Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Interview with Karen Noonan, Theatre Historical Society of America

Recently, I had an opportunity for a phone interview with Karen Colizzi Noonan, President of the Theatre Historical Society of America, based in Elmhurst, Illinois.

In an article titled “Independent Theaters: 10 Best Movie Theatres in America” in the Winter 2008/2009 issue of Moving Pictures magazine, Ms. Noonan is quoted about the Senator Theatre. She describes the Senator as “elegant and grand” and says “the mix of films (chosen by owner Tom Kiefaber) is wide-ranging, and that marquee lit up at night makes the heart race just a bit faster.”

Noonan also recently wrote a letter to Governor O’Malley, Mayor Dixon, and other Maryland political figures in support of the Senator Theatre, in which she writes “Closure of the Historic Senator Theatre would be a crushing blow to a city that takes pride in its unique place in American history.”

In our phone interview, I asked Ms. Noonan about the challenges faced nationally by historic theatres and their owners or operators. I had heard that among historic theatre preservation circles, they know it’s a frequent pattern that when the owners who have struggled for years to save historic theatres finally become overwhelmed by the hardships inherent in this process, and the debts build up, and the theatre may have to close, locals often blame the very people who have made personal sacrifices to ensure the theatre’s survival for many years. This happens so often that historic theatre preservationists have a name for it: “crucify the zealots.”

I asked Karen Noonan how often she sees this pattern, and whether she thinks this is what is happening here in Baltimore with local reactions to the Senator’s owner, Tom Kiefaber.

“It happens with frightening regularity,” asserts Ms. Noonan. “There is usually one person who carries the theater on his or her back.” This is often someone working 90 hours a week for the love of the place, she says.

At some point, she says, “there comes a backlash. If something starts to go wrong, they’re the easiest person to target.”

She points out that a historic theatre like the Senator presents unique challenges. “This isn’t a burger joint. It’s not like any other kind of business. I’ve seen so many theaters where the zealots have been cast aside.”

Asked specifically about Tom Kiefaber, she says “I think he deserves a place in it, no matter what the outcome, and deserves the recognition for having gotten it this far.”

Noonan went on to say Tom Kiefaber “has a tremendous gift for garnering publicity for that theatre. Tom should never not be part of the equation.”

My next question to Ms. Noonan was why these historic theatres like the Senator are important to a community.

“There’s a sense of history and a sense of personal history. People remember going to the Senator. It’s a touchstone for the community. It’s an important part of American history, American life. If you let them go, they’re not coming back.”

She goes on to describe the theatre’s historic role in the life of a community.

“It was the community gathering place, the meeting place. If they wanted to get the news, they went into the theaters.”

In Baltimore, we still have our very own Senator Theatre zealot who, along with his dedicated staff, has not only kept the theatre open and intact, but also built the Senator brand into one that regularly receives accolades nationwide. The folks at the Senator have also worked in tandem with our extended community to envision a dynamic multi-purpose future for the beloved landmark theatre.

In the past few years, Mr. Kiefaber has made it clear that after 20 years of independent ownership and operation, he can no longer ensure the theatre's preservation and protection. His goal is for the Senator to become "The People's Theatre" in more than name only, to be owned by a community-based non-profit. It's an admirable goal, but it can only be achieved through a proactive collaboration with motivated members of our community who recognize the importance of assuming the stewardship of this extraordinary irreplaceable icon from Hollywood's golden age.

As the process progresses, Tom Kiefaber's expertise and a lifetime of contacts in the entertainment industry will be of continuing value to the Senator and its community-based stewards for years to come. In our community, there are those of us who understand just how easy it is to read an article about Kiefaber's debts and the theatre's operational struggles and proceed to cast aspersions and blame from the outside looking in.

The individuals who have kept the Senator in operation without interruption for 70 years (under increasingly difficult circumstances) deserve praise and assistance, not condemnation. It's too easy to blame them from the outside looking in when a cherished historic movie house like the Senator is endangered. We still have a fleeting opportunity to handle this crucial transition in a more appreciative and enlightened manner than so many other communities have done in the past. Let’s make sure that happens.

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OpenID friendsofthesenatortheatre said...

Marvelous, Astrogirl!
Somehow, it's comforting, in an odd fashion, to know that our own "zealot" isn't alone in this phenomena.

It's also comforting to know that others, outside of the immediate community share in the sensed value of the treasure we have here... And how easily it could be lost.

February 24, 2009


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