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

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Senator Theatre’s Brand of Excellence

While it seems that half of Baltimore is busy kicking Tom Kiefaber while he’s down, perhaps we should really be thanking him for the fact that The Senator Theatre is still here, ready to have the torch passed to another operator, whatever its uncertain future might be.

Some famous words of President Theodore Roosevelt should be considered here:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

Citizenship in a Republic,"Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23,

What follows is a very incomplete partial list of accomplishments at The Senator Theatre and achievements by owner Tom Kiefaber. It should be noted that everything listed since 1989 has happened under Tom Kiefaber’s leadership. This picture of the situation shows a part of the other side of the story of Kiefaber’s work with The Senator --- work which has left him in debt, but has left The Senator an impressive legacy.

I have put this list together from my research over the past several weeks. I am aware of several holes in my research to date. This list does not include a full accounting of the millions of dollars raised for charity at benefit premieres and in-kind donations, the premieres and celebrity appearances at The Senator, the list of national media recognition, or the full list of awards that The Senator and Tom Kiefaber have won over the years. I have yet to gather all the information I need for those pieces. It’s possible I will find the time to publish a more complete version of this at some later date. Researching this is a massive undertaking, because there's so much to this story.

The Senator Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This listing was achieved in 1989 after Tom Kiefaber lobbied for it.

Partial Timeline:

1939, October 5 – The Senator Theatre first opens as part of the Durkee Enterprises chain founded by Tom Kiefaber’s grandfather. Kiefaber grew up in the theatre.

1941 – The management of The Senator interrupted the movie to announce the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Senator was chosen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as one of the theatres to make the announcement. The Senator subsequently sold record numbers of war bonds in the lobby.

1989 – Tom Kiefaber raised the money to buy the Senator from Durkee Enterprises, after working to ensure that it would not be “twinned” by having a wall put down the middle of the auditorium.

1989, October 5 – The Senator’s 50th anniversary celebration included a black tie gala with a 50 year commemorative print of The Wizard of Oz. It was attended by Mr. and Mrs. Meinhardt Raabe, who both appeared as Munchkins in the movie. Mr. Raabe was the Munchkin coroner.

1990 – Benefit premiere of John Waters’ Cry-Baby brought stars including Johnny Depp to Baltimore and raised $50,000 for AIDS Action Baltimore.

MIX: The Recording Industry Magazine, writer Stephen St. Croix noted of the Senator: “Some insane person decided to revamp it and install an impressive, subwoofed Dolby 6-channel system, and he or she did it right. This is the only known example in Baltimore.”

1991 – USA Today national reader’s poll listed The Senator as one of the four best movie theaters in the country.

1998 – Tom Kiefaber receives Governor’s Citation “in appreciation of your outstanding services to the citizens of this State” from Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening.

1999 – In preparation for the premiere of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, the Senator made a major upgrade to sound system, seating, carpet, paint, and the concession stand. A new Dolby Digital sound system with an additional surround channel was installed to accommodate the full sound capabilities of the movie. New cinemascope lenses were installed.

Little Italy Open Air Film Festival makes its debut with the help of Tom Kiefaber and the Senator Theatre. The Senator helped with equipment, projection, popcorn and volunteers. (The equipment was rented by the festival organizers.) The festival is a rare example of open-air cinema in the United States.

2001 – The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed America’s Historic Theatres on their annual list of America’s most endangered historic places. They used an image of The Senator as the “poster child” for this listing.

November 2001, Cinema Treasures lists The Senator among its top 10 classic movie houses.

2002 – UTNE READER, February 2002, The Senator is listed among “America’s 60 Best Public Places.”

2003 – Tom Kiefaber receives Business Leadership Award from the National Main Street Awards Program, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

2004 – NEWSWEEK, November 22, 2004, listed The Senator as number 2 out of a list of 6 top picks for classic movie theaters by Ross Melnick and Andreas Fuchs, authors of “Cinema Treasures.”

2005 – Entertainment Weekly, Aug. 12, 2005 cited the Senator as number 4 out of 10 best movie theaters in America.

2008 – MOVING PICTURES magazine, Winter 2008/2009 lists the Senator as number 7 on a list of the 10 Best Movie Theatres in America.

2009 – Style magazine, March-April issue lists The Senator among Charm City’s charming attractions for which “the price is right.”

Other Achievements:

Over the years, the Senator has always focused on state of the art technical presentation. They are perfectionists about it.

TAP (Theatre Alignment Program), a rigorous inspection program started by Lucasfilm and designed to ensure cinematic excellence at presentation theaters, rated the Senator “among the country’s best for technical excellence,” according to the Baltimore Sun.

The Senator has been sought after by perfectionists in the movie industry as one of the best presentation quality movie houses in the country to showcase their films. Event pictures of the caliber of the Star Wars franchise, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter often attract fans who come from miles away to see their favorite films at the Senator, sometimes camping out on the sidewalk before the opening. The Senator has supported these fans in specific past incidents by putting heaters out on the sidewalk or inviting fans to sleep in the theatre.

Bill Hewitt, the Senator’s projectionist, inspects every frame of every film they show by hand before they show it. This is old school quality control no longer practiced by most theaters.

