After years of struggles, longtime owner Tom Kiefaber shows his final film
|Former Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber will screen his last film tonight at the North Baltimore landmark. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / June 10, 2010)|
Baltimore’s most passionate advocate of historic movie houses stood before the stage last night, and addressed a standing room only crowd of about 1,000. His voice cracking a little with emotion, he said, for the final time: “I’m Tom Kiefaber, and welcome to the historic Senator Theatre.”
Kiefaber, 58, ended his at times controversial career at the Senator’s helm — and the family history of 71 years of continuous operation — by presenting two free public screenings Wednesday of ” Star Wars: A New Hope,” the George Lucas classic about Jedi warriors fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds.
“We’ve felt kind of alone here in the past year or so,” Kiefaber said. “But we don’t feel alone tonight.”
Throughout the evening, Kiefaber seemed saddened and understandably distracted, but determined to be gracious.
When asked what he’d miss the most about the landmark, Kiefaber said, “Opening the doors. Greeting the neighborhood residents who stopped by with their dogs to say hello. The daily miracle.”
Kiefaber is the grandson of Frank H. Durkee, the man who built the Senator and opened it on Oct. 5, 1939. Today, Baltimore City, the Senator’s current owner, hands over management of the cinema to James “Buzz” Cusack, operator of the Charles Theatre, and his daughter, Kathleen.
As the Senator’s owner and operator, Kiefaber possessed unique strengths. But he also could be his own worst enemy.
When Kiefaber was asked at an afternoon news conference how matters had come to such a pass that he had lost control of the theater to which he had dedicated his life, he said, “Honestly, I have no idea.”
And yet, the Senator has spent much of the past decade confronted by one crisis after another that threatened to turn off its floodlights for good, in part because the theater found it difficult to compete with the multiplexes that sprang up all over the Baltimore area.
It became a familiar cycle: Kiefaber would announce that because of its mounting debts, the Senator was in dire straits, and he would plead for financial help. There would be a dramatic, 11th-hour reprieve. And then the problems would begin anew.
Last year, the theater finally went into foreclosure. The city later bought the property at auction, and until its fate could be determined, Kiefaber continued to operate the Senator.
During the next six weeks, the Cusacks will nail down the details of their plan to operate the theater. The lights will remain on, and they have said they hope to get the Senator up and showing movies again as soon as they can.
But the change will break a rare connection between a current theater and the great movie palaces of the past. The nearly four dozen theaters run by Frank Durkee crisscrossed Baltimore for decades. (Kiefaber’s father handled the printing for the family business; his mother worked for it as a secretary.)
Kiefaber fell in love with the Senator as a child.
“When I was growing up, I spent a great deal of time here, as many kids do in a family business,” he said.
As an 8-year-old, he converted a storage area beneath the stairs leading to the balcony into his own private clubhouse, with a table, chairs, paper and crayons. The neon from the skylight flooded the space with a magical green glow, tinged with pink.
And he claimed that one particular velvet-seated but hard-backed folding chair might have been responsible for his choice of a career.
“One of the old-time operators told me that I was running one day and fell and hit my head hard on the back of that chair,” Kiefaber said. “He told me, ‘That’s what made you get into this business.’ ”
Kiefaber honored the family heritage by ensuring pristine film presentation and bringing old-fashioned showmanship to Maryland premieres and local events. He even instituted a “Walk of Fame” with signed and decorated sidewalk blocks in front of the theater, commemorating films like Barry Levinson‘s “Diner.”
He decided on “Star Wars” for his farewell screenings because that was the first movie that he presented after taking over day-to-day operations of the theater in 1977. Fittingly, he chose to show the original, untouched copy, and not the digital, doctored version that most current audiences see.
“It’s where I came in,” he said. “At the time, people said it was either going to be a disaster, or it would change everything. Well, it changed everything — for me, too.”
While the 4:30 p.m. showing was going on, perhaps a dozen patrons had erected folding chairs and spread blankets in a line outside the Senator. They were waiting in the 96-degree heat for the 8 p.m. show to begin. And as the 8 p.m. screening began, the packed theater was standing room only.
Two of those spaces were occupied by Jason Cindric of Abingdon and his 4-year-old daughter, Jordyn. Did they perhaps not realize there were still plenty of seats available for the matinee?
“I want my daughter to have the experience of coming to the Senator and waiting in line to see a ‘Star Wars’ movie,” Jason Cindric said, “the way I did when I camped out here in 1999 to see ‘Star Wars Episode 1.'”
Robert A. Harris, a film restoration expert famed for bringing “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Godfather” back to life, admires Kiefaber’s dedication to quality presentation of films.
As theater owners scramble to keep up with the new technology, Harris said, many a former cinema palace has undergone renovations that have stripped it of its ability to show classic films.
Kiefaber would also use his Senator’s marquee to pay tribute to the passing of national and local cultural luminaries, to trumpet charitable causes — and, occasionally, to vent his displeasure with city officials when he perceived that he had been given a raw break.
As recently as five days ago, he and his supporters leveled sweeping charges of impropriety against city officials and the Baltimore Development Corporation, the quasi-public agency charged with overseeing the Senator’s redevelopment process.
Kiefaber contended that the BDC-run acquisition and development process were “rife throughout with collusion, fraud, and deceit.”
He made accusations on behalf of other entities — such as that Towson University had been pressured to withdraw its bid to redevelop the Senator — that didn’t stand up to the light of day. Towson officials later stated that economic concerns were their sole reason for bowing out.
But, even Kiefaber’s bitterest enemy would acknowledge that he has paid a steep price for his obsession, by investing personal money in the cinema that he could ill afford to lose. Kiefaber said that his daughter, Grace, a college sophomore, has to drop out of school for her junior year. His house in Sparks is up for sale. And he and his wife are splitting up.
“I’ve got to face the reality of what I’ve done to my family,” he said.
At his farewell news conference, Kiefaber and his supporters denied rumors that they would leave with a fuss, either by removing the theater’s cameras and sound equipment to “protect” them, or by chaining themselves to the front door.
They went out of their way to wish the Cusacks luck. “May the Force be with them,” Kiefaber said.
The evening screening of “Star Wars” wound up around 10:30 p.m. Kiefaber stood in the lobby and shook 1,000 hands.
After the last customer had left, he and about a half-dozen friends would remain behind and begin packing up, starting with thousands of historic movie posters. He’ll have to find something to do with his grandfather’s desk, which has stood for decades in a place of honor in the lobby. Kiefaber planned to remain in the building overnight, until at least 11 a.m. today, when the Cusacks were scheduled to arrive.
The very last thing to go will be the giant, inflatable replica of the Millennium Falcon — Hans Solo’s ship — that has hung above the concession stand for years.
“That will be an emotional moment,” Kiefaber said, “when we have to take the Falcon down.”