Senator's owner sets new course

Kiefaber sees theater's future in nonprofit entertainment

December 19, 2008|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,brent.jones@baltsun.com

The owner of the financially troubled Senator Theatre held a town meeting yesterday to discuss his plans for seeking nonprofit status, a move that could open up the single-screen movie house to local plays, concerts and other productions.

Tom Kiefaber said he envisions the Senator as a multipurpose entertainment and education venue if it is granted nonprofit designation, and that he no longer will run the day-to-day operations.

Officials from Mayfair Consulting, a service firm helping with the transition, said it usually takes about 18 to 24 months for a business to turn nonprofit, and that the theater will continue to show movies in the interim.

About 200 people attended last night's meeting at the theater, with several offering suggestions as to what they would like to see the Senator become - ideas ranging from a place where children can use the stage for performances to a musical venue. They mixed in personal stories of first dates and kisses at the theater, while lauding Kiefaber for doing all that he can to keep it open.

Craig Stephenson said he lives in a neighborhood near Belvedere Square and the Senator and has been going to movies at the theater for 15 years. "It's a great idea, given the circumstances," Stephenson said of the nonprofit proposal. "It gives them a lot of tax leeway. As long as it can maintain itself, it should be fine."

Sally Costello, a partner at Mayfair, added that the theater will seek public donations in the coming weeks.

Mayfair officials want to model the Senator after the Silver Theater and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, which houses two stadium theatres, office and meeting spaces, along with exhibit areas.

Kiefaber said turning the Senator into a nonprofit will allow it remain vibrant at a time when for-profit independent movie houses are struggling. About 20,000 single-screen movie theaters existed nationally at its height, but that number has dwindled to about 5,000, according to John Lind, president of a management group assisting the Senator's remake.

The Senator opened in 1939 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places 50 years later.

"There is something extraordinary about this place," Kiefaber said. "There is an incredible energy in this theatre."

In February 2007, Kiefaber was hours from losing the Senator, which was in jeopardy of being auctioned in a foreclosure proceeding. But he raised almost $110,000, through substantial community donations, to placate officials at 1st Mariner Bank, which holds the mortgage on the 900-seat theater.

Three other times, Kiefaber has faced possible foreclosure only to ward it off with last-minute outside investments, governmental grants and community help. He bought the business from relatives 20 years ago and also operates the two-screen Rotunda Cinematheque in Hampden.

The Greater Homewood Community Association will serve as a temporary sponsor until a permanent organization is created, Kiefaber said.

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