Commentary

  • February 16, 2007

    S.O.S. – SAVE OUR SENATOR! (Interview with Tom Kiefaber)

    BALTIMORE, MD — There are very few theaters in the country today that still have that universal appeal and are operating at the peak of their strengths. So many have fallen by the wayside and are either gone or just a shell of their former selves. For those in Baltimore though, moviegoing has always been a little more special because they’ve had the Senator Theatre.

    Recently, though this seemingly perfect marriage of venue and community has been in danger. The Senator could close next week and go on the auction block due to recent turmoil with the bank. For those that have ever had the pleasure of taking part in a Senator experience or for anyone that wants to preserve one of the last remaining neighborhood movie palaces in this country, they need your help desperately.

    If you can help, please go to the Senator website and donate via paypal. Pass the message along to any theater enthusiast you know, too! If the proper funds cannot be raised by Wednesday February 21st at 1:30PM, the Senator as we know it can become a thing of the past. Over 60% of the goal has been met at the time of this article’s publishing so please help the Senator cross the finish line still standing.

    Alarmed by the news when I first heard about this issue last week, I wanted to get the facts. Never having the pleasure of visiting the Senator myself, I was pretty much in the dark about its history. However, within minutes of talking to the legendary theater’s owner, Tom Kiefaber, I felt right at home as if I’d been watching movies there all my life.

    CT: Tell me a little bit about the history of the theater and how it’s been since you’ve personally been working there?

    TK: My Grandfather started out in the theater business almost 100 years ago. After creating Durkee Enterprises, he at one time controlled 40 of Baltimore’s 175 movie theaters. Now, there are just 3.

    The Senator was built in 1939, the golden year of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Despite its status as the big theater for Baltimore, it started out as one of neighborhood movie houses in the chain. Originally, it had 1150 seats but that has gone down to 900. It’s lasted so long because it was such a well-designed suburban movie house.

    I grew up in the Senator. With all the theaters in the family chain, I went to this one the most just cause it was near my house. I was the most popular kid on Saturday mornings cause my friends and I would go see movies in the different theaters all day!

    Around 1977, everything changed. When “Star Wars” came along, no one had every seen a picture with that high level of technological innovation. With this film as a benchmark, I immediately got more involved with the business and made it my goal to raise the bar even higher for the Senator’s already stellar technical standards.

    Since then, we’ve made a name for ourselves by having an extremely high standard for presentation. Besides that, we also go the extra mile by having one less showing of a film per day so people can hang around after the show and we can fully clean the auditorium following each program.

    CT: While looking over your site, I noticed credit cards can’t be used to buy tickets. With more and more theaters teaming up with online ticketing services, how do you get away with only accepting cash?

    TK: We have plans to make the theater economically stable. Until that happens though, we can’t carry out a lot of ideas that would bring the theater more up to date. We want a computerized system for ticketing along with many other advances.

    For example, we want to retrofit the theater so it can be used for more concerts. We already had 15 major ones but to attract other strong acts, we need to install new sound equipment. We have a lot of plans but until we can make an investment, we can’t get the benefit. It takes money to make money!

  • February 9, 2007

    Long Nights with Movie Trailers

    In his book of comedy, “Seinlanguage”, Jerry Seinfeld mused about the joy of driving to the movie theater. He said that the excitement of what the movie could be exceeded the movie itself. I don’t exactly remember how this concept fit into his routine, but I do recall that idea hitting home with me personally. Especially when I’m on the way to one of those films I’ve been anxiously awaiting for months, the prelude to the moment of consummation is definitely superior, most of the time.

    With movies though, there’s one extra forum for anticipation, the trailer. Call it a cruel joke or a slice of heaven. To me, there’s nothing better than those few minutes of bliss. At that point, it’s a clean slate. Anything can happen. Minus whatever you might have heard or read on the internet, these few scenes could be your only connection before it hits theaters.

    Of course in most cases, the product never lives up to the previews. What you see are the best jokes or even worse, scenes with information key to the story’s plot that you probably wouldn’t have wanted to know beforehand. One director, Robert Zemeckis, actually encourages providing crucial plot details in trailers because he believes that people want to know the whole story beforehand or they won’t pay to see it. Bob, I love your movies but come on. Why do you do this to me?

  • February 2, 2007

    The Sleeping Giant of Hollywood

    To many, the Hollywood classic movie theater scene appears like a great success story. Renovations aside, the Chinese and to a much lesser extent the Egyptian still have reminders of their opulent heyday. The El Capitan has successfully converted itself into a showplace for all things Disney. Even the Cinerama Dome is showing actual Cinerama films on occasion.

    But one major treasure has remained intact and the future is not so clear. So long it has sat in limbo, rarely open to the public. We’d all like to see it restored to its former glory and have it available to us in some form, but with it already bruised from a triplexing years ago and so little word from its owners over time, who knows what the future holds?

