Baltimore’s Senator Theatre – One Year Later

It has been more than a full year since Mr. Cusack and his daughter became the operating tenants to the city owned, internationally recognized Senator Theatre. Many Baltimoreans had high expectations that the operators of The Charles Theatre would rejuvenate and revitalize The Senator given the plans presented. However, lately I’ve been hearing from residents and patrons that the state of the theatre in the meantime has deteriorated.

Having not been in the Belvedere Square area recently I made it a point to drive past The Senator this Thursday night. I was literally stunned by just how badly the theatre looked from the street. In my 27 years as a patron of The Senator .

While I cannot call myself a close friend of longtime Senator Theatre exhibition expert and film preservationist legend William (“Bill”) Hewitt, I’ve enjoyed countless films he presented over the years. I was even more fortunate have briefly worked with him (as did my family and several others during 18th month all-volunteer period). Given this and what I’ve learned of the man from others, it’s obvious he was the consummate film exhibition professional, and, a tremendous contributor to The Senator’s fame. I am therefore comfortable stating that he would NEVER have accepted the “black-eyed” appearance The Senator Theatre now conveys in the Belvedere Square community.

Moreover, my heart and jaw dropped as I realized that this man’s “memorial”, placed on the iconic marquee, occupied the dark center section.

A recent article by Adam Bednar writes:

[Mr. Cusack] also said there’s no current maintenance being done on the building because they are waiting for state funds and city approval to begin a rehab of the structure.

If this has been the approach by the tenants toward maintenance, as it seems, what should we expect if they are not awarded government funding they expect to receive?

The citizen-owners of this Baltimore landmark, historic building advocates, film historians and preservationists alike should not only take note of the situation, but make their opinions and voices heard – via online petition, yes, but also at Baltimore City Hall. For what does it say of us if we allow this last remaining, operational, historic Baltimore movie house to be neglected – In a state in which The Senator Theatre and The League of Historic American Theatres calls home?

-Tom Harris


SENATOR Theatre: FREE Farewell to Kiefaber screenings of rare STAR WARS (1977) print on July 21

“This is it!” – Red Leader, Star Wars

STAR WARS Style A half-sheet by Tom Jung

STAR WARS Style A half-sheet by Tom Jung (1977)

The Force Is With Them!

Baltimore’s Senator Theatre Ends 71 Years of Continuous
Family Ownership and Operation.

“Friends of The Senator” Express A New Hope for a Rapid Reopening

Baltimore, MD
July 21, 2010

The Friends of The Senator (FOTS) theatre advocacy group announced today
that Wednesday 7/21 marks the final day of operation for Baltimore’s historic
Senator Theatre. The shutdown date was designated by Baltimore’s City Hall.
Instructions are to cease operations, and for the theatre’s ex-owner to remove
all personal items. Baltimore City took ownership of the renowned, single screen
Art Deco landmark at a foreclosure auction in July of 2009.

For the final evening of operation, the FOTS are encouraging patrons to join
us for a gathering of The Senator’s extended family, including long time
manager Gayle Grove and The Senator’s popular border collie staff, Natty Boh
and Nipper.

The evening will feature two free celebratory screenings of a rare 1977 British
I.B. Technicolor print of “Star Wars: A New Hope” from a private collection.
Free screenings of the two hour feature will be at 4:30 pm and 8:00 pm. Doors
open at 4:00 pm for the 4:30 show.

“We wanted to do something really special for the last film to be shown at
The Senator, to honor Tom Kiefaber and his family, as well as The Senator’s
long term staff,” said FOTS President Tom Harris, who has camped on the
sidewalk at The Senator for past Star Wars midnight openings with his family.
“A film collector approached us about this rare original release print of Star
Wars, and the film is such a touchstone for so many of us, we went for it.”

“This is where I came in,” said Tom Kiefaber, in reference to Star Wars in 1977.
“I grew up in The Senator, and I officially joined the family business in 1977, just
as Star Wars was about to change the film industry forever. The saying ‘this
is where I came in’ comes from my youth, when the theatres ran short subjects,
newsreels, and features continuously. We would often arrive in the middle of a
show and stay until it was starting the repeat, noting this is where I came in.”
Also popular in those days were the weekly “cliffhanger” serials where a
young George Lucas found inspiration for “Star Wars.”