Tom Kiefaber has regularly won accolades for his business leadership as the owner of The Senator. He has been honored by Governors of Maryland, Mayors of Baltimore, charitable foundations and preservation organizations, the Baltimore City and County Chambers of Commerce, Baltimore Heritage, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He served two terms on the board of The League of Historic American Theatres, and is a founder of The Producer’s Club of Maryland, and The Baltimore City Historical Society. He is also on the board of many other organizations, including Women in Film and Video of Maryland, The Friends of the Govans Library, The Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, The Royal Theatre and Community Heritage Foundation, The National Association of Theatre Owners, and The Maryland Film Festival, as well as the Community Resource Council of The Junior League of Baltimore.

A Senator employee cleans up the trash on York Road in the surrounding blocks every day.

The Senator makes on average about 500 charitable donations each year to area non-profits, benefiting almost 400 individual charities in 2008 alone, sometimes with repeated in-kind donations of movie passes and/or posters.

The Senator has raised millions of dollars for area non-profits through charity premieres and in-kind donations.

The Senator is known by patrons for its personal attention, which often includes an introduction to the movie by theatre owner Tom Kiefaber.

The Senator regularly works with area businesses and non-profits to support special events in the community. Just one example is the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival, which The Senator has been supporting for about 15 years.

There is real butter on the popcorn.

The Senator has appeared as a location in Barry Levinson’s Avalon, John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented, and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Tom Kiefaber makes a cameo appearance in 12 Monkeys. See if you can spot him!

Film premieres at the Senator:

CRY-BABY (John Waters, director) – World Premiere
HAIRSPRAY (John Waters, director) – World Premiere
SERIAL MOM (John Waters, director) – World Premiere
PECKER (John Waters, director) – World Premiere
CECIL B. DEMENTED (John Waters, director) – World Premiere
DINER (Barry Levinson, director) – World Premiere
TIN MEN (Barry Levinson, director) – World Premiere
AVALON (Barry Levinson, director) – World Premiere
LIBERTY HEIGHTS (Barry Levinson, director) – World Premiere
PRIMAL FEAR (Edward Norton, actor) – Benefit Premiere
EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (Edward Norton, actor) – Benefit Premiere
ROUNDERS (Edward Norton, actor) – Benefit Premiere
KEEPING THE FAITH (Edward Norton, actor/director) – Benefit Premiere
THE SCORE (Edward Norton, actor) – Benefit Premiere
RED DRAGON (Edward Norton, actor) – Benefit Premiere
FRIDA (Edward Norton, actor) – Benefit Premiere
Maryland and world premieres of scores of other feature films, according to a Senator PR document.

Famous guests of honor at The Senator over the years:

Muhammad Ali
Allen Daviau (cinematographer)
Robert Altman (director)
Frank Capra (director)
Nora Ephron (director)
Terry Gilliam (director)
Agnieszka Holland (director)
Norman Jewison (director)
Barry Levinson (director)
David Mamet (director)
Sydney Pollack (director)
John Waters (director)
Robert Wise (director)
Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (production/direction team)
Bess Armstrong (actor)
David Arquette (actor)
Edward Asner (actor)
Kevin Bacon (actor)
Daniel Baldwin (actor)
Drew Barrymore (actor)
Ned Beatty (actor)
Richard Belzer (actor)
Timothy Bottoms (actor)
Nell Carter (actor)
Cyd Charisse (actor)
Kelly Curtis (actor)
Johnny Depp (actor)
Danny DeVito (actor)
Stephen Dorff (actor)
Charles S. Dutton (actor)
Jenna Elfman (actor)
Jodie Foster (actor)
Edward Furlong (actor)
John Glover (actor)
Karolyn “Zuzu” Grimes (actor)
Salma Hayek (actor)
Patty Hearst (actor)
Celeste Holm (actor)
Robert Hooks (actor)
Yaphet Kotto (actor)
Ricki Lake (actor)
Janet Leigh (actor)
Joe Mantegna (actor)
Shirley MacLaine (actor)
Matthew McConaughey (actor)
Butterfly McQueen (actor)
Edward Norton (actor)
Mary Kay Place (actor)
Martha Plimpton (actor)
Paulina Porizkova (actor)
Jane Powell (actor)
Keanu Reeves (actor)
Christina Ricci (actor)
Julia Roberts (actor)
Ginger Rogers (actor)
Mickey Rooney (actor)
Meg Ryan (actor)
Winona Ryder (actor)
Armin Mueller-Stahl (actor)
Madeleine Stowe (actor)
Lili Taylor (actor)
Kathleen Turner (actor)
Sam Waterston (actor)
Bruce Willis (actor)

Famous Musical Acts that have performed at the Senator:

Richard Thompson
Roger McGuinn
Laurie Anderson
Shawn Colvin
Henry Rollins
The Roches
Randy Newman
Michael Hedges
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Bruce Cockburn

Partial list of sources of national media recognition for the Senator:

USA Today
The New York Times
The Wall Street Journal
Entertainment Weekly
Fortune Magazine
US News & World Report
CBS News
ABC News
The History Channel
E! Entertainment
Zippy the Pinhead cartoon

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom is on the Community Resource Council of the Junior League of Baltimore and not the Board.

Junior League of Baltimore Member

March 13, 2009

Blogger Laura Serena said...

Thanks for the clarification. I will make that update.

March 13, 2009

Blogger Katie and Da Katz said...

Great Read!

Thanks for the History Lesson.

Katie Kat

March 15, 2009


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