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

Friday, July 31, 2009

UPDATE: Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon HELD OVER again

Held Over @ The Senator Theatre Through Thursday, August 6th
By Popular Demand!

Presented with a stunning digitally restored 35mm print

The husband, the wife... or the bandit?

"Rashomon (1950) struck the world of film like a thunderbolt."
Rober Ebert - Chicago Sun Times

Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki & Kichijiro Ueda

Friday, July 31st and Saturday, August 1st
showtimes: 5:45 & 7:45 pm

Sunday, August 2nd showtimes:
3:45, 5:45 & 7:45pm.

Monday, August 3rd Through Tuesday, August 4th
showtimes: 5:45 & 7:45pm.

Thursday, August 6th, 5:45 & 7:45 PM.

NOTE: Wednesday shows have been canceled for a private event.

Admission $8

A heinous crime and its aftermath are recalled from differing points of view.

Running Time For "Rashomon":
Approx. 1hr and 30min.

The Restoration

The basis for this stunning new restoration was a 35mm print created in 1962 from the original camera negative; while the print itself was in good physical condition, the source material from which it was made was extremely battered. Due to the extensive printing and handling it had received over its lifetime, many shots were already starting to shrink and wrap, and there were numerous scratches, dust, and dirt in the damaged negative. Scanned at 4k resolution, that 47-year-old print has
been meticulously cleaned both digitally and by hand, complete with a new seamless soundtrack.

This essential restoration has been made possible by the Academy Film Archive, the National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and Kadokawa Pictures, Inc., with funding provided by Kadokawa Cultural Promotion Foundation and
Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation.

I will continue to report on interim event schedules at The Senator, while we wait to find out what the future may be. At this time, I am unaware of any specific future events.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

BDC's July 20 RFP Draft for The Senator

I have obtained the July 20th draft of the RFP for The Senator Theatre and converted it to HTML. You can read it here. This is the second draft of which I'm aware.

Now I'm going to brag about my track record.

I predicted in early February that the City was "at least as likely to bring in a developer or a national chain as to create a community-owned nonprofit" for The Senator. While we don't know the end result, we know the city's steering committee recommended against a non-profit in April.

I suspected in January that the City's steering committee would recommend against The Senator becoming a non-profit, which they did in April.

I predicted in early March that the City would let The Senator go to a foreclosure auction to "clear the debt."

I predicted various times, starting in mid-March that the City's actions, including CHAP restrictions and various attempts by City officials to talk down the value of the theatre would confuse potential buyers and scare bidders away from any auction, which ended up happening, according to restaurateur and caterer Eddie Dopkin, who registered as a bidder at the auction:

Dopkin would neither confirm nor deny that he made a bid. Auctioneers would not say who besides the city placed a bid, citing confidentiality.

But Dopkin did say that if the city does issue an RFP, “I would seriously look at it.”

Dopkin said that questions about parking and other issues may have limited bidding.

“I don’t think a sensible person would buy it without knowing all the answers,” he said. “I think it limited all the bids.”

This obfuscation of the situation by the City seems to have been intentional and in my opinion essentially resulted in a rigged auction situation, where the City was able to take The Senator very cheaply.

The reason I'm bragging about my track record is, this is not over. If the auction is ratified (which it might not be), the city will then control The Senator through their RFP process. If I start predicting what will happen with that, or with the larger picture in the Belvedere Square district, just remember that I have a track record, OK?

What I'm hearing is that the City's plans don't just involve The Senator, but the entire Belvedere Square district. As I hear more, I'll be reporting on it. I'm saying right now, there is a larger plan afoot.

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Squid's reaction to Baltimore City's hostile takeover of The Senator

Squid's reaction to Baltimore City's hostile takeover of The Senator

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon HELD OVER!

Is this your last chance to see a movie at The Senator?

Held Over @ The Senator Theatre Through Thursday, July 30th
By Popular Demand!

Presented with a stunning digitally restored 35mm print

The husband, the wife... or the bandit?

"Rashomon (1950) struck the world of film like a thunderbolt."
Rober Ebert - Chicago Sun Times

Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki & Kichijiro Ueda

Friday, July 24th and Saturday, July 25th
showtimes: 3:45, 5:45, 7:45 & 9:45pm

Sunday, July 26th showtimes:
3:45, 5:45 & 7:45pm.

Monday, July 27th Through Thursday, July 30th
showtimes: 5:45 & 7:45pm.

Admission $8

A heinous crime and its aftermath are recalled from differing points of view.

Running Time For "Rashomon":
Approx. 1hr and 30min.

The Restoration

The basis for this stunning new restoration was a 35mm print created in 1962 from the original camera negative; while the print itself was in good physical condition, the source material from which it was made was extremely battered. Due to the extensive printing and handling it had received over its lifetime, many shots were already starting to shrink and wrap, and there were numerous scratches, dust, and dirt in the damaged negative. Scanned at 4k resolution, that 47-year-old print has
been meticulously cleaned both digitally and by hand, complete with a new seamless soundtrack.

This essential restoration has been made possible by the Academy Film Archive, the National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and Kadokawa Pictures, Inc., with funding provided by Kadokawa Cultural Promotion Foundation and
Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation.

Is this your last chance to see a movie at The Senator?

Frankly, I don't know.

Baltimore City was the highest bidder in a confusing auction on Wednesday, where chaos was created by the auctioneer changing the venue of the auction from inside the theatre to outside with less than 5 minutes notice.

Ownership of the theatre will not actually change until the auction is ratified in court, which I understand will take at least 30 days.

Who knows? Maybe the next auction will have a better result.

In any case, what the future holds is unclear, and I am unaware of any more events scheduled at the theatre in the near future, although it's possible more events could be in the works.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

What REALLY Happened at The Senator Theatre Auction?

Well, if you live in Baltimore, you've seen the heavily edited news coverage, where in most cases, any hint of controversy was taken out. You've been told by the media that the city now owns The Senator. That's all wrong.

UPDATE: The auctioneer changed the venue from inside the theatre to outside with less than 5 minutes notice. Weeks ago, they had called Tom Kiefaber to request permission to have the auction inside the theatre. The auctioneer, the city, and Tom had all agreed upon the location inside the theatre, the auction had been promoted as being inside the theatre, and it had been reported as being expected to take place inside by the news media. Why the last minute change of venue?

By the way, Tom Kiefaber still owns the theatre until this farce is ratified in court.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Auction Over: Baltimore City Cuts Itself a Deal

Baltimore City's auction of The Senator Theatre is over, and the way I see it, they cut themselves an unauthorized deal on Tom Kiefaber's property. Nobody I talked to foresaw that the City could set the minimum bid at less than the amount owed on the note on The Senator, or bid less than that approximately $950K themselves. I didn't know either of those things were even legal, especially given their fiduciary responsibility as trustee to try to maximize the auction sale price, and the fact that they claimed they were holding the auction to clear the debt on the theatre. Yet they did set the minimum bid lower and bid less, walking away with The Senator for a literal steal of $810K.

I assume they will now try to collect the rest from Tom Kiefaber, unless perhaps there was a higher reserve price that was not met and which the city will now consider paid off. It was not clear in the chaos that was this auction. If anyone knows, please enlighten me.

The auction was fishy from the beginning, with auctioneers from Alex Cooper auctions showing up early and immediately causing concern, but probably through no fault of their own. At least one person associated with the auction company appeared in my opinion to be clearly uncomfortable with their company being associated with such a tainted auction, and I heard when he assured Tom Kiefaber that they are a reputable company. No one was doubting that. They were just doing their job, however, when they were hired by the city to handle this property, they likely had no way of knowing what a corrupt process it was going to turn out to be.

First the auction company told us that the city might change the minimum bid after the beginning of the auction. Given that Kim Clark had said on record in public that bidders would have to bid $1 million dollars to outbid the city and buy the theatre, this came as quite a shock. Even then, I was thinking they would raise the maximum bid to prevent anyone from buying it, not lower it to cut themselves a deal.

Next, we learned that although there had been an agreement between the city, the auctioneers, and theatre management weeks ago to have the auction inside the theatre, they were going to move the auction outside at the last minute.

There was quite a commotion as the city tried to move the auction outside and Tom Kiefaber tried to get them to stick to their original agreement and hold the theatre in the air-conditioned theatre with a sound system, rather than outside in the heat on the sidewalk where there was no sound system and nobody could hear. Eventually, the auction started outside.

