The Future of the Senator

What is the fate of Baltimore’s Senator Theatre? Click here for PDF Copy

The Senator Theatre, one of Baltimore’s signature cultural landmarks, has been facing significant financial struggles lately.  In 2007, it faced foreclosure, only to be saved at the last minute by grassroots donation efforts.  The situation has not gotten that much better, however, following that near-death experience.  Chances are that the Senator will continue to survive in Baltimore, but its future incarnation may be significantly different than just as an exhibitor of movies.

The City of Baltimore took over ownership of the Senator in July when it faced foreclosure once again.  The City has since been seeking proposals for taking over ownership.  Recently, four bidders have thrown proposals into the bidding ring.  All four of them have presented options in which the Senator would still show movies but also showcase other forms of entertainment.

The JR Owens Corp. has presented a plan entitled “The Lofts at the Senator Theatre.”  This plan would keep the Senator as a first-run movie theater and maintain its façade, front entrance, and interior.  Basically, the Senator itself would remain the same, but there would be new additions around it, as 24 rental apartments would be constructed in the rear of the building with parking spaces underneath.  JR Owens, the president of the JR Owens Corp, has said that his aims are to bring new residents into the neighborhood with the apartments and to “stop the decay” of area business by keeping the theater up and running.

Towson University’s WTMD-FM public radio station has named its proposal “WTMD at the Senator.”  Stephen Yasko, WTMD’s general manager, describes the proposal thus: it would turn the Senator into “a multiuse film and concert theater that would also house the station’s studio and offices.  Film retrospectives, gala premieres and themed festivals would be showcased in the same place as musical artists.”  WTMD would also sponsor children’s programs and fundraisers for community groups.  This proposal would also include showcasing the multimedia creations of Towson’s Electronic Media and Film Department and College of Fine Arts, thus providing a useful venue for Towson students to show their work to a larger audience.

“The Theatre Project PUPKIDS, Inc.” comes from Enoch Cook III, a teacher of theater management at Coppin State University.  Under this plan, Cook would rent the Senator to program and operate it as a mixture of a variety stage and revival theatre as well as an art/independent film house.  In the proposal, Cook specifies attracting interest to puppetry and puppeteers, but he would be welcome to showcasing all manner of live performances.

The final proposal comes from James “Buzz” Cusack, owner of the five-screen Charles Theatre in Baltimore’s Station North Arts District.  Cusack would keep the Senator as a single-screen movie theatre, and he would also add a restaurant and a crepes shop, similar to the current setup at the Charles.

The Senator opened to the public on October 5, 1939.  It is noted for its Art Deco architecture, as designed by John J. Zink.  The lobby still features the original terrazzo floors, as well as art deco murals about the history of performing arts.  A massive gold curtain opens immediately before the start of each show, dramatically revealing the screen.  The Senator originally had 1,150 seats, but it is now down to (a still impressive) 900.  There are also skyboxes for private parties that can host up to 40 people.  There is a “walk of fame,” similar to the one in Hollywood, on 70 sidewalk blocks outside the theater, featuring signatures from celebrities such as Charles Dutton and Barry Levinson, as well as logos from movies such as Hairspray and Gone With the Wind.  Baltimore natives John Waters and Levinson often premiere their films at the Senator.  It has been featured in many movies, such as Cecil B. Demented, 12 Monkeys, Diner, and Avalon.  It is included in the National Register of Historical Places and was featured in a 2005 issue of Entertainment Weekly as one of “10 Theaters doing it right.”

No date has yet been set for the city to make its final decision regarding the proposals.

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