A theater is a part of the city worth saving

March 15, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

I remember the last movie I saw at the Patterson Theater in Highlandtown. Actually, I don't remember the movie itself - at that point near the end of its life, it was a second-run theater charging a dollar or two - but I remember keeping an eye on the floor as much as the screen so I could lift my feet if a rat skittered by.

Today, the theater is vibrant and bristles with artistic rather than verminous activity. It is the home base of the Creative Alliance - the quirky arts organization that sponsors classes, shows and festivals on everything from screen painting to burlesque performance - which took over the shuttered theater about six years ago.

"It was a huge, empty, old box," Megan Hamilton, the program director of the alliance, said of the theater, which had closed in 1995. "But it felt like the right building."

I got to thinking about the rebirth of the Patterson as the home to a nonprofit arts organization this week, as I watched the latest episode in the long-running drama of the Senator Theatre in North Baltimore. The Senator, the city's last grand theater still operating as a movie house, had been looking into converting from a commercial enterprise into a nonprofit one, but learned last week that its bank is foreclosing on the property and has scheduled an auction next month.

I know, deja vu all over again. We've been here before, several times: The Senator heads to foreclosure. Supporters rush to save the beloved theater, even as others lose patience with its endless need for rescue. And then, finally, the 11th-hour redemption - once, it was a large-scale fundraising drive that helped the theater owner make his mortgage payment; other times it's been the city stepping up with loan assistance.

This time, though, given that an economic crisis has hit not just the perennially indebted theater but also its mortgage holder, 1st Mariner Bank - whose owner told The Baltimore Sun he is under pressure to call in bad loans to shore up his own bottom line - the threat of foreclosure seems particularly real.

Already, potential buyers are emerging, saying they'll bid in the auction and committing to running it as a movie theater. Meanwhile, the city, which has offered $320,000 to keep the Senator open, but only if owner Tom Kiefaber turns it over to a nonprofit corporation, said the deal is still on the table but the economic meltdown has made it hard to figure out how to keep the theater viable even as a nonprofit.

While Hamilton, one of the founders of the Creative Alliance, would be the first to say the Senator is in a totally different position from the Patterson's, the group is indeed a nonprofit that has found a way to not just survive but thrive even in tough economic times. January and February proved to be great for the alliance - "a bunch of our shows sold out," she said - even as other arts groups have been cutting performances and staff or even filing for bankruptcy.

"People are really thinking about how to spend their money these days," she said. "They're asking, is it an authentic experience, something that will reach to me in a deep level?"

Like others in town, Hamilton is rooting for the Senator to remain open and showing movies. She feels a kinship as well, given that the theaters share the same designer, John J. Zink, known for his lavish, chandelier-bedecked movie palaces, and the fact that the Patterson for a time was run by an affiliate of the Durkee chain, which was started by Kiefaber's maternal grandfather.

"We're both lucky to be in great old buildings," Hamilton said.

While the Creative Alliance shows films on occasion, its purpose extends beyond that original use of the Patterson - it has art galleries, a bar, live theater and dance performances, a media lab, art classes for children, workshops and a residence program for artists. This month alone, for example, the alliance has presented everything from a concert by Gov. Martin O'Malley's Irish band to an exhibit of totem poles made by elementary school students to something described as a "poignantly perverse circus show."

Somehow, it's hit on the right formula and, in doing so, kept the Patterson's great neon sign and wraparound marquee glowing on Eastern Avenue - and helped revive its Highlandtown neighborhood as well.

"The old movie theaters have ties to their community," Hamilton said. "We get old-timers coming back in, telling us how when they were eight they used to sell 25-cent hamburgers out back in the alley. People love to see the marquee lit up at night."

For the Creative Alliance, which started in 1995 as a small group of artists based above a Fells Point cafe, the Patterson represented a chance to set down roots in a community after years of moving from one makeshift base to another. In Hamilton's telling, that it was able to develop a workable plan to become a nonprofit and buy the dormant theater is testament to a host of factors - from its own artistic vision to financial support from both public and private entities to inspired political leadership that saw arts as a major part of a faded neighborhood's revitalization.

"I want to cry every time I say this," Hamilton said, recalling what then state senator and Highlandtown native Perry Sfikas once told her. "He said, 'I'm not going to be the one standing by when the lights go out in Highlandtown.' "

Now, it's time for someone to refuse to let the neon dim on York Road either.

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