The city started the bidding at $750K, well below the published minimum bid that came out of the mouths of city officials, and well below the amount of approximately $950K owed on the note. There was a large crowd and no loudspeaker system. There were multiple shouts from the crowd of "I can't hear you," directed at the auctioneer. At least two people who said they planned to bid were so confused that they were still standing inside when the bidding started, and were brought outside by Tom Kiefaber. One or two other bidders bid it up to $800K, before being outbid by the city at $810K. The auctioneer seemed to rush through the process.

At the end, there were multiple shouts of "it was rigged," as well as tears and anger from members of the public who showed up to witness the auction.

The city does not yet officially own the theatre, as the auction still has to be ratified, which I hear will take approximately 45 to 60 days. Meanwhile, Tom Kiefaber is still the owner.

More later when I have a chance to process all this, upload some video, and find out more about what this all means.

Please note that this blog noted months ago, before the city's steering committee made their apparently pre-determined decision that The Senator could not be a non-profit, that it seemed that the city was trying to take The Senator from Tom Kiefaber and hand it over to some crony, in what seemed very likely to be a rigged process. That appears to be exactly how it's playing out. I'm not a psychic. I'm just doing my own investigation here. The dots are not that hard to connect.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Baltimore Sun acknowledges other side to Senator story!

Well, it's a start. The Baltimore Sun, which has long been little more than the mouthpiece for Baltimore City official spin on The Senator saga, finally acknowledged today that there's another side to the story.

The 70-year-old Senator Theatre, the last holdout from the golden age of Baltimore movie houses, is scheduled to go on the auction block Wednesday. Owner Tom Kiefaber, while insisting he accepts that his days of running the theater are numbered, is determined not to let something as arbitrary as an auction decide the building's fate.

Kiefaber, who has been showing classic films and selling memorabilia out of the theater lobby since shortly after showing his last first-run film on March 15, accuses city officials of playing "Russian roulette" with the theater if they allow the auction to go on as planned. When members of the Theatre Historical Society visited the Senator recently, he used the occasion to excoriate city officials, arguing that they should postpone the auction and concentrate on finding a way to have the Senator run as a nonprofit community-based film and performing arts center.

Too bad that they apparently didn't try very hard to get a quote from Tom Kiefaber, and only quoted Councilman Bill Henry and the BDC's Kim Clark in the article.

At least the fact that Bill Henry now feels he has to deny that city government has been trying to wrest control of The Senator away from Tom Kiefaber indicates clearly to anyone reading between the lines that some of us know that is exactly what's been happening.

The article mentions my blog, too. And at least Chris Kaltenbach didn't call me a journalist, which I thank him for. (Today's journalism seems to usually be nothing more than trying to pretend to be neutral, while pushing an agenda. I prefer to be called a writer. I don't pretend to be neutral.)

Our Visit with David Arquette in a Plexiglas Box in NYC!

On Tuesday, Tom Kiefaber and Gayle Grove from The Senator took me with them up to New York City to visit their friend, actor David Arquette. David was sitting in a plexiglas box on top of the marquee of Madison Square Garden, to raise awareness about hunger for Feeding America, as part of the Snickers Bar Hunger campaign.

Tom and Gayle had known David for a while. He visited The Senator when he was promoting his film "The Tripper," and they've been in touch with him since then. When we found out he would be sitting in the box to raise awareness about hunger, we initially thought maybe he could bring the box on the road and sit on top of The Senator's marquee. We all liked his cause, because The Senator has collected tons of food over the years for a local food pantry.

I knew that Gayle had been in touch with David about this, so I was sitting in The Senator's lobby one day and I happened to be thinking about how cool it would be if we could go visit David Arquette in the box. In a weird kind of synchronicity, just as I was thinking that, Tom walked into the lobby and almost immediately got a call from David, who then invited us up to visit.

We took the MegaBus from White Marsh to NYC. A double-decker bus with wireless that costs less than $20 to take you into Manhattan! I'll be doing that again!

We took The Senator's mascot, Squid on the Go, with us. Squid was discovered by a volunteer, Colin Harris, who noticed that if you put your hand between the knobs on the popcorn bins just right, it looks like a squid with two eyes. Several of us had said that when The Senator is closed (as is likely after the auction), we'll miss squid. Another volunteer, Marty Kahl, invented Squid on the Go, so we'll always be able to take a piece of The Senator with us. Strange things happen at night when you're sitting behind the concession stand at a historic theatre. Anyway, David Arquette met Squid and became the first Celebrity Squid!

It was a bit noisy in the box, so much of the video I recorded was not very audible. I did manage to get a few of the fun clips into the video above, though.

David asked us about the upcoming auction of The Senator, and later spoke on the phone to Laura Vozzella at the Sun, to whom he noted "Just the fact that it's going to auction is really sad, that they weren't allowed to turn it into a nonprofit."

Later, I asked David about his work with Feeding America, which he's been supporting for a few years now. He said 36 million people in this country are considered "food insecure." They don't know where their next meal is coming from.

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Nipper and Natty Boh: Hardest Working Dogs in Showbiz!

The Senator is a pet-friendly theatre, complete with our own brand of stupid pet tricks! Gayle's two border collies, Nipper and Natty Boh, have been entertaining crowds here for years. We hope they'll continue to do so after Wednesday's auction of the theatre.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Lyme Disease Awareness Rally (Video)

Last weekend, while "Under Our Skin," the award winning documentary on Lyme disease, was playing at The Senator, activists who had helped to bring the film to The Senator held a Lyme disease awareness rally outside the theatre. Please watch these informative videos of the rally and hear the agonizing stories told by Lyme disease patients and their loved ones.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

City Paper review of Rashomon

In the City Paper this week, Bret McCabe writes a review of Akira Kurosawa's classic film "Rashomon," which is playing at The Senator starting Friday.

He segues into the review by pointing out that, like the multiple versions of events shown in the film, there is more than one version of events about what is currently happening regarding The Senator (something most of the other major media in Baltimore has failed to notice). I like that he calls Tom Kiefaber The Senator's "life force" (true --- and something else many in this city have missed) and links to my blog. The film sounds interesting too.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

David Arquette: Feeding America from a Plexiglas Box

David Arquette spent today sitting in a Plexiglas box atop the marquee of Madison Square Garden in New York City. No, really. And he'll be there tomorrow, too. David is there to raise awareness of hunger in America for Feeding America. His stay in the box is being sponsored by Snickers, which is also raising money through a Facebook page.

David told me today that he first got involved with Feeding America when he began working on a program to provide school lunches for needy kids throughout the summer. He's been working with them ever since.

I went up to New York today to visit with David in the box, thanks to his friendship with the folks at The Senator Theatre here in Baltimore. David visited The Senator at some point and made friends with manager Gayle Grove and owner Tom Kiefaber. They've been keeping in touch with him ever since, and David has blogged about the need to preserve The Senator for future generations. So, David invited Tom and Gayle up to visit him in the box, and I tagged along as their videographer.

Although it was noisy in the box with all the traffic and the fan trying to move the air and dispel the heat on a New York summer day, I think I got some great video. I'm on the bus on the way home now, so I hope to be able to post that soon. David and Gayle even did the running man dance, which is a Gayle Grove tradition everywhere she goes.

Thanks to David Arquette for letting us visit, and especially for supporting such a great cause. Please go to the Snickers page on Facebook and join the cause.

UPDATE: Some of the photos...

Gayle Grove, Tom Kiefaber, and David Arquette

Gayle Grove, Tom Kiefaber, and David Arquette

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Thank You, "Old Theatre Nuts!"

Creating Theatre History award to Tom Kiefaber from THSA

During their 2009 Conclave tour, which visited The Senator Theatre early this afternoon, the Theatre Historical Society of America presented their prestigious "Creating Theatre History" award to Senator owner Tom Kiefaber. Karen Colizzi Noonan, President of THSA, announced the award herself.

Tom affectionately referred to the group assembled at The Senator today as "old theatre nuts," paraphrasing Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry when Bill was trying to dismiss the relevance of many awards such as this that Tom Kiefaber has received over the years. I guess being called an "old theatre nut" is now officially a badge of honor.

UPDATE: Video of Tom accepting the award...

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THSA visit and Tom Kiefaber on Tom Marr Show

Tom Kiefaber will be on the Tom Marr show today on WCBM at 11:30 AM. Listen live here.

UPDATE: Great interview! My blog was mentioned. Thanks, Tom and Tom! You can download an MP3 of the interview here.

