Senator Fatigue Hits In Latest Push To Save Cinematic Gem

July 26, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

It's an elegant little word that ends any number of dramas, from Othello to the Merchant of Venice to - who knows - maybe even High School Musical.

Exeunt.

The common stage direction, the actors' cue to exit a scene, is Latin for, "They go out."

In real life, though, exits tend not to be so simple. Lights don't fade to black, curtains don't fall with finality, the dramatis personae may go rogue and simply refuse to exit, stage left or right.

So it went on Wednesday, when the long-running drama of Baltimore's Senator Theatre headed not necessarily toward its final conclusion, but at least the end of one act. Having teetered on the brink of closure for years as a result its owner's mounting debt, the Senator was going to auction.

That was the script, at least, but to no one's surprise, the lead character, owner Tom Kiefaber, was not going to follow it.

He'd signaled as much in the previous weeks, on the theater's marquee that increasingly served not only as a promo of what the Senator was showing that week but also for the id of its owner.

Whatever was on his mind at any point in time came to find expression there, in lights and in all capital letters - such a battle with the city councilman representing the theater's North Baltimore District, Bill Henry, and his belief that the auction was "RUSSIAN ROULETTE OR A RIGGED SHAM."

Actually, it was neither. It was essentially another auction happening at a time when all sorts of mortgages are going unpaid and all sorts of properties are going into foreclosure. In fact, as I drove up to Senator on Wednesday, I passed the usual crowd of cell-phone-wielding, eye-contact-avoiding investors that was forming on the steps of the Mitchell Courthouse downtown, site of seemingly daily foreclosure auctions.

The Senator being the Senator, though, there's always going to be some kind of drama - and not just on its wide screen.

After Kiefaber got behind on a loan from 1st Mariner Bank, the city of Baltimore bought the theater's mortgage for nearly $1 million in May. The city's expenditure - not uncontroversial, given its current budgetary squeeze - saved the Senator from a bank foreclosure auction, and Kiefaber from losing his house that had been put up as collateral for the theater loan. The city might have expected some gratitude for that - but, then having dealt with Kiefaber over the years, maybe it wasn't holding its breath.

Kiefaber, whose family has owned Baltimore's last, classic movie palace for decades, is the theater's staunchest defender but sometimes his own worst enemy. He's prone to getting into fights even with would- or should-be allies, battling with or simply wearing down everyone from radio stations who hosted events with him to other theater owners to city and community leaders to, yes, some reporters here at The Baltimore Sun.

His repeated need for help in saving the theater from closure or bankruptcy has left many with Senator fatigue, even those who love the theater and happily helped bail it out in the past.

But then, the most passionate people can also be the most maddening. It's part of the whole package. The single-minded tenacity that has allowed Kiefaber to keep the theater going against all odds is the flip side of the single-minded certitude that fuels his me-vs.-the-world sense of persecution by forces named and unnamed.

And yet you can't help but pull for the guy, even as he drives you crazy. I've had wonderful times at the Senator, both as a reporter and a moviegoer, and hope for many more in the future. In fact, before the auction, worried that a new owner might not be as generous, I asked Tom for a last peek at his office, which he regularly let me use in those pre-wireless days when I'd cover the premier of a locally filmed movie and needed somewhere to plug in my laptop's phone line.

I remember one event in particular, for John Waters' Cry-Baby, in which then rising star Johnny Depp brought his not yet widely known girlfriend, so breathtakingly lovely that photographers kept crowding closer to take picture after picture until she burst into tears from all the attention. It was Winona Ryder.

There were tears aplenty at the Senator on Wednesday as well, and anger and acting out. People have been saying how confusing the auction was, and how it turned into such a circus, but in truth, the confusion and the circus were largely created by the theater's supporters.

There was the pretend issue of whether the sale should have been held inside or outside, as if that would have changed the outcome. Cries of not being able to hear from people who weren't there to bid but to protest. Charges that the auction was "rigged" because, after one anonymous bid, for $800,000, the city topped it by $10,000 to keep possession.

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