“With The Senator going dark for an indefinite time, we all feel a great
disturbance in the Force,” said FOTS Managing Director Laura Perkins.
“Kathleen Cusack from the new management team predicts The Senator may
only stay dark a few days, and we hope the Cusack team understands
the importance of the theatre to this community and reopens The Senator as
quickly as possible.”

“We have many concerns about what’s in store for The Senator, particularly
plans to demolish original features that define the character of the building’s
interior,” noted Kiefaber, “but we have no choice but to accept as graciously
as possible that the force is with them.”

* * *

Senator Theatre RFP: Kiefaber defies hush clause. Joins FOTS in “BDC is rife with fraud & collusion”


Fraud, Collusion, Deceit

Former Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber defies City Hall’s hush clause

Joins Friends of The Senator to declare BDC is rife with fraud and collusion


Baltimore, MD
July 16th, 2010

Friends of The Senator (FOTS) announced today that the 2100+ member advocacy group has denounced the Baltimore Development Corporation’s (BDC) manipulation of The Senator Theatre’s acquisition at auction on behalf of the City, and its subsequent RFP plan for the Senator Theatre, as a corrupt process rife throughout with collusion, fraud, and deceit.

The advocacy group has repeatedly implored Mayor Rawlings-Blake to investigate the allegations, based on the results of the FOTS investigative research, provided to her and her staff…

Complete text at

SENATOR Theatre RFP: No Plan Finalized but City orders theatre to go dark on July 21

SENATOR Theatre in the dark

City Orders Senator Theatre volunteers to "cease all operations on the 21st under any circumstance"

BALTIMORE, July 16 /PRNewswire/ — The Baltimore Mayor’s office announced yesterday that The Senator Theatre will go dark on July 21st. The announcement is a partial response to rising concerns of North Baltimore business owners, residents, and the 2100+ member “Friends of The Senator” theatre advocacy group, regardin…g the uncertain fate of The Senator Theatre, an iconic, nationally renowned landmark showplace that has entertained and served the North Baltimore community continuously since 1939….
Full press release at:

SENATOR Theatre: Look Back for Blame or Forward for Best Solution?

In response to our post two days ago (Mayor wants to “put a period on that”…), we received a reader’s comment, which requested a response.

Normally, we would simply allow legitimate, non-spam comments and then others to respond if motivated. However, this brought up a subject we felt should be more prominently addressed as it further illustrates the current tendency by the media, officials and then echoed by some individuals to look for blame in the past when the mission we immediately face is about the future.

Should we ignore the past? Absolutely not. In fact, we should learn from it, particularly when it comes to the economics of first-run film in the modern age.

From reader Andrea:

Why did Tom Kiefaber not attempt to create the non-profit structure you desire back in 2008 after the community railed to save him from foreclosure? Instead, he went on record as wishing to retain his private ownership.

Why was there not an outcry back then for movement to a non-profit model? And pressure placed on Mr.Kiefaber to explore that?

This disconnect is one of the many factors that leaves me — and others, I’m sure — with the distinct sense that you really are backing Mr. Kiefaber. Otherwise, you’d be taking him to task for failing to act two-plus years ago, when he had control (and, as you have repeatedly asserted, the requisite experience and knowledge). Your credibility is damaged, for me, by your consistent high praise for Mr. Kiefaber and your failure to hold him accountable for in ANY way contributing to the Senator’s current circumstances.

In my view, your lack of objectivity makes this site partisan, and at it’s core designed to support Mr. Kiefaber, rather than an impartial space for legitimate discussion about the Senator.

I hope you understand my concern and are willing to respond to it.

Tom Harris responds:

Dear Andrea et al.,

Thank you for your interest in The Senator Theatre situation!

We make no bones about our admiration for what Tom Kiefaber has accomplished. Whatever your opinion is regarding him personally, after researching the situation we firmly believe that without Kiefaber’s tenacity to keep The Senator alive, in spite of the deck being stacked against him and risking all (he has, after all, sunk everything he owns into keeping it open), the historic landmark theatre would have closed several years ago.

However, the message we have tried to get across, and by far more important than looking backward for faults, is about the best chance for a viable, sustainable future for The Senator, which we believe and have advocated for, is transition of the theatre to non-profit ownership.