Also, the Theatre Historical Society of America is visiting The Senator today as part of their annual conclave, and they will be making a presentation to owner Tom Kiefaber, as noted by Chris Kaltenbach at the Baltimore Sun (Senator Owner Lauded By Theatre Group). I'm not sure of the time they're arriving. The Sun article says 1:45 PM, but there's an event for this on facebook that says 12:45 PM. Regardless, I'm getting there early. I'll update this if I find out the correct time.

UPDATE: The correct time is 1:45 PM.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Senator's Lover Bares All (Episode 1)

This is a very long post. For HTML version, click here. For PDF version, click here.

The Senator's Lover Bares All!

Since January, I’ve been reporting on the saga of Baltimore’s iconic Senator Theatre during the most uncertain time in the theatre’s 70 year history.

I moved to Baltimore from the west coast nearly three years ago, and I chose my neighborhood partly because The Senator was nearby. I love old theatres, and I fell in love with the place at first sight.

The Senator itself has a vibe, a positive energetic feeling that hits you as soon as you enter. That welcoming feeling is often reinforced by the theatre’s manager, Gayle Grove. On occasion, Natty Boh and Nipper, her two beguiling border collies will greet you and make it quite clear that they are glad you came to visit just to kick the ball for them. It’s best to just give in and kick the ball from the get go. Resistance is futile.

When I first moved to the neighborhood, I was a concerned, but ill-informed community member who had no understanding of the nature of The Senator’s struggles over the years. I had read some snarky criticism of The Senator’s owner, Tom Kiefaber, and like many, I believed it to some extent. At first, I had no reason not to. My personal experiences at The Senator with the owner and the staff, however, didn’t jibe at all with what I was reading here and there in the press. How could a struggling but yet award-winning historic theatre, which consistently provides optimal movie-going experiences to its patrons, be owned, programmed and operated for over two tumultuous decades by an owner who receives national accolades on a regular basis, but who didn’t really know what he was doing?

The word in the hood was mixed. Some spoke in glowing terms about Tom Kiefaber and The Senator’s stellar operation and community events, particularly the folks who were residents when Belvedere Square was in decline. Others cited some of the same negativity about Tom that I had read, mostly in the Sun, that cast aspersions at his periodic financial difficulties and the fact that the theatre had not been expanded, and that The Senator Diner has yet to materialize, despite Kiefaber’s best efforts over the years.

Whether thumbs up or down on the owner of The Senator, a common element that everyone noted was his intensity and commitment to his theatre and staff, and to the community. No disagreement there.

After the economy went into steep decline late last year, Kiefaber, along with other prominent business and community leaders, held a press conference at The Senator, noted the severe impact the economic downturn was having on the theatre’s bottom line, and called for the city and state representatives to join with the community, the consultants and the ownership, and assist the theatre’s ongoing transition to non-profit ownership status. I attended the press conference and decided at that point to take the professional objective approach and investigate the situation. What I found during my queries, however, was not at all what I expected.

From my first communications with Mr. Kiefaber, I noticed an odd phenomenon. There seemed to be two different Tom Kiefabers in town: the one they occasionally carp about in the press, and the one I was getting to know directly and through his long time staff and friends who would visit the theatre.

The composite character that has been formulated by the local media is reportedly difficult to deal with (“prickly” was the word used in the Sun), does not suffer fools graciously, and fiercely guards his beloved Senator Theatre like a protective mother bear with a cub. In my personal experience over time, however, the real Tom Kiefaber is an affable and considerate individual, who is focused on a mission to ensure a viable non-profit future for The Senator, and he has somehow remained enthusiastic, functional and upbeat in an overwhelming and stressful situation.

The guy the press describes is not a likeable guy. The Tom I have come to know is an intelligent charmer with a great sense of humor and irony. The steady diverse parade of well-wishers and others from all over who stop by The Senator to commiserate pretty much all seem to love the guy and the feeling appears to be mutual. At times there are so many hugs going around, it’s like a church service with Reverend Tom presiding.

I was expecting to see Mr. Hyde at times but according to the folks on the scene, with Tom what you see is what you get. What’s not to like and admire?

I have been told, however, by his staff that those who abuse The Senator or harass the staff can quickly come to know a different Tom Kiefaber, who is not so affable and charming.

A key turning point in my thinking about The Senator Theatre and the nature of Tom’s accomplishments over the years came in early February, when I had a one-on-one breakfast meeting with my city councilman, Bill Henry.

By this time, I had been privy to a few private conversations with Tom Kiefaber and The Senator’s long term staff, where I had learned some alarming, behind-the-scenes information about a few problematic individuals in city government and a local foundation and how they have approached their relationship with Tom as the owner of The Senator and interacted with the surrounding community over the years. The same few individuals in this core group are still involved in this dysfunctional dynamic with Tom and The Senator for close to 15 years now. This aspect of the Tom and The Senator story has never been reported, as far as I can tell from some pretty extensive searches.

Belvedere Square figures prominently in the sweeping municipal tales I’ve heard with their complex twist and turns, as does the BDC, “Smalltimore’s” culture of corruption, the city council, the CHAP commission, The Abell Foundation, and The Sun.

It was apparent that Tom and the staff and community members believed what they related in conversation, but I was frankly skeptical, because some of the machinations and manipulative behavior of others they cited seemed a bit like fanciful paranoia. I found it hard to fathom why just a few folks with power would mess with Tom and The Senator here and there and throw up road blocks and obstacles over a 10 to 15 year period.

Councilman Henry managed to quickly change that impression by confirming aspects of what Tom and his associates related, but twisting it in an obvious manner while trying his clumsy best to convince me that the present challenges facing The Senator and the threats to its survival are all essentially Tom’s fault and his alone. The Senator Theatre must be seized from Tom Kiefaber as soon as possible so that Bill Henry could save it for the community.

My first reaction was that Bill Henry is a lousy actor. Next was that he can jettison all pronouns but I, because he never uses them and probably never will. Then I experienced a creeping feeling of horror at the realization that this guy is fronting an overt effort to take over The Senator by force at this vulnerable time, and incredibly, banish Tom from his beloved theatre altogether. The barbarians are at the gate alright, and that’s not paranoia.

He went so far as to try to convince me that anyone who’s concerned about The Senator’s future must now gang up together and collaborate to quickly sever Tom from any future involvement with The Senator.

Incredibly, he casually dismissed all of the positive national accolades and awards that Tom and The Senator have regularly received over the years, including a prestigious National Business Leadership of the Year award from The National Trust and Main Streets, as inconsequential, coming from “historic theatre nuts.”

During his extremely revealing monologue, Bill Henry pointedly trashed Tom Kiefaber and his reputation, and cited his difficulties with the city’s leadership, for a good half hour while I listened politely and said little. My immediate conclusion after meeting with Bill Henry was that Tom Kiefaber’s travails are not paranoia, and that he has indeed been unjustly targeted for personal and professional destruction for years by a few key individuals within city government, and our district’s city council representative has crossed over to the dark side and is doing their bidding.

Councilman Henry’s two primary reasons why the city should take over Tom’s theatre as soon as possible and he must go away forever is that the theatre has debts that are too high, and Tom has people downtown that don’t like him, find him difficult to deal with, and they won’t work with him.

So it’s hit the road Tom Kiefaber, we’ll take your incredible theatre that you both saved and made into a national icon with little money, and we’ll take all your properties around it too, and you better go quietly or your family goes out on the street. And oh yes, we’re going to trash you behind your back, and in the media, cast all kind of aspersions, and then throw you under the bus.

It was also immediately clear from my meeting with Bill that these same city officials who are most likely to decide The Senator’s future have no real appreciation for what an extraordinary and precious facility it is, and no appreciation whatsoever for the seven decades of sustained effort by the family that built The Senator and made it what it is today. Using a phrase that’s often heard around The Senator, they just don’t get it. That was my initial epiphany, and what I have subsequently learned and am still discovering has only served to validate that assessment.

They do clearly get the theatre’s value as a nationally renowned landmark theatre and as the key entertainment component and anchor smack in the midst of a 20 million dollar redevelopment. That they get. So grab it now while Tom’s vulnerable, turn the public against him and then plow him under. For them that’s a twofer.

I moved to Baltimore from California where they say “you’re either on the bus or off the bus.” Let me take this opportunity to affirm that I have done my homework and wholeheartedly taken sides and that my choices are informed ones, based on extensive direct experience. I am decidedly on the “team Tom” bus, and I can no longer make any credible claims to impartiality. This passive observer has gone native and become a pro-active participant. For that I primarily credit Councilman Henry for opening my eyes and converting me from a concerned skeptic trying to remain impartial, to an enthusiastic partisan in support of Mr. Kiefaber, The Senator Theatre’s key management staff, and a transition to community oriented not-for-profit ownership.

