It was back to the future on Thursday night at the second debut of Baltimore’s Senator Theatre.
The city’s proud and growing community of cineastes turned out in force to welcome the theater back on line. Names and no names alike hailed what they called the loving attention poured on the 1930s-era venue.
A $3.5-million project, it was more than 2 years in the making. By all accounts it was an arduous challenge, fraught with all the usual financing and regulatory challenges.
“The appeal of the project is that [it] is a wonderful building, a wonderful neighborhood and it’s important to the city,” said Buzz Cusak, co-owner of the theater with his daughter, Kathleen Lyon. “It could’ve gotten lost to an uncertain future. I feel very fortunate that we could participate in bringing it back.”
The striking renovations --- and the Cusacks – were on everyone’s mind as they walked through the main auditorium and the three new smaller venues. “It’s a passion with them,” said former state senator Jack Lapides. “They care about the city and everyone here cares about the city. So it’s a very exciting thing. And this senator is very happy to be in this Senator.”
For movie fans like Stan Maros, the Senator transports the viewer to a grander time. And to grand movie experiences. “I saw the first Godfather movie here when it opened,” he said. “And we’ve been coming to this theater forever. We love it. All these new theaters at White Marsh, they’re nice, but they’re not the Senator. They’re not this kind of community theater.”
John Waters, the Baltimore filmmaker, urged the guests to come back to the theater early and often so it can succeed. The key to its success, he and others said, are the four screens. The new owners won’t be locked into a movie that doesn’t do well. They can move it to one of their smaller theaters to make room for something that draws better.
Jed Deitz, head of the Maryland Film Festival, said the Cusack-Lyon team may have defied the history of disaster for the nation’s old movie houses. “You know there’s a long history of these beautiful buildings being turned into drug stores and churches. We’re just lucky. This is one of a kind. He’s put together something that’s going to sustain beautifully.”
In the process, they’ve saved more than a building. They’ve saved part of our lives, several people said. The intangibles of movies – the magic, the romance – are there in there in the details, many of them crafted by local artisans.
Dietz added: “Not only did [they] bring in a practical aspect but you’re totally right. When I saw that picture in the paper this morning it just took my breath away. It really was emotional for me to see this great theater coming back with all the romance.”
“I was here when I was 6 years old,” John Waters recalled. “You could rent a private booth up there for children’s birthday parties. It was like a private screening. I was an elitist filmgoer at the Senator when I was 7.”
Cusack and his daughter have made a success of the multi-screen operation at the popular Charles Theater. So they take on the Senator with lessons learned there. With the Senator, they have their experience, and one more thing: Baltimore’s love affair with the Senator.
“This has a built-in constituency that a lot of theaters don’t,” said Bob Embry, head of the Abell Foundation. In his remarks before a showing of his film Hairspray, John Waters said that the Thursday night celebration was fine and good, but the important part comes now: showing up for the movies as often as possible.