program director for the Maryland Film Festival who is executive director of the Atlanta Film Festival. "He has defended the Senator vigorously, but his `by whatever means necessary' way of doing so, it sometimes rubs people the wrong way."

Some also suggest that Kiefaber's financial acumen does not match his passion - a significant problem given his seemingly quixotic fight to maintain the 67-year-old Senator as one of the country's last privately held, first-run vintage movie houses.

Baltimore-based 1st Mariner Bank, to which Kiefaber owes $1.2 million, scheduled the foreclosure auction earlier this month, citing $91,000 in missed payments. On Friday, Kiefaber received a notice that the total, including legal fees and other charges, was up to $106,586.

A movie fanatic

"He brings a love for the movies that is just hard to find. He is a fanatic," says Aris Melissaratos, the former secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "If we could get him equally passionate about managing the finances, I think we would have the whole package."

Around Baltimore, Kiefaber is known not simply as the guy who owns the city's most treasured movie house, with its giant screen, lavish interior and unrivaled sound system.

He is also renowned as the guy who lectures his audience (either in person or via tape) on proper decorum and other matters before each film. He has created his own forecourt of the stars, installing commemorative sidewalk blocks outside the Senator when it hosts a major event. And, in the finest tradition of cliff-hanging movie serials, he has developed a habit of pulling the theater back from the brink of financial ruin, often at the last minute.

If he still owns the Senator as of Thursday, it will be the second time in seven years that he has rescued the theater from foreclosure. In 2000, the nonprofit Abell Foundation threatened foreclosure; a year earlier, it had combined with the city to lend the theater $565,000. That time, an unidentified investor came up with enough money to prevent the theater from being sold. In 2002, 1st Mariner lent Kiefaber $1.2 million to shore up the Senator and to begin operations at the Rotunda, which had been closed by its previous owner.

Kiefaber and the Senator also faced foreclosure in 1993. Developer David Cordish came to the rescue, helping Kiefaber and his then-partner, J. Hollis Albert III, refinance their debt and pay off $562,00 in costs connected with construction of a Staples store across the street from the Senator.

Kiefaber "always seems to be behind the eight ball in terms of getting what he really needs," says state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Kiefaber ally in whose district the Senator lies, "but he always seems to be able to work through it."

Sitting in a home he maintains as an office across York Road from the Senator, Kiefaber, 54, acknowledges that his passion sometimes gets the better of him. But he believes he has earned a little forbearance for having fought so hard to maintain what many Baltimoreans - not to mention movie and theater professionals around the country - acknowledge is a civic treasure.

A crusade

"Somebody, somewhere, if they're candid with you, is going to say, `Let's face it, Tom gets a little over-the-top at times, gets a little wild-eyed, starts swinging his arms around'" is how Kiefaber puts it.

"I'm saying there's a reason for that. Years ago, I was not like that. When I started this odyssey, I was not like that. It's been counterproductive, but it is something that is part of the story."

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