Since then, I’ve been trying to help shed some light on The Senator’s imperiled situation that bears little actual resemblance to what the media and the public think they know from all the rampant misinformation going around. My efforts to disseminate accurate information through blog postings have been hampered by an off-the-record embargo on many of the particulars because Tom has been treading lightly, under dire threat by the city of losing his home, pledged as collateral to The Senator’s financing. As others have noted, he has been uncharacteristically mum and reticent to allow a stray observation or controversial comment slip on-the-record, with potentially disastrous results. In late January of this year, he wrote to me in an email:

“Off-the-record for now, it looks as if there is a concerted effort going on behind-the-scenes, and a few influential folks in the city are taking steps that will put full control of The Senator and its future in the hands of the BDC and the downtown power brokers. It’s a scary development that may derail the Senator’s conversion to non-profit, community-oriented ownership which is critical to it future viability. I will apparently be held hostage under threat of the city going after the only property I will retain, my home. Please be aware that I may not be in a position to speak out and will be forced to communicate in a pretty benign manner. For the time being my comments must be from the perspective of perilous confinement in a kidnapper's lair.”

Like in the movies, it sounded a bit melodramatic at the time, but since then I have subsequently learned that he was relating the truth. As such, much of what I have learned about The Senator’s situation, I have been unable to share publicly, because I had no on-the-record source to back up some of the most compelling and controversial information to enlighten readers as to the behind-the-scenes struggle that’s taking place for the soul of The Senator Theatre and its future.

Now, with The Senator slated to go to public auction on July 22nd, with the BDC and the Mayor’s office determined to play Russian roulette with the theatre’s future, Tom has determined that despite the inherent risk, he must step up and “go there” in a lengthy and revealing in-depth interview that I am honored to publish and post on my blog. Thank you, Tom, on behalf of everyone who loves The Senator Theatre, for your courage and candor and for putting your trust in me to help inform others of your story and what’s going in the midst of this real life cliffhanger.

The vast majority of the interview took place during an extended late afternoon into evening session at The Senator Theatre. For those of you who know Tom and have seen him on the job in his otherworldly habitat called The Senator Theatre, he generally remains in a constant state of perpetual motion, attending to a dizzying array of details to ensure that the show doesn’t merely go on, but that each and every element of the experience is just so. It’s a focused, multi-tasking, labor of love to behold; like a mash-up of the roadrunner, the coyote and the Tasmanian Devil in overdrive.

When, and only when, The Senator was finally rolling along in an operational groove and put on cruise control, Tom quickly switched gears and relaxed in the theatre’s luscious art deco mezzanine lounge and to my delight, proceeded to answer each and every inquiry without the stressed hesitant responses that I had come to expect when discussing these issues. It was quickly apparent that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, and that Tom had come to a point in his tumultuous life where he was ready to tell his story, without the internal editing that had inhibited our past discussions.

I suppose that almost everyone who reads this account wants to better understand the current situation at The Senator, and what the future may hold. To understand where things stand now, however, I have come to see that it’s important, if not crucial, to also understand some of the past and its significance, since the cast of characters has remained mostly the same. I started out the interview by asking Tom about the past as background, and its relation to present circumstances.

Tom Kiefaber

L: You have made few public statements in the past few months since The Senator Theatre has been in the news and you’ve declined past requests for interviews from me and others. Why are you breaking your silence now?

TK: Until recently my family was in too precarious a position for me to be forthcoming and publicly discuss the situation with The Senator and what’s taking place behind the scenes. While we’re still stuck in an agonizing double-bind, The Senator’s future is also precarious, the situation is being badly bungled, and what is happening over all is a corrupt outrage with a virulent grudge at its core. It’s madness really when you examine what’s happening, who planned it and why, and the rush to get there. The bottom line is, this homie don’t play that.

With this much at stake I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s now or never, so it’s time to speak up and assess the situation from our perspective. For years the prudent advice I’ve received has indicated that if I ever really “go there” and publicly relate what’s really gone on between me and a small group of these characters from my perspective that I would surely lose ownership of The Senator in the process. Well, that’s no longer an issue at this juncture. What’s at stake now is not my ownership of The Senator, because that should change. The critical issue is will The Senator and its future ownership entity be not-for-profit and oriented towards the arts, education and the extended community, or from a commercial development perspective. That crucial difference is not well understood, and it should be, because there’s so much at stake for all concerned at this fork in the road.

The public should better understand that this is not all about me, or all about The Senator or all about the community, or all about Belvedere Square. It’s about how to make this next evolutionary leap forward with The Senator in the right direction. We can’t lose sight of the fact that The Senator that has an extraordinarily bright future ahead, even in this economy but not without non-profit ownership. That’s not simply my conclusion, it’s common knowledge in theatre preservation circles nationwide regarding what should occur with a unique theatre like The Senator at this stage in its existence. If we all get on the same page and make the right moves at this auspicious point in time, sky’s the limit!

The State of Maryland DHCD folks want to see non-profit ownership of The Senator and they have for some time, but the city is really blowing them off and that’s seemingly a big reason for the city’s risky auction, to erase the state debt forcibly and leave them only my home as their collateral with any equity. The State may well give up the lien on The Senator voluntarily to facilitate a bona fide effort to help The Senator make this transition, or they may convert the debt to a grant under the right circumstances, but from what I understand, no one from the city has even asked them to do that or even kept them informed about what’s going on.

There is no real communication there on the part of the city as far as the state is concerned as far as I can tell, and that’s not just regarding The Senator, it’s happening with just about everything at city hall that’s in limbo land for the time being. It’s appalling that with this potential fiasco approaching fast, with all kinds of inherent conflicts of interest and actionable things going on, that there no real political leadership being demonstrated. This ship has veered off course and is headed for the shoals, yet it seems Captain Andy Ahab has mistaken my butt for a white whale while he’s orbiting Jupiter, the Mayor is a wee bit preoccupied with her upcoming trial, and the City Council President’s staff is gearing up to start moving the furniture around at City Hall and measure the drapes.

Yet this convoluted, public auction of The Senator is rolling down the road to perdition, reeking to high heaven and those who would otherwise care are all confused as to what’s up, and our fearless leader Councilman Henry is hiding and gone to ground mumbling lame excuses and whining about his name being on The Senator’s marquee, although he can’t refute the message it conveys.

I suppose we should be thankful that at least Bill Henry serves as some comic relief to all this tension. What crass chutzpah this guy has. First he cajoles to get “Elect Bill Henry” put up on The Senator’s marquee with a passive-aggressive combo of barely veiled threats and promises, long since broken, and now that he’s been elected and crossed over to become Bill the Shill, the BDC’s go-to guy in North Baltimore, he wants his name taken down from the marquee? And if this is really the guy who has vowed to save The Senator for the community, apparently from me, then why did it take him over 5 days to even notice it was up there!

OK, AstroGirl, I’m sufficiently warmed up…let’s get rolling.

L: I am rolling and apparently so are you, so please fasten your seat belt and note the emergency exits.

L: OK, now before we continue with what’s currently up with The Senator, please relate some of your personal history with the theatre. The recent media coverage reports that your tenure at The Senator dates to your purchase of the theatre in 1989.

TK: Yes, in early 1989 I purchased the theatre and its parking lot, where the Staples store was later built, along with two partners. My lifelong personal involvement and deep bond with The Senator, however, goes back over 50 years, as far back as I can remember.

My family built, owned and operated motion picture theatres in Baltimore for over 100 years now, and during that century in the business we’ve run over 50 movie houses in town. The Senator was my neighborhood movie house and living close to the family business, I spent a lot of time here and essentially grew up inside this extraordinary structure. Behind the little hobbit door down at the base of the mezzanine stairs was my fort, which was great because the adults couldn’t really fit in there and left us alone. So I have an intense and lifelong love affair going with this beautiful building. In some ways it’s been both a blessing and a curse in my life, but it also makes what’s happening now particularly traumatic. It’s The Senator’s future that at stake here, and not my ownership of the real estate.

L: I can imagine it must be like losing a dear member of the family. I’ve personally never known of someone who is so head over heels in love with a building. I can’t help but notice that you will still stop and gaze at it with obvious delight.

TK: A more accurate word is arousal. It’s always been that way with The Senator and me. I have a serious “jones” for this incredible structure that started out as a crush, but intensified after puberty. I’ve learned, however, that I’m not alone in that regard. The Senator Theatre is a truly magical place that casts its mesmerizing spell over some individuals more intensely than others the moment they cross the threshold.

