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Senator Theatre Almost Ready For 2nd Debut

Fraser Smith

The Senator Theatre, near the corner of York Road and Northern Parkway, will make its second grand entrance sometime this fall. The 74-year-old one-time movie palace plans to come back strong – as a kind of min-multiplex. The original theater is being totally refurbished – with state-of the art sound-proofing, thoroughly upgraded seating, the requisite digital projection equipment and splashes of color closely approximating the original.

A brand new 170-seat theater – an add-on to the west and south of the original theater - will have stadium seating much like that in the Charles Theater downtown. The new spaces will seat about 65 each.  There’s also a restaurant.

 The new owners, Buzz Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen, wanted to retain as much of the theater’s grand past as possible. They restored the lobby’s grand mural, commissioned a new chandelier for that space and employed a team of local craftsmen to add innumerable fine touches.

The building itself has been their ally in the $3.5-millon enterprise. “It had lots of leaky roofs and it was faded but it was basically a grand art deco movie palace that was still intact,” Buzz Cusack said. The lobby floor – featuring the original terrazzo – worked well as is. “It’s worn and faded but it’s in great shape,” he said.

It’s been a difficult few years. Lingering trials with the previous owner, an unending procession of bureaucratic demands and nailing down financing have competed with their passion – the restoration work.

Cusack had earlier transformed a massive city building into Baltimore’s art house movie mecca. He says that saving grand old Senator and its place in Baltimore history was a strong incentive. “It’s a great project and the opportunity to do this doesn’t come very often. And it’s going to be a great thing for the city and I’m very happy to participate in it,” he said.

Dealing with sound issues was one of the most important challenges. “An important thing to note about modern movie theaters is the sound levels. Because the sound is so strong it tends to bounce around. And in an old movie palace, [that] could be very bad,” he said.

The Senator’s new four-screen profile is its path to success, says Kathleen Cusack. If a movie doesn’t do well, it can be moved to one of the three new screens without upsetting the distributors who sometimes insist on letting a poor performer continue. “The advantage of having additional auditoriums is you can fulfill that obligation, move it to a small auditorium and get new product in. So that way you’re not stuck,” she said.

And now, with the work nearing completion,  the father and daughter team – with the occasional help of Kathleen’s brand new son, James, - are thinking about answering the most often asked question: When will you open?  In the fall, they say, hanging on to the last shred of flexibility in the event they need more time.

“What’s fun to think about is we’re in the process of beginning  to talk about the opening night gala and how that’s going to go. The realization of all this work, to actually contemplate a movie playing on the screen and the job complete, and the party, and having a great time, and having people come again, and how the foot traffic so great for the neighborhood,” Kathleen said.

Past and future are merging with a deep bow to both. 

Copyright 2013 WYPR - 88.1 FM Baltimore

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Fraser Smith has been in the news business for over 30 years. He began his reportorial career with the Jersey Journal, a daily New Jersey newspaper and then moved on to the Providence Journal in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1969 Fraser won a prestigious American Political Science Association Public Affairs Fellowship, which enabled him to devote a year to graduate study at Yale University. In 1977, Fraser was hired away by The Baltimore Sun where in 1981, he moved to the newspaper's Washington bureau to focus on policy problems and their everyday effect on Marylanders. In 1983, he became the Sun's chief political reporter.