The People's Senator

Why, In This Economic Climate, Does The Possible Demise Of This Theater Stir So Much Feeling?

April 19, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

What makes the Senator Theatre so special? Why all the fuss when it sounded like it might be shuttered? Why is cash-strapped Baltimore proposing to buy it? Why are people flipping through the memorabilia for sale in the building's lobby and walking away in tears?

An awful lot of attention over the past few weeks has been paid to a single struggling business, at a time when businesses everywhere are fighting desperately to stay afloat. Why all the concern over one North Baltimore movie theater that's been an economic basket case for years, that employs just 23 people and sometimes strains to attract even that many paying customers?

/[There's a simple answer to that: The Senator is special because it is, in fact, special. It's the last single-screen movie theater in Baltimore, a city that once boasted dozens. It is the last place in Baltimore where people can go see movies as they originally were meant to be seen, in a quirky building, emblazoned with all sorts of attention-grabbing designs (like that rainbow-colored marquee, or those murals that loom over the lobby), aimed at transporting audiences into a land of fantasy even before the movie starts. It has, for 70 years, been a gathering place for people of all kinds, where experiences have been shared, friends made, imaginations nurtured.

It's one of the few places left in this city where, 365 days a year, a community can actually be a community, not just a bunch of individuals obliviously chattering away on their cell phones, rushing from one fast-food drive-through to the next.

On those glorious nights a great movie is playing, and the melted real butter is oozing its way through the popcorn, and your best friend can't get over how cool it is that John Travolta's autograph is right there on the sidewalk, and Bill up in the projection room has everything running just perfectly and the Dolby sound is threatening to lift you out of your seats.

On those nights - and they can happen as frequently or as infrequently as you want - the Senator is an experience to be treasured.

The Senator has been standing watch over its North Baltimore neighborhood since 1939. Once one of the crown jewels of Baltimore's Durkee Theater chain, it's now the last remnant. Since 1988, it's been run by Frank H. Durkee Sr.'s grandson, Tom Kiefaber, who grew up there and brought a showman's flair and a zealot's stubbornness to the place.

In an age when single-screen movie theaters were dinosaurs marching toward extinction, he insisted on maintaining the Senator as a first-run movie house. Finances have always been tricky, and three times the theater has been pushed to the brink of bankruptcy. If nothing else, the Senator has been a survivor. And now that the city has begun efforts to take over the theater, thus derailing a planned April 20 foreclosure auction by mortgage-holder 1st Mariner Bank, it appears as though the Senator will live to show movies another day.

Under Kiefaber's watch, dozens of cement blocks have been lovingly placed on the sidewalk outside the theater, commemorating movie premieres and other special events. John Waters' Cecil B. Demented, Barry Levinson's Liberty Heights, Edward Norton's Primal Fear - all are captured in cement. So is opening night of the first Maryland Film Festival, the unveiling of a U.S. postage stamp honoring Marilyn Monroe, Rita Moreno's appearance at a screening of West Side Story and a gathering of Baltimore Colts greats from the 1958 NFL Championship game.

The Senator is memories that can, and should be, passed down, from parent to child, from generation to generation. Such traditions are what gives a city its soul, what makes it more than just a bunch of buildings with numbers stuck on them. They are what make Baltimore Baltimore, and not Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles or even Peoria, Ill.

For me, it's all about noticing "See The Godfather at The Senator" stenciled on the sidewalk along York Road, and being angry that, at 12, I'm not old enough to get into an R-rated movie. It's going to see Jaws, and finding my parish priest standing in line, and wondering if that's a good thing or a bad thing. It's watching local boys Barry Levinson, John Waters, Edward Norton and David Simon premiere their work at the theater, and smiling as my West Coast friends wonder why a film as cool as A Dirty Shame can't be set in their town. It's spending an entire day watching all three Lord of the Rings movies (beats real work, I tell you), with a few hundred people who don't have to be told the difference between Sauron and Saruman. It's seeing King Kong on a screen almost as tall as he is.

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