The troubled Senator Theatre, a North Baltimore landmark for 71 years, will be heading back into the first-run movie business as early as next month.
The Baltimore Development Corp. announced Friday that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has accepted its recommendation that Charles Theatre owner James "Buzz" Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen, lease the Senator and manage it with hopes to screen Hollywood blockbusters and Oscar contenders.
The Cusacks must nail down the details in their proposal, and the Board of Estimates must approve. BDC President M. Jay Brodie said Friday that he shared the Cusacks' "hopeful time schedule" to complete the deal for the Senator to reopen this summer.
Competing multiplexes and mounting debt prevented the previous owner, Tom Kiefaber, from realizing his dream of expanding his theater's national reputation and adding an adjacent screen or two. For a decade he faced down one financial crisis after another until the theater went into foreclosure last year. The city later bought the property at auction. But Kiefaber has continued to keep the theater open with a mixture of movies and live performances.
This year, the BDC whittled four proposals to run the Senator down to one from WTMD-FM/Towson University and the other from the Cusacks. Towson had planned to turn the Senator into a new home for the radio station and a performing arts center. But the university withdrew its bid for financial reasons.
Kiefaber, who advocated for WTMD-FM and Towson, was not available for comment Friday.
Frank H. Durkee Sr. opened the Senator as part of his Durkee chain in October 1939. Kiefaber, Durkee's grandson, turned a handsome neighborhood theater into a destination movie house. He established a "walk of fame," commemorating films including Barry Levinson's "Diner."
Kiefaber bought the theater in 1988. Under his stewardship, the theater itself became a star, with appearances in Levinson's "Avalon" and John Waters' "Cecil B. Demented."
If all goes according to plan, the Senator will remain a top-ranked theater and a family business, too.
Levinson said Friday, "I'm glad that it's going to continue. It's unfortunate that it's the last of all those great old theaters. What's funny is, the Senator was never the Grand Old Lady. The really grand theaters were all the theaters downtown, and every one of them was destroyed. The Senator became Baltimore's 'movie palace' by default." Levinson admired the way Kiefaber "kept the big screen and good sound and did revivals and events that kept some excitement there."
The Cusacks seek to build on this tradition — as soon as possible. Kathleen Cusack said Friday, "We're going to remain open during renovations the way the Charles was open during its renovations."
Buzz Cusack bought the Charles with John Standiford in 1993 and began renovations six years later. The Charles continued to show movies in the original auditorium while they built four new theaters, two new bathrooms and a new lobby to the north of it. (Tapas Teatro restaurant moved into the space occupied by the old lobby.)
The Cusacks do not intend to start major renovations immediately. Before they begin their new operation, they want to assess the property. "Our hope is to do some cosmetic tune-ups and spruce it up and get movies playing as soon as we can," Kathleen Cusack said Friday. "We are talking to our booking agent about a midsummer to late-summer movie that might be a good opening film."
The Senator will be offering "more mainstream pictures with more mass appeal" than the foreign and American independent films and documentaries that play the Charles. The Cusacks' goal will be "to fill the seats while also being selective about quality."
The major renovations that the Cusacks have proposed include the creation of a restaurant and a crepes shop and eventually the building of a second, smaller theater on land to the south of the current theater. They're putting up $400,000 of their own equity but are also asking for a loan from the city. The details of the loan and the terms of the lease have yet to be worked out.
Because the Senator is in the National Register of Historic Places, the Cusacks must also submit drawings and plans to the Maryland Historical Trust, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation and the Department of the Interior to demonstrate that renovations will conform to or enhance the historic fabric of the existing structure.
Ira Miller, owner and operator of Baltimore's twin Rotunda Cinemas, who will begin construction on his own third screen next week, said Friday, "I wish them all the luck in the world. Running a single-screen theater is tough, but if they turn it around it will be phenomenal. It's a terrific theater, and it will be good to see it open again. Buzz does a wonderful job at the Charles; [the BDC] gave him a chance, and he deserves it."