L: Well don’t hold back Tom, but this may also lead to more than we need to know about your relationship with The Senator. Should I leave you alone with the theatre for a while?

TK: Yes, would you please? Three’s a crowd. Seriously though, The Senator turns me on and it always has. Just look around you at this place, is she spectacular eye candy or what? Thank you, John J. Zink, what a genius! He designed The Senator and many other beautiful theatres for my family.

L: Yes it most certainly is a stunner. Did you run around with other theatres before settling down with The Senator?

TK: Yes, I strayed but she took me back. Seriously, I had learned a lot about day to day theatre operations by the time I officially went to work at Durkee Theatres in 1977, the year Star Wars was released. Ten years later, in the late 80’s, most local chains like ours were being bought up in a major industry consolidation and The Senator was apparently on its way to become a neglected, twinned theatre in a national chain. At that juncture, I made the move to purchase the theatre independently, have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and then move forward to develop its unlimited potential and unique brand.

L: That was in 1989, so can you summarize the past 20 years owning and operating an historic, independent, single screen theatre in a consolidating industry dominated by the chains?

TK: Summarize the past 20 years? Well.[long pause] I’m reminded of what Robbie Robertson of The Band replied when Scorsese asked him to describe his 20 years on the road in “The Last Waltz.” He not only couldn’t describe it, he said he couldn’t even discuss it! Seriously though, it’s generally been an ordeal beyond description. When you live this life as an independent owner/operator, it’s an insular existence and you come to think of others as civilians, who can’t quite conceive of what it really takes to stick with a commitment to something as demanding as this, seven days a week for 20 years. As in the military, it also requires a collaborative, team effort to succeed in the mission. The Senator only exists today because of an extraordinary crew of committed fellow compatriots. And committed is the operative word there, as this profession can also lead to fittings for the white jacket, particularly in this town that was once known as a city of theatres.

L: I understand. In the past 20 years do any stand out with particular significance?

TK: Yes, 1989 because the acquisition had occurred, we had just gone independent, anticipation was high, and it was The Senator’s 50th anniversary year, which led up to Thursday, October 5th, 50 years from The Senator’s inaugural day and date. 1939 was also the golden year of Hollywood’s golden age so we had some wonderful events celebrating The Wizard of OZ, Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights and a slew of other terrific films that were released that year. Cast members like Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy from Gone With the Wind, and Meinhardt Raabe, the Munchkin coroner from the Wizard of OZ, were our Guests of Honor and they both helped dedicate their commemorative sidewalk blocks. Barry Levinson, who was in town shooting Avalon, including here at the theatre, was our 50th anniversary Guest of Honor. Producer Mark Johnson was here as well. It was a heady year that honored and celebrated the past, but was also chock full of hope and promise for the future. We were thankfully unaware of the enormous challenges and many setbacks that lay ahead.

So that year is a standout but, in general, since the theatre is open every day, we don’t tend to chronicle the past in years. It’s an odd thing, but we tend to think instead that we’re over 7300 successive days into the mission, and counting. And despite the way the public thinks of The Senator in terms of its storied past, among the inner circle here, this high-tech, streamlined jewel has always been oriented towards the future and as a showcase for emerging, cutting-edge technology. The future is our primary focus here and it’s how we really relate as a team to The Senator.

L: We’ll get to what the future may hold for The Senator but first give us a sense of why the past 20 years were so challenging for you and your staff.

TK: And my family. It’s been a particularly difficult odyssey for them, perhaps even more so. Our core staff members are bona-fide true believers with an abiding passion for The Senator and its potential to evolve and achieve a glorious future. As we already discussed, we literally love the place. For our family members though, the sacrifices of our theatrical duties and what it really takes to do this often become a burdensome responsibility for all concerned. That’s a downside aspect of this life that’s not well understood outside of the industry.

Luckily our daughter Grace, our only child who will soon be 18, had the opportunity to grow up here too, as I did. Despite whatever happens in two weeks or two years, or whatever, seeing her and her buddies enjoy this cosmic playground as a child with the run of the place was heaven itself, for which I will always be eternally grateful. It meant everything to me and kept me going through the most trying times. Her entire life so far spans the same 20 year period we’re discussing.

And that 20 year period has presented us with enormous challenges that have essentially threatened our day to day operation almost every step of the way. One of the primary impediments to progress was the little known, and less understood, but nonetheless devastating film clearances that slammed us and tragically shuttered thousands of historic theatres over the years across the nation. In our case, we were initially cleared by the nearby chain multiplexes for over a decade and later by The Charles’ five screens after their expansion, which was financed for the most part by the Abell Foundation. We were working with Abell as well back then, trying to expand our capabilities out back beyond our single screen, but alas it was not to be. When those five screens at The Charles came on line, which were publicly subsidized, they severely restricted the availability and selection of films we were able to run. The media and the public could never quite grok the pivotal strategic significance of what had occurred in that whole dynamic, but that’s showbiz!

Film clearance is the X factor that figuratively asphyxiates independent theatres, yet the restrictions and how they work are too arcane and Byzantine to be understood by the public. It’s like a disease that doesn’t show, but will kill you off nonetheless, and fast.

L: You’re right about film clearances and the public. It’s clear that the average moviegoer or resident has no clue about them. In fact, some of your detractors say they don’t exist and are a figment of your imagination.

TK: Believe me I know, I’ve learned some bitter lessons over the years the hard way and that’s one of them. Ultimately it was folly to try and get the media and the public to understand them or care. All we were trying to achieve was equal access to all the films in release but never got there. Hell, even John Waters told someone he didn’t think they existed in the case of the Charles’ clearance over The Senator. He was dead wrong, but when he scoffed about The Charles’ clearance over The Senator it put it in the same category as Big Foot. That was our final wakeup call to just drop the subject because the effort to enlighten folks was clearly doing more harm than good.

In the end, film clearances are what they are, they are well understood within the industry, and they’ve been devastating to thousands of independent movie theatres and to the Main Streets of the nation because they’re like the stealth bomber. They’re invisible to the public, but once the bombs they carry hit their targets, if you have the misfortune to be underneath them, there’s no doubt then as to their existence. The Justice Department used to be actively involved in helping the independent locations around the country get out from under the chain-gang’s clearances, but once a former president of the Screen Actor’s Guild became president of the US, that all stopped abruptly and there were no more anti-trust or related anti-clearance actions by the feds. It’s a shame really, because we lost thousands of theatres since 1980 that anchored our nation’s Main Streets, and too many of them were shuttered because of the clearances.

L: Apart from film clearance, what other challenges have you faced in keeping The Senator in operation?

TK: Another primary challenge to our survival was the defunct decade when Belvedere Square sat empty and abandoned by the developer. That situation was neglected by the applicable economic development agencies for way too long. The public has a short memory and tends to forget just how devastating that was and what a long drawn-out ordeal James Ward, the square’s prior owner, inflicted on the business and residential communities back then and how much that set us back. It was a 10 year nightmare that played a large part in The Senator’s economic woes today, in addition to the clearances.

L: That’s what I’ve learned from my neighbors and from searches of the local press accounts during that time. And you’re right about the public’s institutional memory; it tends to be quite short. Many community residents are essentially unaware of what took place in the past with Belvedere Square and those that do recall it say it lasted about 5 years, but it was apparently twice that long that the square was on the skids.

Please give us a sense of what occurred during that time from your perspective and how it impacted The Senator, both then and now.

TK: That sounds like an exam question…which fits because keeping any historic theatre in the game is like a test you take each and every day. Let me compare and contrast! We ultimately prevailed at The Senator and stayed in operation during that difficult period by joining forces with the Belvedere Improvement Association. Once we finally approached the problem with a united front we were able to force the issue by becoming vocal and increasingly strident to eventually focus the city and the state’s attention on the need to take decisive action and invest in redeveloping a defunct Belvedere Square. Our then Mayor O’Malley was a prime mover at that point. It still dragged it out for another year or so, but thankfully they eventually got in gear. Andrew Frank had the responsibility for the project at BDC before he later switched over to city hall to become Deputy Mayor.

The challenge of operating this historic single-screen movie house during that period, when our key commercial district sat neglected and abandoned, added to The Senator’s debt…and our vocal concerns in conjunction with Catherine Evans and some other stalwart community leaders over the Belvedere Square situation apparently ruffled a few feathers downtown along the way. It had to be done though. It was a pretty difficult battle all along, but all of us who worked together to prevent a blow out commercial plan that was off the scale, are proud of what was accomplished, and we have the scar tissue to show for it.

