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.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An Asshole by Any Other Name...

I've reached a point where I don't even want to read, see, or hear anything remotely news related for fear of it plunging me into a state of suicidal depression more extreme than my usual morose condition. The news is terrible right now and the only thing that makes it worse is that most of us can't do anything about it. Nevertheless, we are constantly bombarded by the media's onslaught of doom and gloom which comes in two forms: the sudden, breaking news tidbit that makes for a great, apocalyptic headline but provides no details, and the Monday-morning-quarterback analysis of what led up to all the problems that we are now facing. Both forms of news are aggravating because, in the first case, we don't know enough about what they are reporting to discern whether or not it really does have any great impact on us and, in the second case, you're left wondering why the so-called journalists didn't report all this stuff before the shit hit the fan when perhaps the general public could have taken some actions to change the course of events. As Richard Nixon used to say, some battles are won in the press, and if journalists are truly doing their job, they can stir public debate on issues that may have greater impact down the road.

The other night on MSNBC's Countdown, Keith Olbermann rattled through a laundry list of all of Wall Street's sins with regard to lobbying Congress and the SEC to repeal laws and regulations which were put in place to keep both traditional banks and investment banks from committing risky indiscretions that would plunge them into deep financial trouble. Of course, these sorts of pieces get your blood boiling when you know where all this has now led, but why was none of this discussed or debated to any great degree when it was happening. Could it be that the reporters covering the financial beat were unaware of such dealings or, even worse, knew what was going on but showed no interest in reporting it because they could not fathom the depths of the implications? During the 1990s, I saw plenty of financial reporters fawning over technology company CEOs and tech fund managers while the technology bubble was swelling, but none who questioned whether any of this overheated growth could ultimately be dangerous. Only when the bubble burst and we slipped into a recession did anyone talk about it, often in self-righteous tones of "Why didn't someone do anything about this?"

The same could be said about the financial reporting when banks and investment firms were posting record profits based largely on questionable (and once illegal) business practices. Instead of asking these CEOs what will happen when the real estate bubble bursts, they praised them for making tons of money. The fact of the matter is that many of these journalists are sycophants who worship successful people like the reporters for Tiger Beat worship Zac Efron or The Jonas Brothers. They love winners and covet their wealth and power. It's only when they fall from grace that these reporters do any digging, and that's only because they feel betrayed by their heroes and want to exact revenge for being let down.

And why do these corporate whiz-kids fall from grace? For the same reason that rock stars and movie idols end up in bankruptcy court or on Celebrity Rehab: they're assholes. You know the guy who pisses all over the toilet seat? Some of them have MBAs. Remember the guy at work who would argue endlessly with you about some policy even though he was completely wrong but couldn't back down out of sheer arrogance. He's the one with the blind tenacity to make it into the boardroom. The idiot who cuts you off in traffic? He's on the fast-track and no one can get in his way.

Beyond the Brooks Brothers suits and the fancy charts and the financial buzz words, they are all basically just assholes who are out to make a quick buck and to hell with the aftermath. When you're riding that high, it's easy to delude yourself that the ridiculous risk which has doomed so many others will not touch you...especially if you are an asshole.

So what happens to the assholes who create such messes? They get appointed to key government positions intended to oversee the mending of the messes they helped to create. Bernanke and Gaithner and the boys are supposed to clean up our economic woes, and the press are astonished when they don't have any answers. If they thought it was a good idea to tear down the walls of regulation that kept the flood of economic disaster at bay, why would anyone think they would have any clue how to brick it back up? This mess was years in the making, and it'll take years to fix, mainly by restoring the laws our forefathers put into place during the Great Depression so that we would never face a tragedy like that again. Of course, why should we heed history. They wore funny hats and pencil-thin moustaches and drove around in clunky looking cars. What did they know? Our modern assholes are a lot smarter than those old-fashioned ones.