Senator Theatre's future

Our view: With a new owner and added protections, theater would thrive

March 24, 2009

The Senator Theatre's doors have closed, but its historic character is in line for an update. In less than a month, Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation will consider the interior of the Art Deco movie house for possible landmark status. Since the Senator's exterior - its marquee and such - received the landmark designation in 2007, the authority of CHAP has expanded to include review of building interiors. With the theater's ownership in doubt now, it would seem premature for the panel to take this up. But a historic designation for what lies beyond the Senator's ticket booth could ensure its continued use as a movie palace and its contributions to the Belvedere business area.

You don't have to be a fan of the Senator or a devotee of historic cinemas to appreciate the moviegoing pleasure of watching a film there. That cavernous space and big sound give the film-goer a larger-than-life experience reminiscent of Hollywood's heyday.

Heavily in debt, the theater's owner, Tom Kiefaber, shuttered the 900-seat Senator last week (the end of his Rotunda theater may soon follow) in anticipation of a bank auction. By today's movie-house standards, the financially troubled Senator is a relic. The business is dominated by multiplexes. Would a historic designation of the Senator's single-screen interior keep a prospective buyer from bidding on the theater in a couple of weeks? Mr. Kiefaber believes it would restrict business options for the Senator. But some preservationists caution that there is no one way to landmark the inside of the Senator. CHAP could choose to recommend designation of just its classic lobby, for example.

A hearing is planned for April 14. A recommendation by CHAP would have to be approved by the City Council, and that's unlikely to occur before next month's auction. Supporters of the theater shouldn't confuse the fate of the Senator with Mr. Kiefaber's prospects. It's time for new management.

Two businessmen who have expressed interest in the theater say they would keep the Senator as a movie house. That's as it should be. The Senator's contributions to the city's cultural life and North Baltimore's commercial revitalization depend on its continued operation as a movie theater with all the charm and imagination a new owner can muster. That should be a priority for all.

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