    Of course, I am talking about the Warner Hollywood (aka Warner Cinerama, Hollywood Pacific, etc). I’d love to tell you plans are in the works for it to reopen as a live theatre like its popular neighbor down the block the Pantages. Sadly the time hasn’t come yet. After numerous phone calls to different people at Pacific Theatres, I disappointingly wasn’t able to find out much. No plans to take it down. No plans for a new tenant.

    I even tried the Shubert Organization to see how legit their interest is in moving into the theater. As many of you remember, a few years back, there was talk of Shubert picking up the Warner as a showcase for their touring productions since the demolition of thier Century City locale. As this would probably be the best fit of all, the chatter gave many hope that the stars were finally aligning. Nothing became of it though and I’ve yet to hear back from them on any future proposals.

    I guess we can be glad the former wasn’t true but it looks like for now, we’ll just have to stay in a holding pattern. In a matter of time though, an ultimate decision seems inevitable. The revival of Hollywood Boulevard is quickly gaining momentum. With Highland and Vine as the two cornerstones, the area in between is block by block being gobbled up and cleaned up. Once they reach that spot in the middle where the Warner stands, how will the shadow of gentrification cast itself over the property?

  • January 26, 2007

    Oscar Time!

    With the Academy releasing nominations this week, it’s hard to think about the actual awards without thinking about the PR circus its become. What at first comes off as a display of recognition for some great work has mutated into just another way for those rich studios to take your money.

    How often are your favorite films, perfomances, etc. up for the top honors? So much is left behind because of course, all these voters seem to have short term memory loss and nothing pre-October is seriously considered. Yeah, they’ll be the one dark horse that sneaks in out of nowhere like this years “Little Miss Sunshine” but the Fargos, Seasbiscuits and Cinderella Men don’t get much ink after those initial “and the surprise of the year nomination went to…” articles.

    Increasingly all this seems to be fueled by marketing. Basically, the Oscars have become the foundation for boosting that dark wintery season where people just don’t go out to the movies much. The big movies for the younger crowd have to be released in the summer cause kids have to go to school. It’s up to us older people to go out and keep the box office alive by watching these prestige films. Show me an intellectual film in June and I just wouldn’t appreciate it. I sure wouldn’t tell my friends about it.

    Since studios spend so much money making new films, they’re absolutely terrified of not making that money back. So why even take a chance. Instead, just like the plots are formulaic, the release schedules are as well. At this time of the year, we’re supposed to be in serious mode. And if we’re in the mood for something light, well let’s just remind you how much you want to be in serious mode by talking and talking about this great movie that’s up for all the awards.

  • January 19, 2007

    The other Broadway

    When it comes to neighborhoods with potential, downtown Los Angeles is about as rich as it gets. In it houses the largest collection of pre-war movie theaters still standing anywhere. While cities like New York and San Francisco have all but done away with their treasures, their Los Angeles counterparts are still in existence, albeit most in a shuttered state.

    In this case, the area’s decline actually helped preserve the history. Instead of the land cost rising so enormously that supporting a theater seemed like bad business, the historic core of Los Angeles has yet to fully recover from its urban plight of the latter half of the last century. For that reason, keeping the theaters up for film shoots, special events or even storage is as practical a use as any these days.

    However, a revival has been slowly gaining speed. With the western business corridor of downtown already in the midst of its renaissance, eyes are starting to turn towards the entertainment center, Broadway. Numerous theaters are making a steady income, but one classic has yet to be revitalized, one of the earliest palaces still standing in its ranks, the Million Dollar Theater.

    This is the palace Sid Grauman built before the Chinese or even the Egyptian. Its opening on Broadway in 1918 ushered in a new age of extravagance in L.A. theaters. Since closing for movies, it’s had new life as a church but that even stopped years ago. Since, it’s one of the last large theaters intact on Broadway that’s still not operational for performances.

    Hearing conflicting rumors swirling around the past few years regarding its return, I figured it was about time I went straight to the source. I got on the phone with the Million Dollar’s owner, the Yellin Company, and they put me in touch with its current tenant Robert Voskanian. I’d heard that he had planned to reopen it again after some renovations but I wasn’t quite sure which stage they were in or the extent of their plans:

  • January 12, 2007

    Men-Crying-Movies

    I hate the feeling when I know it’s coming. The film is reaching its climax and some watershed moment turns into a sad realization. Then it happens. I feel the tears coming on and I discreetly make sure the people sitting next to me don’t notice. The blinking, excessive blinking takes over. Hopefully, I can widen my eyes enough to drown the tears or just think of something completely off subject like igloos to take my mind off things. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes not.

    I have a little fear about crying during movies. Not that I think I’m any less of a man for doing it but I just get a little embarrassed. It’s just that I find watching movies to be a very personal endeavor. When you experience an intimate moment like that, it feels a bit odd to have all these strangers around you.