Our staff’s tenacity and dedication were critical to surviving that difficult period, and although those of us who went through it would like to forget it entirely, the fact remains that The Senator’s forward motion and its finances were severely hobbled by that era in the theatre’s history. Once when I made that point to someone at the BDC, the city’s econ development agency that’s primarily oriented towards the big developers, the shocking reply was for us to get over it, get lost and don’t expect any help with our “past sins.” It was a specific moment in time I will never forget, because it was indicative of the BDC’s mindset regarding The Senator and me. It was crystal clear to me at that time that they were letting their own personal animosities and prejudices cause them to lose sight of the critical synergistic role these theatres play in the commercial Main Street dynamic. Despite our best efforts over the years, it’s essentially the same folks we’re dealing with today, the situation has not improved, and that’s an understatement.

L: It’s interesting to note that you highlight these two issues, film clearance and Belvedere Square’s defunct decade, as the most difficult past challenges for you and your staff, yet in all my discussions with others about you and The Senator and the troubles that have been covered by the media, few if any people ever mention these things.

TK: You got that right. It’s the crux of the dual reality we have been living for over 20 years now. While the challenges many businesses face are usually not well known outside of their respective industries, there has always been a much bigger divide between what the public thinks theatrical film exhibition is, and what it is in actuality. It’s part of why we are so simpatico with our fellow independent exhibitors and when we get together it’s like a UFO believers cult. We tend to converse at great length about things like clearances because we do see the little green men, and those who deal with the chains in their markets have also experienced the anal probes, repeatedly! Yes, it’s probably the most frustrating aspect of living The Senator saga in the past 20 years; folks tend to think they know what’s up from what the media tells them, but there is actually very little correlation between what they think they know and the truth.

L: Yes, although I’m not a film exhibition cult member just yet, but I have learned a lot in my investigations and experienced the great divide. When it comes to you and The Senator, the disconnect between perception and reality is staggering. That’s why I asked you to do this interview.

TK: I understand and I appreciate the opportunity to correct the record, but it’s frankly like trying to bail out the ocean with a thimble. Some things you just have to accept and work around as best you can. This industry has always been a black box in terms of public awareness since Edison, and my family has lived it for a century.

L: I suppose the difference here is, unlike other industries that folks know they are clueless about, since the public loves movies as consumers, they think they understand film exhibition. As one of my neighbors expressed when we discussed you and The Senator, “I don’t get it. You pop the popcorn, sell the ticket, and show the movie. What is the problem?”

TK: Yup, there’s much more of that sentiment out there than you may imagine. In this instance, I’m explaining these matters for the benefit of those who may want to better understand the true origins of our present economic circumstances, which have most often been branded in the media as the result of my poor business skills and mismanagement of The Senator.

While I am admittedly not an MBA, the reality of surviving these little known but nasty threats like clearance, Belvedere Square’s defunct era, and the rising costs of doing business in general, is considered somewhat miraculous in our industry, and it frankly required a form of day to day, and at times hour to hour, management and focus that I can only describe as surreal in its demands. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to scoff and label this discussion as Tom’s excuses. I can hear it now. The bottom line though, is that the accumulated debt that’s undermining The Senator today is directly related to its complex history and what’s taken place in many cases beyond our control outside of The Senator Theatre, more so than what takes place within our own walls. I suppose an MBA with better financial connections would have probably done things differently, but those folks abandoned urban historic theatres years ago as if they were on fire and never looked back.

And let me expand a bit on that point. In putting the complex deal together in late 1988 we knew we were in for some dangerous duty, so to speak. Now we had no conception of how some of these relationships with the BDC and The Abell Foundation and others would enmesh us in the city’s political and economic mosh pit with all the petty nonsense that goes on with some of these folks and their high school, grudge culture mentalities.

The bottom line is that 20 years ago, at the last perilous turning point in The Senator’s history in a changing industry, we were the ones who suited up and headed in to take on the problems that needed solving, figuratively going up the stairs when everyone else was headed down and out of the building. That tends to be forgotten in a situation like this, two decades along, but like the films themselves, what we do is a collaborative effort and some terrific individuals like Gayle Grove, Bill Hewitt, Rebecca Jessop, Mike Wilkes, Kenny Butler, Gilbert Reddish, Austin Crise and others deserve recognition and praise for their accomplishments, and instead they’re getting walking papers and a list of second guesses. It’s shameful really.

And let’s not forget the two hardest working dogs in showbiz, [drum roll please] a great big hand for Natty and Nipper! And it’s not fair that there is no unemployment for working dogs. They’re not happy about that.

We kept The Senator in operation and in the process increased our debt in order to keep the sick patient alive to be around for the eventual cure. Hey, I think I heard Obama say that the other day! We reasoned that we were on our own to sink or swim, the cavalry wasn’t coming, and therefore it was up to us to also deal with what was happening outside The Senator. So keeping our commercial district as stable as possible for Belvedere Square to be worthy of redevelopment investment was added to our list of duties while the city continually turned a deaf ear. Our real mistake was assuming that if we pulled this off, The Senator would also be included in the eventual redevelopment of our commercial district once the cavalry did arrive.

If the show is to go on, you deal with what you have at the time and not what you should have. We did all that we could to survive this particularly difficult decade by producing scores of special events and creating as many new commemorative sidewalk blocks as possible to dedicate and uncover for the TV media. The truth be told, it was pointedly done with smoke and mirrors over time to foster a media-driven illusion of commerce and stability for our troubled commercial district, just like in the movies! Surprisingly, it worked.

That period also highlights the crucial economic synergy that ideally exists between historic landmark theatres like The Senator and the business districts that surround them. It’s a co-dependent relationship that’s win/win when the primary elements remain in balance, with the theatre as the foot-traffic generating entertainment component. The circular dynamic dramatically energizes the surrounding shops and restaurants and vice versa. When that critical equilibrium is lost, however, the results can be catastrophic.

L: Belvedere Square was thankfully redeveloped, however. It’s why I moved into this community, in addition to the amenity of The Senator Theatre. Did the eventual resurgence of the square have a positive impact and lighten the load?

TK: Yes and no. When Belvedere Square was eventually redeveloped, the economics required that a sizable subsidy of public dollars be provided to the property owners to restore commerce and help bring our commercial district back online. It was a cause for celebration when over 5 million dollars in public funds were granted to help to redevelop the square, restructuring a vital neighborhood amenity to benefit our district. It was a commendable investment in our community by the city and state that we all worked on together to bring about.

We rejoiced when the cavalry finally did arrive with Andrew Frank, then at BDC, leading the charge. We were crestfallen, however, when they handed over 5 million in public grant funding to the anointed developers across the street, made a few empty promises to us and to the community, and then they saddled up and rode back downtown, and that was that.

Following the investment of redevelopment funds, Belvedere Square and The Senator began to change places. The square was thankfully on the way back up, but The Senator’s cumulative debt load had become problematic. The industry itself was also changing, and the theatre stalled in its incremental forward progress and began sinking.

Although the State of Maryland provided periodic interim funding at a few critical junctures along the way, The Senator Theatre was ultimately left by the BDC and the City to sink or swim on its own. Let me take a moment to highlight at this point that the state folks at DHCD have consistently been right on the mark as far as their consistent recognition that letting The Senator slip under the waves for any period is potentially disastrous and very counterproductive economically in our commercial district. So they made the tough decisions when they had to and we have great respect for their professionalism.

That’s not to say they always agreed with us or didn’t get a bit confrontational on occasion when they felt they should. They have always been fair and open to communication, unlike their city counterparts.

Back to the square, I’m told that siding with the community activists and joining forces to protest the years of neglect and command attention downtown did not endear us to Mr. Frank and his cohorts at the BDC, who apparently took it personally.

This was confirmed by Councilman Henry when he first took office, assessed the overall York and Belvedere situation, and noted from a report that he requested that the BDC and the city were trying unsuccessfully to manipulate the financial statistics to obscure the fact that they had funded the square with large grants, but frozen out The Senator and not provided any redevelopment funding to our side of the street for over a decade. He contacted me about this, and told me that he had informed Andrew Frank and Mayor Dixon that this was unwise and untenable. He also noted that in his past dealings in Patterson Park and in other instances, glaring situations like this that went on for years to the detriment of the area were most often due to a conflict between the city and certain individuals, and that it was usually something personal.

