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

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Baltimore Sun makes sense twice in one day - will wonders never cease?

Imagine my suprise when I found out that the Baltimore Sun actually printed two things today that make sense --- a letter to the editor and an article about The Senator.

Here's the letter:

Kiefaber deserves respect, appreciation for his contributions

May 23, 2009

From Philadelphia, I have been watching in dismay the saga of Baltimore's Senator Theatre and, especially, the pillorying of longtime owner Tom Kiefaber.

I am a fan of historic cinemas, a keenly interested fan who frequently posts at websites like www.CinemaTreasures.org, and I am an active member of the Theatre Historical Society of America. As a volunteer, since 2002, I founded and have led a nonprofit organization, the Friends of the Boyd, Inc., which is seeking to ensure that Philadelphia's last movie palace, the Boyd Theatre, is restored and reopened. All of that means that I am a fan of the gorgeous and very historic Senator Theatre and a fan of Tom Kiefaber. I have been to the Senator Theatre on three different occasions, starting in 2001, to enjoy movies there.

Nowhere in the world is it easy to continue to operate a single screen movie theater, and too many single screens are just not feasible. For the last few decades, Kiefaber did it with aplomb. He put the Senator Theatre on the worldwide map of historic cinemas. He's made sure the Art Deco theater is physically maintained and that it glows with excitement. On my visits, the Senator has been a magical place. Moviegoers enjoy the backlit glass blocks of the exterior, the splendid rotunda lobby which often features interesting historic exhibits, the well stocked concession area, and a movie with state of the art sound and perfect projection on the large screen. Unforgettable is a trip to the handsomely decorated men's room suite, finding that you get to hear the movie through piped in speakers.

Kiefaber has worked hard to attract world premieres and film festivals, and he has shown mainstream blockbusters, art-house films, and classic movies. Unfortunately, the construction of so many mainstream movie megaplexes and art-house cinemas in the Baltimore area has rendered the Senator, with its huge single auditorium, no longer profitable as a theater that shows movies 365 days a year.

There must be other kinds of programs and events at the Senator. That's not Kiefaber's fault, as the same thing happened in many cities. The movie operator poured his heart and soul into the Senator. In recent years, he increasingly turned to the community for support as he literally went the extra nine yards, even putting his house up as collateral. He isn't one of those businessman who only "play with other people's money." He loves the Senator so much that he stuck his own neck out.

From what I've read, there seems to be a rush to eject Kiefaber forever and totally from the Senator. Everybody recognizes that the theater needs a new business model, one that might bring in concerts and other live events that will serve the community. To survive, the Senator will likely need to be owned by a nonprofit organization, with donations and volunteers. Nonprofits operate many theaters worldwide, with tremendous success.

Hopefully, there will still be some place at the Senator for films, such as Hollywood style movie premieres, film festivals, classic films, and maybe some first run films. That kind of mixed program is our goal for the Boyd Theatre in Philadelphia, and has worked in cities worldwide. But, Baltimore should not "toss out the baby with bath water." Kiefaber is the expert authority on the Senator, the star player who has worked with the theater building, the community and the film industry. He's a hero, not a villain. Long before many historic cinemas were saved by nonprofit organizations, Kiefaber was working super hard to make the Senator Theatre a cherished local movie theater. He deserves gratitude, and a role to play in the future of the gem that is the Senator Theatre. Please treat him with the respect he deserves.

Howard B. Haas, Philadelphia

Thank you, Howard B. Haas!

Then there's an article by Chris Kaltenbach that makes sense, too. Kim Clark doesn't necessarily make sense when it comes to the CHAP decision, which she seems to have changed her mind on, but that's not Kaltenbach's fault.

The Senator Theatre will continue showing movies and playing host to other events in the coming weeks, even as the city prepares to put the 70-year-old North Baltimore landmark up for auction.

Owner Tom Kiefaber plans to continue showing a slate of older films (such as Stagecoach, playing through May 28) until a new owner is found. He also plans to open the facility for other uses, including concerts and private gatherings, to show potential buyers the "great vitality" of the Senator.

"If you've ever had the fantasy of sitting in the theater by yourself, with everything cranked up, now is the time to approach us," he said.

The city officially purchased the troubled theater's $950,000 note from 1st Mariner Bank on Friday, said Kimberly A. Clarke, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp. The date for a foreclosure auction will be set next week, she said.

"They generally take about 45-60 days," she said, "so we're hoping to have the auction by the end of June."

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