Regarding your questions about Kiefaber and the non-profit message, the background is somewhat complicated, but for your consideration, here are just a few citations on the subject:

Baltimore City Paper “Coming Soon: The Box-Office Battle…” July 5, 2006

[Jed] Dietz has another idea that has been bandied about in recent years as a way to salvage the Senator from its revenue problems. “Tom should turn it into a nonprofit and go out and raise money,” he says. But Kiefaber says he has explored that possibility and, last fall, concluded that that route would be a “counterproductive error… primarily because of its current debt load.” Instead, a for-profit Senator may embark on “synergistic associations and alliances with nonprofit entities,” he writes.

Govanstowne Business Association – Letter to the mayor, January 13, 2009

We were pleased to learn in early 2008 that The Senator owner, Tom Kiefaber, and 4th district councilman Bill Henry met with you and Andrew Frank to discuss the economic difficulties… to explore a change of ownership and a possible conversion to not- for-profit operation.

WJZ “Owner Says Senator Theatre Facing Foreclosure“, March 11, 2009

Kai Jackson explains why years of fighting to stay in business could end in defeat.

Senator owner Tom Kiefaber had been in negotiations with the city to turn the historic theater into a non-profit community center, but the theater’s mortgage is now in default.

Tom Kiefaber’s Open Letter to Councilman Bill Henry, July 7, 2009:

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.

Investigative Voice “Radio Station or Restaurant?” January 27, 2010 comment posted by Kiefaber:

Had you attended the numerous community forums and town meetings in the past few years, or contributed to the scores of ongoing round table discussions, you would know of my oft-stated position first-hand. Had you ever asked me for clarification of this issue I would have told you unequivocally that my ownership tenure and my family’s 70 year stewardship of The Senator is essentially a few years overdue for the critical conversion to non-profit ownership status, and that once it occurs I will happily exit the theatre operations scene, stage right…”

The problematic debt attached to the theatre and transition to non-profit mentioned was raised again just last year at a public meeting on the subject. However, now that the foreclosure auction has taken place our understanding is that debt should no longer be an issue. So, we wonder why the benefits of such a transition, coupled with a multipurpose arts, entertainment & education program model has not been championed by officials… The city’s “steering committee/Senator Theatre Strategy Group” claimed last year it would require subsidy. Yet, last we heard, the current private business proposal expected to be approved, will also require significant public funding (on top of the ridiculously low rental of $1 per year).

Again, looking backward to place blame is not going to solve The Senator situation. What we need are forward-thinking people, particularly historic theatre redevelopment experts, to illustrate, design and execute the plan we believe will unlock The Senator’s potential. One that could help revitalize North Baltimore with diverse programming that will draw equally diverse visitors.

If anything, a look back should be teaching us that the proposed plan of returning to an exclusive first-run film format is flawed.

SENATOR Theatre RFP: Mayor wants “a period on that” while ignoring the real issues

WYPR - Midday with Dan Rodricks with Mayor Rawlings-BlakeAs stated by Dan Rodricks yesterday on WYPR’s Midday radio show, Baltimore City’s Mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has had to face a $121 million budget shortfall, problems  with a $65 million pension system for the city’s first responders and an $870,000 lawsuit settlement (dealing with zero tolerance police issues under then Mayor Martin O’Malley).

To deal with with these issues citizens and visitors face increased taxes and fees, while city employees face layoffs.

This kind of economic crunch is not just a problem in Baltimore, to be sure. But, given all this we have to question, more than ever, the administration’s wisdom regarding the historic Senator Theatre’s future.

  • On at least three occasions the input of historic theatre redevelopment experts have been refused and/or completely ignored – twice by the BDC and once by the mayor’s office!
  • The plan to be approved returns The Senator Theatre to a proven failed programming format. The same that many pointed to as leading to the theatre’s foreclosure last year: first run movies
  • On top of the nearly $1 million already invested by Baltimore City to acquire The Senator at foreclosure, the “winning” plan is expected to request in upwards of $1 million in additional taxpayer moneyall going to a private business, not a non-profit.
    A bargain for sure for the Cusack’s, but a significant financial risk for Baltimore City!

We’ve advocated for over a year (and it should be noted that Mr. Kiefaber, former owner of the theatre, even longer) that The Senator’s best chance to return to its role as an economic engine for North Baltimore is to be handed over to a non-profit organization who can raise funds (from more sources available than private business), can draw on expertise to operate this internationally recognized landmark as a multipurpose venue with a variety of programming that will bring a wider, diversified audience to the area.

