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NATIONAL Trust steps into the battle between independent movie theaters and megaplexes

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BALTIMORE (AP) _ The Senator Theatre _ a mammoth, Art Deco structure with a movie screen framed by gold curtains _ is a fully functioning anachronism.

With its bold, Technicolor marquee and 900 plush seats gently sloping toward a 40-foot screen, the independent theater recalls the days when going to the movies was an outing worthy of a palace.

But being elegant isn't enough. The Senator's owner says it's getting harder to fill the seats because suburban multiplexes can monopolize most first-run movies in the area.

That's why the National Trust for Historic Preservation cited the 62-year-old Senator on the city's north side when it put the nation's historic movie theaters on its annual list of America's Most Endangered Historic Places.

The other sites the trust listed include Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Jackson Ward, a historic black neighborhood in Richmond, Va.; prairie churches in North Dakota; and the Telluride Valley floor in Colorado.

The Senator _ already on the National Register of Historic Places _ won't receive any specific assistance, financial or otherwise, from the trust.

But leaders of the nonprofit organization hope that by recognizing such theaters as endangered, they can foster a dialogue between independent theater owners and film distributors more likely to give first crack at their movies to the large corporations running multiplexes.

``The problem is the distribution system in the movie industry. The distribution is vertically integrated,'' Richard Moe, chairman of the trust, said Monday. ``The multiplexes have a direct relationship with the distributors and often with the producers of these films.''

Moe estimates there are 300 to 400 independent movie theaters in the nation.

Even fewer of those are still showing first-run movies, said the trust's Kennedy Smith. That dwindling number includes the Grand Lake in Oakland, Calif., the Fox Theatre in Atlanta and the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Other remaining movie palaces, such as the Uptown in Washington, are owned by theater chains, ensuring a steady diet of first-run features but less than spectacular upkeep, Smith said.

Many others have not been as lucky, converting into discount houses or performing arts centers, or closing outright, Smith said. In addition to the Senator, the trust cited other theaters fighting the multiplex trend, including the Rogers Theater in Shelby, N.C., the Capitol Theater in Burlington, Iowa, and San Francisco's historic theaters.

The Senator's owner, Tom Kiefaber, has been able to keep the theater afloat largely because the distribution arms of two studios _ Paramount and Dreamworks _ have been willing to go over the heads of exhibition chains and place their movies there.

Kiefaber recently waged a public _ but losing battle _ to show ``Pearl Harbor,'' arguing the Senator could do justice to the movie's spectacle as well as its historical context.

``My family stopped the show in 1941 and informed the patrons that our Pacific Fleet had been destroyed,'' Kiefaber said.

But the movie went to a General Cinema multiplex in suburban Towson, which exercised its right to ``clear'' nearby theaters, preventing competition. Calls to the Towson theater seeking comment on the controversy were not returned.

Kiefaber ended up with the computer-animated ``Shrek,'' from Dreamworks, as his offering from mid-May through June. ``Shrek'' is a huge hit at the box office, but Kiefaber said his battle to show ``Pearl Harbor'' was about more than ticket sales.

``It was about the right to show 'Pearl Harbor,''' Kiefaber said. ``We were fighting because of the quintessential absurdity of the situation.''

The inclusion of historic movie theaters on the Most Endangered list gives Kiefaber hope that the practice of ``clearing'' will be scrutinized heavily.

``Movie patrons purchase tickets to see a particular first-run film, not to admire the ambiance, architecture and style of operation of an historic movie house,'' he said.

``The flip side of this issue, well known to the chain exhibitors operating the multi- and megaplexes, is that the combination of an historic movie house and the latest high-profile, first-run film is enormously popular.''
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