When I confirmed that assessment, he said he planned to get on it, and get beyond whatever it is. While we were optimistic that this would occur, it didn’t, and over time Councilman Henry seemingly switched his orientation and allegiance from a community perspective, which he did have when first elected, to a firm alignment with the BDC/Mayor’s office axis and the commercial development interests.

The Senator and Belvedere Square have always been attached at the hip, and that remains so today. That critical dynamic has not been well understood and the lopsided investment of public funds on one side of the street, with five million on one side and none on the other, was a huge strategic blunder, and now those chickens of neglect have now come home to roost. So now it’s The Senator’s dire economic circumstances that are threatening the commercial viability of Belvedere Square and beyond. It’s a maddening reversal that should have been avoided and it seem that I have been targeted to take the fall for it.

L: In 2007, when The Senator had a severe cash flow crisis and with the recent financial troubles, city officials noted to the media that they had made significant financial investments to assist your efforts and they were quite critical regarding your management skills. Was that a fair assessment on their part?

TK: Nope. I suppose it may be a fair assessment if it was true, but it’s not. Those harsh, critical statements were apparently made and repeated with intent to undermine my personal and professional credibility and shore up past unjust characterizations that aren’t accurate. The BDC and Mayor’s office statements were picked up as “Kiefaber’s is the problem at The Senator” sound bites by the TV and radio stations and repeated so often that within a day or so the public simply believes what they’re told by city officials, and that it must be the case. It’s not, however.

L: Yes, I can confirm from experience that the public does believe what has been claimed by the city, that they have made significant financial investments in The Senator Theatre over the past decade, and as a result, they’ve lost faith in your abilities. They’ve gone on to loudly demand that you must quickly give up your ownership and no longer be involved with The Senator Theatre. How do you respond to that assessment by the city?

TK: Well, here we go. They say you can’t fight City Hall and I suppose it’s wise to heed that old saying. Those clichés persist for good reason. On the other hand, the negative statements about me intended to undermine credibility and limit options didn’t really start at City Hall, they initially began in the mid to late 90’s when our relationship with Bob Embry and the crew at The Abell Foundation went south. It was pretty apparent at that time that my professional credibility in some influential downtown circles went with it. Things really did change dramatically once that happened. In retrospect it’s pretty apparent that once you’re entered onto Embry’s list of untouchables for whatever reason, that’s it, and good luck because your goose generally is cooked in this town.

I’ve had friends who would not go to some downtown gatherings with me out of fear that Bob Embry would see them hanging with me. Now that’s absurd, but it’s also an indication of the power and influence he’s accumulated over the years with a firm hand on the funding valve that involves so many recipients. He’s clearly not someone to mess with if you can help it, but that just wasn’t in the cards for me. You have to play the hand you’re dealt, and in this instance, sometimes the cards aren’t worth a dime if you don’t lay them down.

The pervasive negativity about me that originated in select instances then effectively took on a life of their own and later amplified through the BDC and Andrew Frank in 2002 when he was a player there.

To impart a sense and some specifics of how this dynamic works in town with the BDC and others when they utilize the media, I’ll describe an egregious example from my perspective that has certainly worked well for them over the years, so far that is.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon.

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Tomorrow: Theatre Historical Society of America to visit The Senator!

Tomorrow afternoon at 12:45 PM, about 90 members of the Theatre Historical Society of America will visit The Senator as part of a tour of historic theatres in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The society's president, Karen Colizzi Noonan, told me that she has always wanted to vist The Senator. I understand there will be a very special presentation happening during their visit. Stay tuned for details!

In January, Ms. Noonan wrote a letter in support of The Senator to public officials including Governor O'Malley and Mayor Dixon.

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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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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Open Letter to Bill Henry #2

After a heated email exchange today in which Bill Henry asked Tom Kiefaber for access to The Senator's listserv for a response, which he wanted Tom to agree to before even seeing the response, Tom just sent out another open letter to Bill through The Senator's listserv. I'll make no bones about it. I agree with Tom.

July 7, 2009

Dear Councilman Henry:

I received your response to my July 5th open letter, and your request for unfettered access to our entire email list serve in order to respond.

The blunt answer to your inquiry is no.

As my earlier letter stated, there are increasing concerns emerging among your constituents and the city and county communities surrounding the theatre and Belvedere Square over the upcoming public auction of The Senator on 7/22, and its aftermath.

The message "BILL HENRY WON'T MEET WITH THE COMMUNITY ABOUT THE AUCTION" on the front of the Senator's marquee was pointedly displayed to alert the public of your ongoing refusal to agree to meet at The Senator with the community and discuss what's taking place. The Senator's marquee also expresses a related community sentiment that reads: "THE CITY'S AUCTION OF THE SENATOR IS RUSSIAN ROULETTE OR A RIGGED SHAM".

The historic theatre's marquee is one of the few active channels with the public we have left as The Senator is headed to a little known, barely understood and potentially disastrous city public auction in two weeks time. It's an alarming situation that has apparently sent you and your associates to ground and it appears that you're simply dodging the crucial issues and running out the clock, while demanding that the critical marquee message be removed immediately.

Beyond the marquee, The Senator's extensive e-mail list serve is our most effective method to disseminate information and communicate laterally to a large recipient base nationwide. You and your colleagues at the city and the BDC are not hindered in this way and you have readily utilized the local media in ways that have served to undermine my credibility and confuse the public, but have unfortunately not defused a needlessly explosive situation at The Senator Theatre.

As our sole 4th district City Council representative and our self-appointed single community representative that participated in the private Senator Theatre steering committee discussions and deliberations, you've represented the city's position in this matter. Until recently when conflicts of interest and inconsistencies became apparent, you cheerfully assured the public through regular media appearances that the city's upcoming auction of The Senator was a well though out and necessary step on the way to save Baltimore's irreplaceable landmark theatre.

Until just a few weeks ago you were the city's high-profile point person representing the position of the BDC and the mayor's office and making effective use of the media to calm and reassure the public that the rapidly upcoming public auction was a necessity and that good things would result for the community.

You've been an enthusiastic advocate through the media and in public and private meetings across North Baltimore for the city's position regarding a Byzantine plan concocted by Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank and the BDC. The mantra repeated to the media and the community was that the outcome of the city's public auction was under control. You regularly assured all concerned that the city was going to soon own the theatre and you and the city will control the process of choosing the new owner or tenant to fulfill your personal commitment and your desire to "save The Senator" on behalf of the community.

In your talking points throughout this period, your mentions of the problematic and pivotal public auction were all minimized or skipped. As a result, the public's perception is that The Senator is already owned by the city and that select members of the community will determine what to do with it. In that context, you have also gone as far as to publicly reference Buzz Cusack's avowed interest in owning the theatre, perhaps with a BDC encouraged purchase of the iconic landmark Senator Theatre and it adjacent cafe space, subsidized by the city and the seizure of my residential Orkney Road property.

You were also one of the key Steering Committee members identified to the community, who endorsed the report's misguided assessment that no one will outbid the city's 950K position at public auction. The related conclusion by the committee is that therefore The Senator Theatre cannot become a non-profit facility, because it would require ongoing subsidy by the city, yet you are also well aware that the local consultants you steered our way in 2008 determined along with the community that historic facilities with the attributes of the renowned Senator Theatre are readily capable of achieving sustained funding without requiring the city to continue to foot the bill once the theatre achieves non-profit ownership status.

There are alarming contradictory factors and conflicting agendas inherent in the overall situation that need to be faced head-on and clarified now before the upcoming auction takes place. In this light, we feel strongly that you have a compelling and immediate need to demonstrate your political leadership and we again call for you to meet at The Senator and respond to a variety of concerns raised at an open and transparent public meeting. To continue to dissemble and decline the request in the face of what is unfolding is grossly irresponsible.

After 70 years of community-based family ownership, the crucial determination of what The Senator will become has been effectively taken from my family's guidance and the community's mandate for its future. It's probably headed out from under the city's control as well, in a risky game with potentially dire downside consequences for all concerned. This is unacceptable.

It's apparent behind-the-scenes that the city's murky, convoluted plan to utilize an extremely risky public auction process to eliminate the state's lien and acquire ownership of The Senator on the cheap has too many unethical goals. It has now jumped the tracks and is headed to the cliffs at high speed. After the auction, if it takes place, the result will in all probability be sadly headed through the courts, in a drawn out, slow motion process.

Under these circumstances, rather than posture and seek access to our list serve to possibly obfuscate the situation and delay the public's recognition of what may occur and what's at stake, we implore you drop the artifice and agree to meet as soon as possible at The Senator with the public.

