Let me start by saying I went to The Senator last night simply to see, for free, a classic film I’d never watched all the way through and to check out what I thought would be a neat event. I didn’t go as a reporter; I didn’t bring a notebook; I didn’t interview former Senator owner Tom Kiefaber (who I’ve actually never spoken to, only read about), and didn’t intend on writing anything until after the whole evening unfolded. Rather, I went dressed in shorts and sneakers with some old family friends and got there only a few minutes before the festivities kicked off, lucky to snag one of the few remaining unclaimed seats in the auditorium.
All disclosures and caveats aside, the point is I’m glad I went because how many opportunities do you get to watch Obi-Wan duel Darth Vader for the first time while simultaneously taking part in a memorable episode of Baltimore history?
Perhaps like many Baltimoreans, I hadn’t been to the 71-year-old Art Deco movie house in a while, one of the many reasons why walking into the old theater felt like turning back the clock. (I can’t remember if the last time was to see one of the early Harry Potter movies or if it was the premier of Columbia native Ed Norton’s “Keeping the Faith.”) Another was the warm-up flick: The Beatles’ 1968 psychedelic musical, “Yellow Submarine,” which I was thrilled to watch because, I’m ashamed to admit, I’d never seen that wondrous cinematic adventure either.
A few minutes after 8 p.m., the screen went dark and the audience cheered and began to buzz with anticipation. And then out of the center of the dim auditorium, someone threw his arm straight up in the air and in his hand, a glowing blue lightsaber.
Then others popped up around the room, reds and greens. More cheers. (Were the fiery Friends of the Senator prepared to do interstellar battle to save their beloved theater? No, that would be reading too much into it, I think.)
Eventually, Kiefaber, whose family has owned the theater since his grandfather built it, strode to the front of the room. After soaking up a lengthy standing ovation, Kiefaber, in his last stand on his home turf, offered his trademark, “I’m Tom Kiefaber and welcome to the historic Senator theater.” More applause. In the remarks that followed, much of what I’d read about in recent months was evident: his passion for the theater and its history, the loyal support he has from Senator fans, and his thinly-veiled hostility toward the city, which now owns the theater, and his one-time rival and now successor, “Buzz” Cusack, who owns The Charles Theatre.
Acknowledging the overflow crowd, he said that on any other occasion he’d be worried the city would shut him down. Laughter. He thanked the Friends of the Senator, who he intimated would carry the torch of preservation even after he was gone; “the man behind the curtain,” Bill Hewitt; and even the city lawyer, Larry Jenkins, with whom Kiefaber has publicly feuded but praised Wednesday night as a good guy who just happens to work for “The Dark Side.”
When he opened up the floor for memories, somebody yelled he should run for mayor. He said he has too much integrity for that, before softening his stance and saying he likes the current mayor. After a few more thank yous/memories/pointed comments and a brief film-buff preview of the British I.B. Technicolor print of Star Wars we were about to see, Kiefaber exited stage left to more applause. Whereas such a speech could’ve run uncomfortably long or become too personal, I found Kiefaber’s remarks heartfelt and generally appropriate.
And then Star Wars came on, and finally, I fully realized what I’d been missing these 27 years. In keeping with the atmosphere of the evening, the crowd cheered whenever a main character appeared for the first time and at many other pivotal moments besides. (I won’t spoil the end for the other six people on planet Earth who haven’t seen the episode that introduced the George Lucas’ blockbuster series.) The picture and sound of the original version were pristine, and it felt like it must’ve in mid-1977, when “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” was released: people of all ages piled into the big, single-screen movie house on a warm summer night, escaping the humdrum of daily life for just a couple of hours to experience the excitement of “a galaxy far, far away.”
Long live The Senator Theatre!