Is this curtains for the Senator?

Owner closes theater, faces foreclosure

March 17, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,

The Senator Theatre stopped selling tickets Sunday night, as owner Tom Kiefaber unexpectedly closed the financially troubled movie house.

Kiefaber said a plan to preserve the building's interior, however well-intentioned, contributed to his decision to stop showing first-run films. The proposal, by the city's Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation, would severely restrict any structural changes that could be made to the Senator's interior. In the long term, Kiefaber said yesterday, that would affect the building's value by limiting a prospective buyer's options. In the short term, he said, the move scared off an investor whose capital could have helped Kiefaber meet payroll for his 23-person staff.

"This is a very troubling development in the Senator's rich history," said Kiefaber, adding that he knew nothing officially about the proposal until notices were posted on the outside of the building late last week. "And it seems to be coming out of left field."

Kiefaber stands to lose his Sparks home if the foreclosure auction goes off as scheduled but does not raise enough money to pay the $900,000 owed to 1st Mariner Bank.

"Anything that would restrict the interest in bidding on the Senator is probably not good for the Senator's future and certainly not good for my family," he said of the commission's proposal.

Last week, 1st Mariner, which holds a mortgage on the property, announced that it would foreclose unless Kiefaber could bring his loan up to date.

Ed Hale, the bank's chairman and chief executive, told The Baltimore Sun last week that Kiefaber had not made a payment in months. A foreclosure auction has tentatively been scheduled for mid-April.

An open meeting on the Senator's fate was held at the theater last night, partly to rally support, partly so that supporters would be clear on what could happen to the theater. No definitive solution was reached.

More than 500 community members and civic leaders discussed the future of the historic theater. Kiefaber said last night that he is working on plans to show various films at the Senator this week, to give the community a chance to say goodbye for now. Although his association with the Senator might be ending, Kiefaber insisted that he is optimistic about the theater's ultimate fate.

"Make no mistake, the Senator will once again be showing movies, the Senator will once again be hosting concerts," he said. "That is clear in my mind."

The fate of the Rotunda Cinematheque in Hampden, also run by Kiefaber, has not been set, but an announcement is planned for this week.

Kiefaber and Baltimore officials have been working on a plan to turn the Senator into a nonprofit community center that would serve as more than a movie house, and the theater has been used in recent weeks for concerts and educational purposes. The city has offered an interest-free loan of $320,000 to a nonprofit that would take over the Senator and operate it in the black, but no such group has been found.

"There needs to be an entity that can take ownership of the theater and generate enough revenue to cover expenses and the debt," said Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank. "There's no group that I am aware of that can step in and do that at this point. But we are open to any and all proposals."

The city and private citizens have come forward in the past with support for the theater, a showplace for many Hollywood movie openings. In February 2007, when the bank threatened foreclosure, nearly $110,000 was raised, mostly from private contributions. The bank, however, faces its own financial troubles, and officials say it must act now.

At least three members of the community have said that they would be interested in running the Senator and continuing to show movies.

"This was a very difficult decision made after a great deal of soul-searching and deliberation with our key management staff and my family," Kiefaber said in a notice published on the Friends of the Senator Theatre Web site.

A hearing on the preservation commission's proposal is set for 1:30 p.m. April 14 at 417 E. Fayette St., eighth floor.

Baltimore Sun reporter Sam Sessa contributed to this article.

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