You frankly appear to be hiding from your constituents and a confused general public regarding what they need and deserve to know immediately before the final gavel comes down at The Senator. It's currently a bungled and mercurial situation, Councilman Henry, and the city's miscalculated efforts to control the outcome have backfired, and now things are spinning out of control. This is not the time to run for high ground in your district.

Weeks ago you completed a mission to lull the public into complacency with what are turning out to be inaccurate and false assumptions. It's now an 11th hour turning point in The Senator's rich history, and you will hopefully rise the occasion and demonstrate your leadership by responding to concerns and providing straightforward reckoning of what's at stake, and where you stand. In Andy Frank's absence, Mayor Dixon needs to address these issues as well while timely opportunities remain to avert a disaster.

You have not supported the extended community's enlightened mandate for The Senator Theatre, in collaboration with non-profit historic theatre professionals and the city and state economic development representatives, to transition to not for profit ownership as so many other cities and communities have done successfully with their historic theatres nationwide. That's what you and The Mayor's constituents and The Senator Theatre deserve, not the rapidly approaching circus spectacle of an already tainted and risky public auction.


Tom Kiefaber
The Senator Theatre

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Block Party at The Senator! (Video)

The following is my video documentary of The Senator's recent sidewalk block painting party. It includes interviews with Senator owner Tom Kiefaber and long time key staff member Gayle Grove, as well as many volunteers.

This is not the interview with Tom that was mentioned on the Anthony McCarthy Show, and which should be ready for publication soon. That one will be much longer and transcribed into written form.

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Monday, July 06, 2009

An Open Letter to Councilman Henry from Tom Kiefaber at The Senator

The Senator's listserv just sent the following open letter to Bill Henry, which I'll paste in after my own comment.

From my personal perspective, if Bill Henry wants to show his good faith with regard to The Senator, he could make sure the city stops spraying massive amounts of water all over The Senator's roof and marquee from their temporary pipes along Rosebank Avenue FOR THE SECOND TIME IN ABOUT A MONTH. I took video of this today, which I'll probably put up on YouTube at some point.

Coincidentally, the water started spraying all over the marquee soon after Bill Henry had his little chat on the phone with Tom Kiefaber that is described in the open letter, but I suppose it's just my own paranoia to think the two might possibly be connected. Just to be clear, I'm going to point out that Tom K actually laughed at me when I suggested to him that the two might be connected, so it's definitely only me that thinks so.

UPDATE: Gayle at The Senator called the city and someone came out and said they couldn't fix it because it was contracted out, but noted that it was the second time it had happened in the same place. Somebody put a large orange plastic object used for diverting traffic on it, which does have the effect of at least keeping the water from spraying up in the air. When I arrived at the theatre a few minutes ago, a guy in an orange vest was at least working in the general vicinity. Now Gayle just reported it's shut off.

Well, enough about the mysterious spraying water. Here's the open letter from The Senator's listserv:

July 6, 2009

Dear Councilman Henry:

I was hoping that your call today was for the purpose of discussing the alarming upcoming city auction of The Senator Theatre and the BDC's misguided Russian roulette approach to the theatre's uncertain future.

While I understand your concern over the marquee message currently displayed at The Senator, our assertion that you have declined to date to address the murky situation in an open and transparent manner is the truth. If it hurts to see the truth displayed on The Senator's marquee, then do something about it beyond simply ordering it to be removed.

Your stance of avoidance in refusing to agree to meet at The Senator with your constituents and other concerned citizens is unacceptable. Running out the clock and ducking the issue at this juncture is a dangerous and irresponsible course of action. It's not how you represented yourself to the community to obtain office.

We sincerely feel that your representation of your constituents regarding The Senator Theatre and its uncertain future has been abysmal to date. Aligning with the BDC and The Mayor's Office and overtly shilling for their potentially disastrous, disingenuous approach, rather than responding to community and constituent concerns over this matter, does not reflect your avowed platform and values when you requested our support.

In response to your specific request, The Senator's marquee once prominently displayed "ELECT BILL HENRY", in the largest font possible. We agreed to display that message to all concerned in good faith, based on your words and promises to the voters and to us. Your subsequent actions however, have proven otherwise. What counts with us is your actions and not your words, and as a result we have come to regret our past support of your candidacy.

Ducking the last pivotal town hall meeting over The Senator Theatre crisis called by Senator Joan Conway, while choosing to take calls from the town meeting perched on a barstool at Zen West, did not go unnoticed. Neither did your celebration with the Mayor's office insiders and BDC representatives at Zen West immediately following the town meeting you were too busy to attend.

I note this behavior because from our perspective it's indicative of the cavalier manner that you have been conducting yourself throughout this crisis regarding The Senator Theatre and its perilous future.

Enough is enough.

As a result, we will not acquiesce to your demands to remove the critical message on our marquee, which from our perspective reflects a growing understanding of your allegiance to others and not to the community. It tells it like it is.

It is also unfortunate that you still refuse to meet with the community at The Senator Theatre, despite our standing offer to schedule a timely gathering with your constituents, based around your busy schedule.

Please also note that our refusal to remove the message displaying your name from our marquee does not justify hanging up abruptly. It's counter productive to an expeditious resolution of the critical issues at hand.

Emotions aside, we look forward to working with you and representatives from the city to explore timely alternatives to the city's auction, alternatives that will avert the unacceptable risks the auction represents. Your leadership is sorely needed to help fulfill the mandate formed in the past two years among our extended North Baltimore communities to ensure that The Senator makes the critical transition to not-for-profit ownership.

Not-for-profit ownership of The Senator is the community's mandate that has been achieved in scores of other communities nationwide to preserve, protect and enhance the uses of their beloved historic theatres. It's a mandate that can and should take place at The Senator Theatre.

The "cliffhanger" situation at The Senator Theatre can still have a happy ending, and we encourage you to meet with the community and recognize the wisdom of this approach before it's too late.


Tom Kiefaber

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The City's Auction is Russian Roulette or a Rigged Sham!

Baltimore City is playing Russian Roulette with The Senator.

Baltimore City is playing Russian Roulette with The Senator.

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Anthony McCarthy Show interview link

Tom Kiefaber's interview on the Anthony McCarthy Show on Friday can be found here. Sorry for the sound quality. The stream failed on my computer at the last minute and I had to use a backup recording method.

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Watch This Space!

Coming Soon: My Interview with Tom Kiefaber

I've got a bit more work to do. Should be in the next few days...

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Friday, July 03, 2009

My Blog was mentioned on the Anthony McCarthy Show!

I was just listening to Tom Kiefaber on the Anthony McCarthy Show, and both Anthony McCarthy and Tom said very nice things about my blog. Thanks, guys!

Well, they let the cat out of the bag. This weekend I'm going to publish an interview/profile with Senator owner Tom Kiefaber that I expect will be quite controversial. I guess I better get busy on finishing that up!

Tom has been great to work with on the interview. He's given me quite a bit of time, and I know he's always very busy, so I'm very happy to have this opportunity, too.

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The folks at The Senator tell it like it is.

Here's The Senator's marquee as of last night...

Bill Henry won't meet with the community about the auction

Councilman Henry won't meet with the community

With a public challenge like this, will Bill Henry be able to continue to run out the clock on the auction without meeting with the community?

Don't forget to listen to the Anthony McCarthy Show on WEAA 88.9 FM this evening from 6 PM to 7 PM, when I'm sure Tom Kiefaber will comment on this and more.

No, this post isn't what Adam Meister of Examiner.com was hinting about yesterday. That's still to come. Stay tuned!

And, The Senator is having another block party this weekend, so we can finish up the painting of the sidewalk blocks. There's still a lot to be done. We had a blast painting the blocks last weekend. A lot of great volunteers came out and there was music and drumming and a good, creative time was had by all. Stop by anytime on Saturday or Sunday from about noon 'til dusk. Wear something you don't mind getting oil-based paint and turpentine on.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Tom Kiefaber on Anthony McCarthy Show TOMORROW!

Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber's appearance on the Anthony McCarthy Show on WEAA 88.9 FM has been rescheduled. He will now be on the show TOMORROW, Friday July 3, from 6 PM to 7 PM, during the 2nd hour of the show. The show starts at 5 PM.

Listen live here.

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Stay Tuned...

If postings here have been a bit scarce of late, it's because I'm working on a bigger project or two --- very exciting stuff! Stay tuned here, because there may be a bomb about to drop (figuratively speaking). Mindblowing revelations will set off giant lightbulbs over heads all over the country, or so I hope.

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