At Senator Theatre, aim is ‘to honor the past and make it ready for the future’

Daily Record Business Writer//February 18, 2013

At Senator Theatre, aim is ‘to honor the past and make it ready for the future’

By Melody Simmons

//Daily Record Business Writer

//February 18, 2013

James “Buzz” Cusack and his daughter Kathleen Lyon walk through the dust with a flashlight, gingerly stepping around ladders and scaffolding to show off the sturdy bones of the historic Senator Theatre.

James "Buzz" Cusack (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

With the spacious auditorium now stripped to bare walls and floors, the cherished movie house in Govans is under new ownership and in the midst of a rehab and expansion that, when it reopens in May, will hark back to a golden era of cinema — with modern twists.

“We kept the design transparent and minimal so the movie house itself could shine,” said Alex Castro, a local architect who designed the renovations that include the restoration of the Art Deco lobby and the addition of a wine bar and three auditoriums.

“The approach was to honor the past and make it ready for the future. I would love it if you could somehow feel as if you went back in time to spend an evening at the Senator like you were back in the 1930s and ’40s.”

The changes at the Senator are part of a trend in larger cities, where aging movie houses with single screens are being converted into multi-screen theaters and even performing arts centers by private investors and, in some cases, the communities that surround them.

Rick Fosbrink, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America, said such redevelopments are a way to tie the past to the present in the age of the impersonal movie megaplex.

“Theaters in general historically have been the communal gathering place,” Fosbrink said. “Definitely, there’s something that’s bred within us that we should love and cherish them.

“They are not something we can replace, but we should do everything we can to preserve them.”

Ken Stein, executive director of the League of Historic American Theatres, called the work at the Senator “adaptive reuse.”

“To remain usable in this day and age, you have to do that,” Stein said. “But they must also remain true or give a nod to the original theater’s intent, because one of the reasons these theaters have survived and done so well is that they are beloved by their community.”

While the updated designs for the 74-year-old Senator retain its historic aspects, some features will be added. Rows of older seats will be replaced by stadium seating, a custom-made concession stand will be installed to hold the popcorn machine, bathrooms will be upgraded to code and a 75-seat wine bar will be added to the front of the building.

Renovation in the Rotunda of the Senator Theater (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

The Senator’s rotunda will hold a new, Art Deco-style chandelier created by local artist Jonathan Maxwell. Its murals, depicting movie-related scenes, have already been refurbished in jewel-tone colors with a gilded geometric border.

As for the projection booth, it will undergo a complete revolution, Lyon said. The projectors themselves will be upgraded to a digital format.

The walls of the main theater will hold yards of newly installed ornate red and gold fabric (hiding the fiberglass sound insulation), and the 40-foot screen will be framed by new curtains. The rainbow-colored, lighted Deco-style crown, a Senator signature, will continue to glow above the screen between showings.

Glass bricks will be used in the addition along Rosebank Avenue to mimic the theater’s façade facing York Road.

“It’s a very serious effort to respect what it was,” Cusack said. “We’re lucky to be able to do it. I think it will be well-received.”

The theater was bought by the family in September 2012 after the city purchased it at a foreclosure auction in July 2009.

It has been closed since last spring, when planning for the $3.2 million redevelopment began. The project is being funded with a $460,000 Community Legacy grant from the state, a $600,000 loan from the city and $1.5 million in personal funds from Cusack and Lyon, who also own the Charles Theater in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

Cusack said renovations to the main theater at the Senator will shrink its size to 770 seats. The three new theaters now under construction flanking the main house will hold almost 300 additional seats in total. Films will range from revivals to current releases, Lyon said.

Lyon said the changes have all been monitored by officials from the Maryland Historical Trust and the U.S. Department of the Interior because of the theater’s status on the National Register of Historic Places. The changes were first approved by the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

To Castro, working on the project has been like “a dream.” He and Cusack have scoured a series of old black-and-white photographs of the Senator to glean architectural and design motifs and ideas for the restoration.

“It’s a challenge. So much has been lost in the intervening time,” Castro said. “A scholarly investigation has to go on before you go into anything like this, because you want to make sure you honor the past.”


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