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

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Baltimore City's approach to The Senator is just wrong!

I had a conversation with Tom Kiefaber last night outside the theatre as he was cleaning the facade. It was one of those conversations that stays with you and makes an emotional impact the next day. Maybe that's because I recorded some of it on video and was looking at what I got earlier today, with an eye to how to edit it into something compelling.

Here's what I posted as a comment on Preservation Magazine's notice about the auction of The Senator:

It is appalling the way Baltimore City is leaving the future of our wonderful, amazing Senator Theatre to the fates. The city now holds the note. They could delay the auction by six months or so to allow for the formation of a viable non-profit approach like the ones that have been successful for historic theatres all over the country. This theatre needs to be owned by a non-profit and run as a multipurpose entertainment venue.

I am strongly biased, because I've been volunteering at The Senator for months now, but there's a reason for love that runs that deep. This theatre is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen, of any vintage or design style, because every aspect of its design is so harmonious with every other aspect. My friend Tom Kiefaber, the owner, was playing his drums in the circular outer lobby last night, and the lobby itself resonated so that it rang like a bell. I don't want to get too far into the cosmos here, but if you get into things like sacred geometry, you might understand that there's something almost mystical about this building. I know I'm not the only one who feels that way.

I had a conversation with the owner, Tom, last night that was so heartwrenching. This man is part of the family that built The Senator, he grew up in The Senator, and it's the last of his family's Durkee chain that once owned 50 theatres in Baltimore. He has put his heart and soul into this place for almost 30 years, has done everything right as far as building the brand of The Senator into a national icon that has seen the theatre listed among the top ten movie theatres in the country time and again, and loves the place in a way that really cannot be described. Baltimore City is determined to not only auction off the theatre, but ban him and his many years of experience from any future involvement with it. All this because it, like so many other historic theatres, has run into debt because of national economic and industry trends that have nothing to do with Tom. What an absolute travesty!

There are so many things wrong about Baltimore City's approach here. It's wrong to leave the future of an extraordinary facility like The Senator to the fates. It's wrong to take the building from the family that built it and has run it and maintained it for 70 years, and it's wrong to ban from future involvement people like Tom Kiefaber and Bill Hewitt, the theatre's extremely knowledgeable manager, projectionist, and film preservation guru, and Gayle Grove, who has worked there for many years, does all kinds of vital organizational and operational tasks, and is extremely dedicated.

The more I look into this, the more it is crystal clear how the whole thing is just wrong, wrong, wrong! Disgustingly, sickeningly wrong.

For those who may have heard about it and be waiting, the interview with Tom is still on its way. Transcription and follow-up questions are taking a bit longer than expected. Stay tuned!

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Anonymous LFV said...

My first thought is that if there is a mystical quality to the Senator, perhaps 'the fates' will take that into account.

What we seem to have here is a case of "good karma" versus "bad finances".

Spirit and financial responsibilty are forcing two very different systems to go up against each other: the Senator (which for the most part operated on love and the kindness of others), and the City (which has to operate by specific financial rules). I know that there are dedicated people who would love to step in and save the Senator from auction, but once the auction has been set, those dedicated people should be raising money in order to compete with the other bidders, as opposed to trying to stop the proceedings.

Now, if those people raised the money and bought out the City's ownership, that might work -- but not necessarily: the City is entitled to get the most possible cash back out of their 'investment'. How can the City justify closing community recreation centers, due to lack of funding, and then not do all it can to get the maximum amount of cash from selling a foreclosed property? Citizens would be right to protest if the City decided to get _less_ money rather than _more_ money out of a deal!

In an auction, the highest bidder is _supposed_ to get the prize. That's not 'rigging' -- that's how auctions work. It is impersonal; it doesn't take into account the love people have for an object they don't really want to see in anyone else's hands.

I would love to see the Senator as an arts/entertainment venue. I was excited to attend the meetings last year discussing those possibilities for my neighborhood. But my love doesn't have a million dollars available to swoop into that auction and make magic happen.

So, yes -- I'll have to wait for the fates to reveal what comes next, just like everybody else.

July 09, 2009

Blogger Laura Serena said...

You have a very good point about the city being not just entitled, but actually having a legal obligation as the holder of the note to get the most out of their investment, for the taxpayers.

If this is so, then why are Bill Henry and others in city government, including Kim Clark at the BDC and the CHAP commission, trying to undermine the value of the theatre at auction at every turn? You can see at the link to preservation magazine's site where Bill Henry is yet again trying to undermine the value of the theatre by saying this:

*******"There is the possibility that there would be another bidder, but the more likely probability—that the city is kind of resigned to—is that there would not be anyone else, and that we'll keep it," Councilman Bill Henry says.

Any new owner would have to contend with restrictions on parking and live entertainment, as well as needed repairs. "Those various speed bumps combined all really limit the likely pool of bidders," Henry says. "We know there are people who are interested in responding to an RFP who are not necessarily interested in bidding on it."********

This is a pattern. They have been doing this all along. They are rather obviously trying to talk anyone out of bidding on the theatre at auction. This would seem to go against their own interests in terms of their investment and taxpayer interests.

It does seem to indicate that they are afraid someone will realize the value of this wonderful theatre and will prevent them from handing it over to their chosen operator through the RFP process by buying it at auction. If I had the money to invest, I'd be thinking "why are they trying to undermine the value? Because they want to buy it themselves."

July 09, 2009

Blogger Laura Serena said...

I also want to address your comment that The Senator "for the most part operated on love and the kindness of others." This is in fact not true, but is a myth concocted by the same people in city government who are trying to take over the theatre, to undermine the owner's credibility.

The Senator has for the most part operated on the blood, sweat, tears, and total dedication of its owner and his staff, with very minimal outside help.

Baltimore City, for example, has not put a dime into the operation of the theatre in a decade, in spite of what certain people in the BDC would like you to believe.

Tom Kiefaber will be getting more deeply into this in the interview with him that I hope to finish soon, hopefully by tonight.

July 09, 2009


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