Grand Old Theater

Young horsemen ride by, as local sunbathers take a break on Palm-Beach in Algiers City, May 17, 2007.
If ever there was a year of movie magic, it was 1939, reports CBS News Sunday Morning Anchor Charles Osgood.

Audiences flocked to flicks with classic themes: Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, and boy tells girl to buzz off ("Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn").

The movies were larger than life, and the movie theatres were, too.

Tom Kiefaber's family opened the Senator in Baltimore in 1939, a neighborhood movie palace in the grand tradition.

"It was the glamorous place to go," says filmmaker John Waters. "It was like the closest you could get to Hollywood when you went there when you were 7 years old."

Waters is part of a surprising cast of characters who grew up going to the Senator. He explains, "There wasn’t a kid in Baltimore, it didn’t matter what neighborhood you lived in, what race you were in, where you lived poor rich, you still went to the Senator."

Author Tom Clancy was another Baltimore kid getting scared silly there.

"I saw 'The Creature Walks Among Us' here," Clancy recalls. "And then all summer whenever a garbage can rattled in the alley, I knew the creature was coming to get me."

He adds, "It was just part of life, like going to church or Little League, and all the 'Leave it to Beaver' upbringing you had back then. This is where you went to the movies."

Director Barry Levinson shares the memories: "You’d see the film and some shorts and cartoons and some serials and some travelogue. You know it was a whole day in there. A lot of activity going on."

In his movie "Avalon," Levinson captured the memory of growing up in Baltimore, of Saturdays at the movies. "Avalon" was shot at the Senator.

"I was just trying to capture what you have in your head in terms of what the experience was, once upon a time," he explains, "even to the thing of walking out, and it was so bright when they went outside, because we had been in there for so many hours, so when we went out, it was bright afternoon."

And 25 years later, a matinee at the Senator was still making a big impression on kids like Edward Norton, who grew up to be an actor and director. Says he, "I remember really clearly going with my little brother for the opening of 'Star Wars.' I rememeber, on that huge screen, that first shot of the rebel troop ship coming down out of the top of the screen and going, 'Oh, my God!' And then the Imperial Destroyer coming. And it was just going on and on and on and on on that gigantic screen. I have so many specific memories of movies there because the presentation was just so huge."

Norton says he loves going to movie premieres at the Senator. And Waters shot the opening sequence of "Cecil B. Demented" there.

But the days of movies wowing audiences at the Senator may be numbered.

Says Kiefaber, "At the time the Senator was built, Durkee Enterprises, my family business, was operating 40 motion picture theaters in the Baltimore area. Now it’s down to one."

That's because, i Baltimore and the rest of the country, old-time movie palaces are eing put out of business by multiplex chains.

"We have to fight hard for all the films we get to run here," Kiefaber explains. "They get pretty much the films they want, and we get what’s left."

The chains have so many screens, they're able to pressure distributors to get the best movies. Worse, they insist on exclusivity which prevents nearby theaters from getting the same films.

Going to a multiplex, Kiefaber says, "is just somewhat of a soulless experience when it’s compared to seeing a movie at the Senator."

In spite of the high quality of the Senator, Kiefaber constantly has trouble getting the big films. He's still fuming about losing "Pearl Harbor," saying that movie "just belongs at the Senator. We’re part of the historic context of what’s depicted in the film. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the Senator Theater sold record amounts of bonds in the lobby."

The filmmakers who grew up watching movies at the Senator are alarmed, too.

Says Norton, "If you’re going to have the impact on the 8 year olds and 15 year olds of today that I had watching 'Star Wars,' you definitely want to show a movie like 'Pearl Harbor' at the Senator."

Says author Clancy: "Damn it, we need to save this place."

Next month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is expected to place the Senator on its list of most endangered historic sites. Over the last 20 years, more than 1,000 old-time movie palaces have closed. Some think what’s also engangered is our ability to have that old-time movie experience.

Levinson: "The crime is that Baltimore has torn down all the movie palaces that used to exist. The Senator is the last. You’re not going to able to stop progress. But at the same time, you’d like to be able to have both coexist."

Clancy: "Somebody once said that modern America can be judged not by the things it builds, but by the things it tears down. If you don’t have respect for history, you don’t have respect for yourself. You can’t let things like this go."

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