Here's Hoping A Cultural Crusade Will Preserve The Senator<


July 24, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

Viewers coming together in an adrenaline rush or an aesthetic high as they soak in pristine images from a beautiful big screen. That's been the promise of American moviegoing as a major piece of our culture - a promise that the Senator Theatre has fulfilled year after year.

The good news from Wednesday's auction is that the Senator won't become a church hall or a college auditorium.

But it will take ingenuity and commitment on the part of movie lovers and arts funders to see that the bad news doesn't come. With the right backing and business plan, most likely involving moving the theater to nonprofit status and expanding its use for other cultural events, the Senator could maintain and even burnish its luster.

If not, we might see the diminishing of an institution that's become an anchor for North Baltimore, a point of pride for the whole city and a repository of the values that once made film fans around the world envy American moviegoers.

Multiplex cinemas are by nature an extension of mall culture, often a baby-sitting service by day and a teenage hangout by night. Although they boast many screens, they often stock three or four at a time with the latest Hollywood spectacle that desperately attempts to outstrip home theaters with ever louder bangs and ever gaudier effects.

The city's estimable art house, the Charles, has kept the hopes of adult moviegoers alive by catering to audiences both cultivated and curious. (Although the Landmark Harbor East is a pretty spot to see a picture, its bar is more adventurous than its programming.)

But the Senator, under Tom Kiefaber, has carried on the tradition of movie theaters as places where audiences of many kinds can view the best movies of any type - action blockbusters like the Indiana Jones series, art classics like The Rules of the Game and Rashomon - with a presentation equal to the craft of the world's best filmmakers.

With the right movie, in the right season, the Senator Theatre was a place where an audience could unite in an intense and complex shared experience, the way it did when I saw Dreamgirls during the 2006 Christmas season, and viewers clapped and cheered for Jennifer Hudson as if they were at a live performance.

In the new millennium, the Senator's single screen and roughly 900-seat capacity has made it seem like a movie palace. In its heyday, though, it was simply a great neighborhood movie theater. Under Kiefaber's ownership, it was both.

Internationally renowned film-restoration wizard Robert A. Harris, who has worked his magic on Lawrence of Arabia, Rear Window, The Godfather and others, on Wednesday called the Senator "a beacon of professionalism, showmanship and the love of cinema."

He wrote, in an e-mail, "The loss of the Senator would bring us one huge step closer to a place where people are viewing Lawrence of Arabia on their iPhones. We can only hope that those who control Baltimore's political arena understand the immense loss to the community if the Senator was forced to close it doors, and that they make every effort to move heaven and earth to keep it from occurring. "

No feature shown at the Senator ever degenerated into a visual smear just a little sprightlier than the TV commercials, quiz cards and concession ads that would precede the same movie at a chain theater. When the curtains parted at the Senator you knew you were going to see a movie the right way, with the projection bright and sharp and the sound clean.

Jim Healy, assistant curator of motion pictures at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., contends that throughout film history, single-screen presentation has fueled the creativity and resourcefulness of exhibitors.

He pointed out Wednesday that Rochester is home to three operating single-screen theaters: "They offer a link to the not-so-distant past when moviegoers went to single-screen theaters and saw whatever was being offered. This meant that theater programmers had to work harder to please their audiences," which spurred them to program movies of a higher quality - in the process developing "very intelligent and discerning" audiences.

Can a city with the college base and cultural energy of Baltimore fail to support one single-screen theater when Rochester has three?

If the lights go out at the Senator, or if the theater is run without the zest and class that have become its hallmarks, there won't be another spot in the area to offer the heightened excitement that once defined what it meant to go to the movies.

The Senator has been a jewel in a tarnished metropolis. Let's hope that canny cultural entrepreneurs step up and make its preservation - and resurgence - a secular crusade.

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