    There are plenty of plot developments that will get me a little teary-eyed. While a death certainly gets me most of the time, I am most helpless when it comes to reunions. “Forrest Gump”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Love Actually”, name your poison. I succumb to them all. But don’t tell anyone that.

  • January 5, 2007

    The Power of Reviews

    I used to be wooed by trailers, voluntarily sucked into the theater with just a glimpse of excitement. I used to give credence to word of mouth and make it over to the theater purely based on what other people said. Recently though however, specifically the last five years, I’ve thrown that all away and now base which movies I go out and see entirely on reviews.

    Maybe it’s the cost of movies. As evidence by our recent CT poll and comments made on the pages, it seems like all of us are getting a little fed up with the skyrocketing price of first run films these days. I’ve learned to get over it by simply choosing films more wisely. That way, if I’m going to spend that money on the movie, the parking and possibly concessions, at least I feel like I’m guaranteed to get something in return.

    It becomes obsessive though. I check sites like Rotten Tomatoes so often to see what everyone is saying that by the time the movie comes out, I’m a little sick of hearing about it. I just have to know the opinions though; the random opinions, the consensus opinion and of course the thoughts of my personal favorite journalists.

    There’s more at stake too by living this kind of life. How about compromising friendships? Frequently, I’ll receive enthusiastic recommendations from a peer urging me to see a certain picture but I’ll have to turn them down because of something I read. They’ll be in shock and think I’m kidding. Eventually, they’ll just be plain insulted.

  • December 29, 2006

    Moviegoing Rituals

    Whenever I go to ArcLight to see a movie, as long as I’m with a certain friend, we always buy their caramel corn in addition to their regular popcorn. We have this little routine that she came up with where we eat some of the popcorn first to get our fingertips a bit greasy. Once they’re sufficiently oily enough, we start munching on the caramel corn. One without the other would be just okay, but together they have an unbeatable synergy. I don’t know why it works and maybe it doesn’t entirely in the end, but it’s tradition and any trip to the ArcLight feels naked without it.

    Another friend and I regularly see event films together opening night. After lining up hours in advance, as soon as they let us into the theater, we race in quickly make our way to the most center row. At the point we begin counting seats. As if just being comfortable in the centermost seats weren’t enough, we have to be positive that we are at the true middle of the auditorium. Maybe we just revel in the sightlines or maybe we get a certain satisfaction of seeing the faces of the next moviegoers arriving that look for the best seats in the house and find us in them.

    Perhaps none is more important to me these days than of course, the theater listings. It used to be that I’d just get excited when I knew the actual times a new movie would be shown opening weekend. Like I care about times now. I want to know what’s playing where.

  • December 22, 2006

    The Midnight Movie Experience

    Waiting outside in the dark for hours and it’s below freezing. Flying cross country and then back in a two day span. Checking Fandango every ten minutes to see if they’ve announced the times yet.

    Before I found my love for movie theaters, I had my passion for movies. One of the extra special parts of moviegoing is when those big event films come out. You might have seen the trailer six months or even a year earlier. As the months go by, the anticipation only grows. And then finally, one day, it’s release day.

    For me, when it comes to big event films, there’s only one way to go; the midnight movie opening night. No matter how little sleep I got the night before, if it’s something I’ve been waiting for a long time, I am wired once the late evening comes around. There’s just something about seeing a movie like that when it’s just you and the hardcore fans. Plus, the guarantee of almost no children doesn’t hurt either.

    With one friend we even have this deal where each year one of us travels cross country to the other and we see the most highly-anticipated event film of the year. Of course, we see it at midnight at the most prime location in town. Sometimes, what we’re actually going to see is up for debate but never how we’re going to see it. Our parents to this day don’t quite understand why someone would take a vacation just to see a movie.

    While I seem to have years and years experience being that I have so many memories, that’s not quite true. My midnight movie memories are entirely restricted to the past ten years. I’m anxious to know how this tradition has changed over the years. Of course I’ve read about it in the 70’s but what about before that? For something so tied to the event films that have been such a huge part of moviegoing since “Jaws”, how does it translate to different genres and times?

  • December 15, 2006

    The importance of feedback

    We’ve all been there. The crying baby two rows back, the obnoxious teenagers that keep cracking jokes every five seconds oblivious to the fact that they’re surrounded by three hundred people, and of course the cell phone users that need no introduction. In a lot of ways, the moviegoing experience has really deteriorated lately.

    That doesn’t mean it has to go any further though. I know it’s a little intimidating sometimes but we ambassadors of all things that are good about cinema need to step up and let our voices be heard. If anything is going to change about movie theaters, it’s going to take an entire wave of public opinion to do it. But if we’re articulate and we possibly point out some positive notes too, maybe we can have some impact.

    Talking to your local theater is a good start. Nothing is more effective than telling someone your thoughts face to face. With the larger chains though, it might take a bit more convincing. However, we’re lucky enough to get some platforms for each(Regal, AMC, Cinemark). Search for the best way to contact the powers that be at your local theater and see how receptive they are.