Keeping that all this in mind, consider the following exchange between WYPR’s Midday host, Dan Rodricks and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake from yesterday’s program (FOTS Editors’ notes have been entered at key points):

Rodricks: Here’s another question about economic development from Laura:

“The Baltimore Development Corporation recently announced that you approved the agency’s selection of The Charles Theatre operator to take over The Senator Theatre. Do you in fact endorse that plan of action? If so, how do you justify the taxpayer’s investment of a million dollars, so far, in acquiring this historic venue?”
[Ed. note: We now know that the second half of this question was not even presented, because it asked about the additional taxpayer funding the plan expects to receive]

Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake:

“I don’t know in my time on the council…to being Mayor, there’s been an economic development project that  I have received more emails about than The Senator Theatre. It was a very complete process.
[Ed. note:  To the contrary. Expert input was ignored several times, even by the mayor’s senior staff!]
It was a transparent, open process.
[Ed: Records used by the BDC have not been released to the public, because it would prove they ignored expert input and questions concerning Robert Embry and Jay Brodie’s meeting with Towson University’s president just before WTMD withdrew from contention.
Additionally, the mayor’s office ignored a free consultation offered by an award-winning historic theatre redevelopment expert! FOTS leaders personally provided the contact information to the mayor and her senior staff in a face-to-face meeting  in early May where we were assured they would take advantage of the offer before making a decision]

“Uhm, Mr. Cusack had the winning proposal and we’re moving forward.
[Ed: Incorrect. His was the last remaining proposal – there is a huge difference! At that point, on our opinion, the RFP should have been restarted. Not only because we should not settle for “what’s left”, but because the plan did not stand up to expert scrutiny!]

I think there are so many people who have an emotional attachment and uh, are probably friendly with Mr. Kiefaber and want him to keep it no matter what.
[Ed: Yes. Because they care about The Senator and its future in the community. Any friendship with the former owner is irrelevant and was not our message. Nor was it from the hundreds we heard from who sent the emails. The overall driving message was that hands-on historical redevelopment expertise should be utilized to guide the whole process!]

But, that’s just not possible and we’ve certainly, uh,  danced that dance under very many administrations and now, you know, you and I talked about putting a period at that law suit, we’re putting a period on that relationship and moving forward. And I’m very encouraged.”
[Ed: Putting “a period” on the relationship with Kiefaber is not the point.
We sincerely wish officials AND the media stop making Kiefaber the crux of the argument! Focus on the TRUE issue: The viable, sustainable future of The Senator Theatre and what it could mean to the North Baltimore community!]

Rodricks: With all those emails you mentioned, did anyone express lack of support investing in The Senator?

Mayor: Mmmm…

Rodricks: Or was most of the mail suggestions on who should be running it? How it should be operated?
[Ed: Yes, indeed, many did, particularly those from FOTS members! Non-profit, multipurpose, arts, education, entertainment (including, but not exclusively movies)…]

Mayor: Suggestions on how to keep mr. Kiefaber there.
[Ed: Have to admit here our patience with this nonsense is really tested]

Rodricks: In place.

Mayor: Right, Yeah.

Sorry madam mayor. Either you weren’t given all of the incoming emails or we have to think that you are not truly representing the sentiments of the vast majority that were sent in.

The bottom line is that this issue is not about keeping Tom Kiefaber in The Senator Theatre.
The issues ARE about accountability of government (and pseudo-government) officials and transparency to the public in their dealings. Especially when spending taxpayer money on deals that are not in the best interest of those taxpayers.

Listen to the show for yourself: WYPR’s Midday with Dan Rodricks – June 28, 2010

SENATOR Theatre RFP: City Changes Mind – Kiefaber & Crew Can Stay Until July 21

As reported in the Baltimore Sun, City officials have backed off the recent, sudden announcement to force Tom Kiefaber and his volunteer staff out of The Senator this Sunday (July 27, 2010).

While most media outlets painted Kiefaber’s outrage at the abrupt directive to leave as some sort of grandstanding, he was not alone in his calls of outrage to the idea that he should be ousted from the theatre so that the new tenants, Buzz and Kathleen Cusack could move in, even before the citizens of Baltimore City would know anything about the terms of the lease!

