Monday, March 16, 2009

Senator Closing a Capital Offense

The Senator Theatre closed its doors last night after 70 years of operation. It was the last of the old one-screen movie palaces that were once so common place, even in my childhood. I haven't had time to truly process what this end to a movie-going era will mean to me, but I know I will miss it.

As a child, I went to the movies constantly. My dad was a big movie fan, and we would set out every Friday night to catch some new film or an old one that had been out for awhile but we hadn't quite gotten around to. In the days before home video, movies tended to linger in movie theatres for a long time because, if you didn't see it on the big screen, your next shot at seeing it would be two years later on broadcast television, where it would be mercilessly edited for naughty words and commercials. Sometimes people would go to see a movie in the theatre multiple times during its run. This repeat business was the main reason why many of the old one-screen movie houses, built in the era before television, were able to survive through the 1970s.

I think my movie-going during the 70s and 80s were split pretty evenly between one-screen theatres and multiplexes. I always preferred the one-screen places simply because the screens were bigger and there was more seating in which to spread out. As a child, my friends and I went to see Disney films at the Northpoint Plaza (which is now a Wal-Mart). My dad would drag me off to those Sun Classic movies about UFOs and Bigfoot at the Carlton (which was a porn theatre for awhile before becoming a funeral parlor). I remember seeing Jaws at the Strand (now a dollar store), and seeing the drug-fueled musical Tommy at The Towson (now a concert hall known a The Recher). Much of my high school and college free time was spent in Highlandtown visiting the Grand and the Patterson (not sure what the Grand is now, but the Patterson is home to The Creative Alliance).

All these movie houses were old and dreary looking, but you could see the grandeur that once was under all the soot and grime. The Grand was truly massive, with a section of hard, wooden seats near the front and padded seats toward the back. The Strand had beautiful detailing on the ceiling, although it was pretty dirty during my lifeftime. Although The Towson was small with seats designs for smaller patrons of an earlier era, it had an elegant lobby that made me feel important being there, which was the point of the old theatres. It wasn't just about selling soda and popcorn and filling seats, the movie experience was originally meant to be an escape from the dreary lives of Depression era movie-goers. From the time you crossed the threshold, you felt as though you were transported to a spacious and elegant palace. Once you were settled into your seat amid gilded and finely detailed woodwork and wall sconces, you could lose yourself in the movie and forget the sad reality outside. I felt some of that even as a kid in the 70s.

The most well preserved of these old theatres was The Senator. Going to The Senator was like a special event. The screen wasn't necessarily the largest around, but the building as a whole was far better maintained than any of the others. You knew that the theatre looked the same in 1939 as it did in that moment. I remember going to see Barry Levinson's love letter to Baltimore, Diner, at The Senator in the winter of 1982. Although the movie featured a scene shot in The Strand, it was The Senator that seemed most appropriate for seeing a movie about Baltimore's past.

When my wife and I bought our current house nine years ago, a definite plus for me was that The Senator was within walking distance. It was, after all, where we went on our first date. Unfortunately, for the first year, we were too busy with home repairs and newlywed settling-in details to go to The Senator, but eventually, we made it our movie theatre of choice. How nice it was to finish dinner, take a five minute drive to The Senator, catch a movie on the big screen, and be back home before 10 o'clock. On nice summer days, we could even walk over. I remember strolling home on beautiful sunny days after seeing Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Mission: Impossible III, still buzzing from the excitement of the movies and basking in the comfortable warmth of the early summer weather. It's those rare happy moments when you feel like all is right with the world and nothing can get you down. We all live for those days.

I'll miss those experiences, just as I will miss the dogs that roamed the lobby and begged you to play fetch with them. I'm sure that someone will make use of the old theatre. Belvedere Square is a thriving commercial spot and the locals are eager to support the businesses in that intersection of York and Belvedere. I hope it remains a theatre, whether it be a concert hall like The Recher or an arts center like The Patterson, or just a community theatre for movies and concerts and charity events. I'm confident The Senator will go on in some form and remain a vital landmark for the community. It's just sad to see your local movie house disappear.

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