- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009


The Senator Theatre, a nationally recognized single-screen movie house, has stopped showing first-run movies after almost 70 years, its owner announced Monday. Owner Tom Kiefaber is months behind on his mortgage payments for the theater, and a foreclosure auction has been scheduled for next month. He had been trying to turn the Senator into a nonprofit with help from the city but says the debt may be too deep for that to happen before the auction.

Still, Mr. Kiefaber said Monday’s announcement led to an immediate outpouring of support, and he has not given up hope.

“I still believe in happy endings,” Mr. Kiefaber said, “and hopefully the Senator will have another rich, 70-year run and be owned by a community-based nonprofit.”

The last time the theater was scheduled for auction, in early 2007, Mr. Kiefaber was able to keep it running after receiving nearly $110,000 in donations. The situation is more dire this time. The Senator owes about $950,000 to 1st Mariner Bank, Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank said.

Baltimore officials have offered a $320,000, interest-free loan to any nonprofit that would take over the Senator, but no one has come forward so far. The city has guaranteed the theater’s loan with 1st Mariner for $600,000, so it has a financial interest in getting the theater on solid footing.

“It is a tremendous community and cultural resource, and our goal would be to try to reopen the theater as a first-run movie house, but we do not have a solution right now,” Mr. Frank said.

Mr. Kiefaber said a foreclosure of the theater could result in him losing his house, which has been used as collateral against the loan. He also plans to close the Rotunda Cinematheque, a two-screen theater he owns in Baltimore.

The Senator, an art-deco structure with a huge neon marquee and 900 seats, opened in October 1939 and has been in Mr. Kiefaber’s family for its entire existence. The first feature it played was “Stanley and Livingstone,” starring Spencer Tracy as Henry M. Stanley.

It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. It has hosted dozens of premieres, which are commemorated in concrete slabs on the sidewalk outside, and in recent years, the north Baltimore neighborhood that surrounds it has been revitalized.

Nonetheless, Mr. Kiefaber has struggled to keep the 900-seat theater afloat as moviegoers have flocked to suburban multiplexes with more choices. He also has complained about film-industry practices that make it difficult for independently run theaters to show certain titles.

Theaters like the Senator face a host of difficulties, said Ross Melnick, a co-founder of Cinema Treasures, a Web site devoted to the preservation of historic theaters.

Such theaters are particularly vulnerable to competition from multiplexes because they operate under narrower margins and can’t move underperforming movies to smaller auditoriums, Mr. Melnick said. Most single-screen theaters in big cities don’t show first-run movies, and the ones that do - including the Ziegfeld in New York and the Uptown in Washington - are owned by chains.

“There just aren’t a lot of single-screen theaters from the 1930s that are in as pristine condition as the Senator is,” Mr. Melnick said. “I’m saddened, and I’m going to be worried about the theater until I know it’s in good hands.”

Barring a last-minute infusion of cash or other unexpected developments, the last first-run movie shown under Mr. Kiefaber’s ownership was Sunday night’s screening of “Watchmen.” Mr. Kiefaber plans to show classic and cult films until the ownership situation is resolved.

“The revenue from first-run films in this economy has regrettably made it impossible for me to meet payroll for our loyal staff beyond this point,” Mr. Kiefaber said.

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