To Be Continued....

As Fans of the Senator Theatre wait for news about its forclosure , here are five ways the movie house 's fate could play out.

March 22, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun com

For almost two decades, the story of the Senator Theatre has been Baltimore's longest-running cliffhanger. Will owner Tom Kiefaber be able to stare down the multiplexes and continue showing first-run films? Will the theater's creditors call in their loans? Will a deep-pockets benefactor emerge, with enough cash to keep the movies unspooling and the popcorn popping? Will the city's oldest continually operating movie theater live to show films another day?

After years of nerve-wracking anticipation, it looks like the final chapter is about to be played out. Kiefaber, some $1.2 million in debt, has been frantically searching for a nonprofit organization that would be able to take over the theater. Ed Hale, chairman and chief executive of 1st Mariner Bank, has said his institution, mired in its own financial difficulties, can no longer afford to let the Senator's mortgage slide; a foreclosure auction is tentatively set for next month. City officials, realizing the theater's value as a cultural touchstone and an economic anchor for the surrounding neighborhood, have offered a $320,000 loan, but only if the building is turned over to a viable nonprofit.

If this were a Hollywood movie, there's no question how the saga of the Senator Theatre would end. With the auctioneer's gavel about to fall, local boys Barry Levinson, John Waters and Edward Norton would come to the rescue, buying the beloved film showcase and ensuring that future generations of movie lovers will be able to enjoy the city's last great movie house.

Unfortunately, this isn't Hollywood, and none of the city's celluloid sons have ever expressed an interest in running the Senator, no matter how much they all love it. Says Waters, invoking the name of a shuttered X-rated movie house on Belair Road, "If I do anything, I would go back and open the Earle."

When it comes to the Senator's future, anything appears possible. Even those closest to the deliberations over its fate refuse to predict, with any degree of certainty, the next chapter. But here are a handful of possible scenarios:

Nonprofit center

The favored option, at least by members of the community around the Senator, would have the building run as a nonprofit arts and education center. That way, proponents argue, it could continue not only as a movie theater, with occasional Hollywood-style premieres, but also as a concert hall, exhibition space and neighborhood gathering point.

"This is our community, and this is a theater that has been standing in our community for nearly 70 years," says April Yvonne Garrett, an area businesswoman and member of The Senator Community Trust, a group seeking $70,000 in donations to make the theater's loan current, thus buying time to ensure neighborhood input about its fate.

For years, Kiefaber has talked about turning the Senator into a nonprofit; efforts to do so intensified late last year, as it became clear he could not meet his debt obligations. The bank's decision to foreclose galvanized the community; witness the 500 people who gathered at the theater Monday night to review their options. The city has offered a $320,000 interest-free loan, provided a nonprofit group is found or established that can operate in the black.

Perhaps the trust board, made up of area business and civic leaders, could be that group. Or perhaps another organization, which has yet to step forward, could give it a go. Developer David Cordish, while insisting he has no interest in buying the Senator, has said he would be willing to run it - much the same arrangement he has with Baltimore City for running the Pier 6 Concert Pavilion. Maybe the city and Cordish, or someone like him, could work out a similar arrangement for the Senator.

It appears unlikely a nonprofit could turn up and prove itself in the next few weeks. But if the auction is delayed, the chances of a viable nonprofit taking over the Senator increase greatly.

Says Sean Brescia, owner of a management and promotion company who has been working with Kiefaber for weeks to keep the theater from foreclosure: "There's no question that more time is in the best interests of the Senator, the best interests of Tom, the best interests of the community."

Performance venue

The folks at Towson University's radio station, WTMD-FM (89.7), have an idea: Let them take over the Senator. The station could move its broadcast and production studios there and turn it into a performing arts venue.

"WTMD would act as a curator for concerts from all genres," says station General Manager Stephen T. Yasko, "from opera to classical to jazz to rock to indie. We could even be doing live simulcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, those kinds of things."

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