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

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What’s Right With This Picture?

The other afternoon before dinner, I approached the gorgeous historic theatre with my family, walking under the beautiful marquee. After standing in line briefly at the box office, we purchased our tickets to a popular current film at a member’s discount.

The membership to the non-profit theatre had been a Christmas gift from my mother – one I had requested. My recent experience with Baltimore City’s inept and clueless handling of The Senator Theatre had made me all too aware of just how precious the other historic theatre in my life actually is.

We strolled into the outer lobby of the theatre, where an usher took our tickets. We stood in line for concessions, and were quickly served fresh popcorn with real butter, delivered in paper buckets and not bags. Passing through another set of doors, we strolled into the glittering inner lobby of the theatre, all of its gilding and original decorations looking stunning, as they always have for many years now.

Walking into the fully restored original auditorium, we found an open row of seats in front of the overhanging balcony. The gilding on the ceiling shone and dazzled as the organist played live music on the theatre’s period organ before the show.

My family and I had arrived at the most stunning entertainment venue in Southeastern Michigan – the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan – for a matinee showing of “The King’s Speech.”

The Michigan Theater was built in 1928 by the W.S. Butterfield Company, a regional theatre chain. It is now owned by a non-profit that uses memberships and donations to supplement its ticket sales and keep the restored theatre in prime condition. Hundreds of historic theatres across the nation are best served by non-profit ownership, which can raise the funds to keep the expensive buildings as beautiful as they were designed to be. Theatres like the Michigan often receive around 40% of their funding from donations and memberships, not ticket sales – an important consideration in today’s economic climate of dwindling attendance for films in theatres.

The Michigan’s schedule is a mix of high-quality, critically acclaimed new films, classic films, live music and other special events, and even the occasional blockbuster. Laurie Anderson and Lyle Lovett & John Hiatt will all appear there in January. Lewis Black will be there and the theater will also host a Charlie Chaplin film festival in February. Jeff Beck will appear there in March.

All in all, the Michigan is one of America’s prime examples of historic theatre ownership and operation done right. It should serve as a model for what The Senator Theatre should become, if only the input and advice of experts in the field would be sought and heeded.

I’ve described the Michigan in some detail above, primarily because I think Baltimoreans who have not been to a successfully restored non-profit theatre like it have often had a difficult time envisioning such a thing. No such thing exists in Baltimore, after all. In other cities, like Ann Arbor, however, such theatres are magnificent and thriving cultural assets.

Almost every little thing is perfect at the Michigan, but not quite. As I left the theater and looked back at the lit marquee, I noticed that just a few of the tiny little light bulbs surrounding the name of the theater were out. Just a few, and they’re those tiny little pain in the butt light bulbs that were so numerous on theatres of the Michigan’s vintage (older than The Senator). Really a major task to keep them all lit at the same time. The bulbs are tiny and there are hundreds of them, so it’s almost a given that a few will always be out on any theatre of that vintage.

Even so, I smiled to myself as I reflected that if my friend Tom Kiefaber were responsible for that marquee, he would not rest for a moment until each tiny light bulb was lit. Anal retentiveness, thy name is Tom.

Perhaps the lesson here is that, even if a city has the foresight and vision to do the right thing with its historic theatre, and even if it has enough funding to take care of the major restoration, it still helps to have an uncompromising, obsessive person or persons with a real passion for the theatre – people like former Senator owner Tom Kiefaber – if every little thing is going to be truly perfect, at least most of the time.

Sadly, this reminded me that the new for-profit operators of The Senator Theatre have been badly neglecting its marquee and its neon – allowing nearly half of the much larger, less numerous light bulbs under it to burn out over the past couple of months, neglecting to keep the neon behind the glass bricks lit, even allowing the neon letters to go out so that, last time I passed by The Senator at night, the letters read SE—TOR, and not The Senator. Tom Kiefaber would never have allowed this neglect of easily maintained key features of the exterior for even one day, if it was humanly and financially possible to repair them. The new operators have been neglecting these simple repairs for months now.

But unlit neon and neglected changes of light bulbs are not the worst of the new operators’ problems. Attendance at the theatre has not improved much since they took over, although they got a temporary boost from all the publicity surrounding the reopening. That means the basic underlying economic problem is still there.

It should be no surprise that people are not going to flock back to The Senator in attendance numbers to rival the 1940s, but somehow Baltimore City has been slow to grasp this fact. In fact, I recently ran across a Daily Record article from April, 2009, in which then Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank is quoted as saying “At its peak [the Senator] drew 350,000 people a year, and that’s the goal we’re trying to get back to.” Uh, Mr. Frank? There are 365 days in a year. That works out to almost 1,000 people a day. Hate to break it to you, but that’s not happening again with first-run films. NOT. EVER. AGAIN. This is quite a revealing quote, however, that shows one of the totally erroneous assumptions on which the City has based their handling of this matter.

To make matters worse, the new operators’ poorly-defined, ill-advised, and preservation-insensitive plans for renovation were rightly rejected recently by the Maryland Historical Trust, the state authority that determines the award of state historic tax credits, based on the national standards for historic preservation that have been set by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The rejection of the sub-standard plans is a huge opportunity to revisit the overall plans for the future of The Senator and course-correct a scheme that has gone badly awry from the beginning. Now is the time to do what should have been done in the first place, and consult historic theatre preservation and redevelopment experts, not just about the plans for renovation or restoration, but about the whole overarching plan.

Unfortunately, though, Baltimore City government is poised to bungle this again, as they may just continue to push through the existing plan, which has already gone so badly awry in just a few months. Outside experts need to be brought in, and they need to be brought in now, if we are to avoid the further slow decline and probable eventual destruction of The Senator Theatre.

Personally, I’d advise starting with a little research into the hundreds of theatres like the Michigan, all across the country, that are doing this right.

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