Given that the City of Baltimore won the property at auction last summer, each and every citizen has a stake in the future of The Senator (truly now The People’s Theatre in more than just name) and has the right to express their opinions and concerns regarding its future, especially if even more taxpayer funds are being considered!

Twilight Saga: Eclipse

Starts Wed @ 12:01AM (doors open @ 11:30PM Tuesday) Click the image to get advance tickets now!

Now, with the extension given, Kiefaber and crew can honor their commitment to events that had already been scheduled to take place beyond this Sunday (after all, the City did ask him to keep The Senator alive while the RFP process completed), including the opening of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, perhaps the summer’s most anticipated blockbuster film, which begins at The Senator with a midnight show (12:01AM) this Wednesday! Doors will open at 11:30PM Tuesday night and advance tickets are on sale at!
“Regular” showings of Eclipse are now listed on The Senator’s web site – tickets will be $8 (cash only) at the door.

Senator Theatre RFP: Kiefaber Responds to City Lawyer in Open Letter!

Since Special Chief City Solicitor, Larry Jenkins, chose to speak to the Daily Record, this past Monday, about plans to abruptly remove the group that was asked to maintain operations at Baltimore’s historic Senator Theatre throughout the RFP process, namely former Senator Theatre owner, Tom Kiefaber and Friends of The Senator (FOTS) volunteers, Mr. Kiefaber decided to break his silence Tuesday.

Kim Clark (BDC), Bill Henry (District 4 Councilman), Larry Jenkins (City Lawyer) & Joe Cooper (Alex Cooper Auctioneers) @ Senator auction (7/23/2009)

Up to this point, Kiefaber has been guarded in his comments and worked diligently to comply with the city’s request that he keep the lights on, the doors open and events taking place at the theatre. It’s apparent from the open letter, posted in its entirety to the Baltimore Sun news site, that this “out-of-the-blue bum’s rush to vacate the Senator Theatre premises” was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

We encourage anyone concerned about The Senator, the survival of historic theatres, similar structures or indeed the power government and developers can wield over private business and private property, to read Mr. Kiefaber’s letter.

No Approved Cusack Contract, but City Lawyer Tells Kiefaber & Volunteers: Get Out By Sunday!

Following an article published by the Daily Record on Monday (6/21), Michael Sragow just published a piece called, “City wants Kiefaber out of Senator Theatre by Sunday“, based on a letter written by The Senator’s former owner, Tom Kiefaber, in response to City Solicitor, Larry Jenkin’s notification that Kiefaber must vacate the theatre by June 27, 2010.

Now, even if you don’t (or don’t want to try) to understand the complex situations that led up to this point, consider these points:

  • Kiefaber was asked by the BDC to keep the lights on, the doors open and events taking place at The Senator Theatre while the RFP process continued.
  • While the BDC claims Mayor Rawlings-Blake has endorsed their recommended plan (although, now that I think of it, we’ve not seen or heard her quoted as stating such), that simply means that the process enters into an “exclusive negotiation” phase wherein the city and the proposed lessees (Buzz and Kathleen Cusack) hash out the proposal in order to write a contract that then has to be approved by Baltimore City’s Board of Estimates… So, at this time NO SIGNED CONTRACT EXISTS.
  • If the purpose to remove Kiefaber (and FOTS’ volunteer staff) by Sunday is to allow the Cusack’s to take over at the end of June, shouldn’t this raise red flags?
    Think about it – would any sane landlord allow tenants to move in without a signed contractual agreement?
  • Kiefaber, as asked, has continued to schedule events – including the much anticipated new Twilight movie, “Eclipse” which is scheduled to begin showings at The Senator at 12:01 am on June 30.

So, what’s the rush?! Read Tom Kiefaber’s open letter to the Special Chief Solicitor for yourself and you may get some ideas.

At The SENATOR: Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1927) with 25 minutes of newly restored footage!

Think you’ve seen METROPOLIS? Think again.

METROPOLIS at The Senator!


After a nearly complete 16mm print was found in Buenos Aires, not only was there 25 minutes of previously “lost” footage (not seen since the film’s opening in Berlin) that fills major gaps in the story’s plot lines, but also revealed the film’s original editing order.

Now, you can experience “The Complete METROPOLIS”, newly restored, at Baltimore, Maryland’s historic SENATOR Theatre, but don’t wait, it’s only here for 1 week!

$8 Admission (cash only, please)

Click here for showtimes