"Coming Soon," reads the marquee at the Senator Theatre.
Change that to "Coming Sooner Than You Think."
Buzz and Kathleen Cusack, the new managers of the landmark North Baltimore movie house, have scheduled an Oct. 15 reopening for the cinema. They will announce short-term and long-range plans at a community meeting at the theater at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the theater, 5904 York Road.
The first attraction at the revitalized Senator will be "Red," an all-star action comedy with Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Mary-Louise Parker.
"We're working on a very carefully done renovation — with knowledge and respect for what was there, while integrating it into the 21st century," Buzz Cusack said Tuesday.
The Cusacks' strategy for reviving and strengthening the Senator as a first-run movie theater and an anchor for the neighborhood aims for a happy marriage of tradition and innovation.
As the old wedding motto goes, it contains something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.
The "old" includes a meticulous restoration of previously hidden features, including long-hidden wood paneling and display panels in the theater's signature rotunda.
The "new" includes, immediately, an 800-pound, two-kettle popcorn machine and, within a year, a bar, a crepes shop, a small-plate restaurant and a second, much smaller theater. (The Cusacks also hope to have a new website, thesenatortheatre.com, up and running by Friday.)
The 'borrowed" includes the Cusacks' hope to keep the Senator's first-class technical operation running at its peak — including rare 70mm equipment — under the keen eyes of its longtime projectionist extraordinaire, Bill Hewitt. (Discussions with Hewitt are continuing.)
And the "blue" includes — well, something blue, or maybe purple, depending on what they decide as they uncover the vibrant colors of the original paints and decorations.
Although Buzz Cusack is best-known for expanding the city's premier art theater, the Charles, into a five-screen art-plex, the choice of "Red" sends a clear signal that he and his daughter, Kathleen, don't intend to duplicate Station North near Belvedere Square.
"We will show films of equal quality to those we show at the Charles, but films with broader appeal that will fill the seats at the Senator," Kathleen Cusack said Tuesday.
George Mansour, who books films for the Charles and the Senator, said the Senator's slate would continue to include "classy revivals" that have always done well at the theater, such as the restored "Lawrence of Arabia."
The Senator is one of the few theaters left in the country that can play revered "roadshow" productions like "Lawrence" in the proper 70mm format. By the end of 2011, the Cusacks hope to equip the Senator with state-of-the-art digital and 3-D equipment.
The proposed expansion and updating of the building — what the Cusacks call their "global renovation" — would enable them to hold a popular film with a waning audience in the modest theater while bringing a fresh attraction into the main auditorium. The Cusacks have met with residents of Rosebank Avenue, on the south side of the Senator, to discuss the effect of a second theater there. The Cusacks plan to build the crepes shop and restaurant in the revamped north end of the building; they aim to put the bar in the inner lobby.
They hope to secure the necessary approvals, permissions and financing in the next few months. And they vow to keep the theater open as much as possible while they execute a nine-month building plan aimed at a "grand reopening" in the fall of 2011.
The Cusacks foresee that certain knotty challenges — such as adding stalls to the ladies' room and expanding its entrance, to meet the requirements of Baltimore city building codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act — may require them to close the doors again for a week or two at a time.
Their team uncovered an Art Deco mural under the inner-lobby ceiling tiles, but it's probably beyond salvage, because it's covered with thousands of CD-sized globs of adhesive.
But even if they can't restore every attractive old design, they do promise to honor, in Buzz Cusack's words, "the extraordinary level of commitment that the city and state have shown to this neighborhood and to this theater."