Friends of Ed Reisinger: Three challenge 10th District veteran

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Aug. 22, 2007

Edward Reisinger and his family own a tiny little bar in Morrell Park called Good Times, where amusement devices line the narrow walls. Reisinger, a Democrat, is the 10th District city councilman and chairs the Land Use and Transportation Committee, which in April recommended expanding the presence of such regulated devices in neighborhood businesses like his. The machines are known to be used for illegal gambling, yet the Baltimore Licensed Beverage Association, which represents bars and other liquor establishments, requested the bill, and its supporters have donated heavily to Reisinger’s re-election campaign. The measure still awaits a full City Council vote.

Let’s recap: A bar-owning councilman’s committee touts a law backed by his campaign donors to expand opportunities for illegal gambling at bars.

That is some old-school politics, but Reisinger comes from the old school. His father was a South Baltimore state delegate during the midcentury apex of the Stonewall Democratic Club’s since-waned power, when the late state senators George W. Della Sr. (father of today’s 46th District state senator) and Harry J. “Soft Shoes” McGuirk ran the show south of the Inner Harbor. Reisinger himself showed his Morrell Park colors three summers ago, when he got into a scrap with a convicted drug dealer who assaulted him after Reisinger stepped out of Good Times and confronted the guy for throwing trash in the street.

“The system took a drug dealer off the streets of Morrell Park, and that’s what I wanted,” Reisinger told the judge after his attacker got six months in jail.

Like its politicians, the 10th is traditionally old-school territory, and its boundaries are wide. Morrell Park’s Good Times is a long way from, say, Thumpers in Curtis Bay, but like their respective neighborhoods–and like the amusement devices found at both bars–they share a sense of lowbrow stability. Little seems to have changed in the last half-generation or so, just as little has changed in the neighborhoods between them: Brooklyn, Cherry Hill, Westport, and Lakeland. These are places where incomes are low and working-class traditions are old.

While many good jobs left long ago, the number of voters registered there has grown recently. According to the latest data from July, the Democratic electorate in these communities is nearly two-thirds of the district’s 15,345 registered Democrats, and it has grown by nearly 1,500 voters since July 2003, prior to the last city primary. If Reisinger has a territory, this should be it, since all three of his challengers hail from the district’s northern, more posh quarters on the South Baltimore peninsula.

Donnie Fair, 30, is a community activist and computer-network administrator who grew up on a farm, moved to Baltimore in 1999, and bought a rowhouse on Fort Avenue in South Baltimore in 2005. Terry Hickey lives in Federal Hill and is a 37-year-old community lawyer who started a nonprofit to help kids grow up to be good citizens. Hunter Pruette, a 31-year-old North Carolina native, is a criminal defense attorney who moved to South Baltimore after working in 2003 as traveling chief of staff of U.S. Senator John Edwards’ presidential campaign.

These three challengers live in some of the hottest neighborhoods in the Baltimore real-estate market, where a new breed of residents has been drawn. Long-rooted families have moved on in recent years, getting top dollar for their ancestral rowhouses. Taverns have changed hands, accommodating new tastes. Aging industrial sites have been rezoned and redeveloped. The yuppies took over.

Times have changed since 1990, when Reisinger, as an appointed councilman (he lost re-election in 1991, and regained a seat in 1995), told The Washington Times in an article about Locust Pointers that “I don’t think anybody’s moving out. They’re hanging tough.”

Here’s the twist: Reisinger’s committee chairmanship has involved facilitating the district’s fast-paced redevelopment that has supplanted the old-timers with newcomers–including his challengers in this race. Voters on the South Baltimore peninsula between Middle Branch and the Inner Harbor make up a little more than a third of 10th’s Democrats, and 1,974 more voters are registered there today than in 2003. The downside: Only 625 of them are Democrats. But they vote; average turnout by Democrats voting in these precincts in 2003 was high at 42 percent, compared to 33 percent in the rest of the district.

But if this is the challengers’ political base, and they’re splitting it three ways, they’ll have to look beyond the peninsula for success.

A measure of Reisinger’s support comes from the results of his last election, which he almost lost. It was a similar scenario in 2003, with three challengers. Reisinger won with 39 percent of the vote, but the only precincts where the majority voted for him were in Locust Point, Morrell Park, and South Baltimore. Nicole Pastore-Klein got more than half the votes in Federal Hill and ended up with 36 percent districtwide, while Charlie Metz took 21 percent and a fourth candidate barely made a showing. Thus, the challengers undermined one another by splitting the large anti-incumbent vote and Reisinger kept his council seat by a hair.

Could it happen again?

“Based on Ed’s approach to his campaign,” Hickey responds, “that’s what he thinks is going to happen again. But there is a lot of anti-Ed sentiment, and whoever gets that [voting bloc] wins.”

“I don’t necessarily agree” that a reprise of 2003’s split vote is in the offing, Pruette responds. “People want new ideas and new leadership and they’re tired of the same old promises.”

“Well, sure we’re going to split the vote,” Fair says. “But that’s only because that’s the way math works. I’m going to win because I have a different kind of connection to voters than these other guys.”

Reisinger sees these thirtysomethings as “political opportunists” who are misperceiving a weak incumbent where there is none, and trying vainly to cash in. “I’m not being arrogant,” he explains, “but these are three people who want to run, and they are running from the peninsula. That’s not something I can control. If they want the job, they got to hit the rest of the district.”

All three challengers have some money to spend, but only one has anything like Reisinger’s war chest, which on Aug. 14 carried a balance of $36,600: Pruette, with $29,400, thanks to a national donor base that stretches from Washington to Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Hickey’s balance of $9,800 is next in line, and his top donor, with $4,000, is Leonard Bush of Pasadena in Anne Arundel County, better known as “Len the Plumber,” who grew up in Morrell Park. Fair had about $1,200 on hand, just enough to cover outstanding bills. But one of Fair’s most generous donors–Joyce Bauerle, president of the Locust Point Civic Association, who gave $300, compared to the $50 she gave Reisinger last year–carries some clout on the peninsula.

Raising funds to underwrite even a modest campaign can be a Sisyphean task, especially for neophyte challengers like Reisinger’s opponents. It’s not so hard for most incumbents, but Reisinger, as the chairman of the Land Use and Transportation Committee, has it especially easy. The position draws big-money political donors, since legislation developers need passed must be approved by his committee first. (It also helps to have Good Times in the family; the bar contributed $3,100.)

Reisinger’s political fundraising, as with many politicians’ campaigns, can be directly tied to his legislative record. He was sole sponsor of two enacted bills that came through his committee to permit redevelopment of the old Chesapeake Paperboard property in Locust Point, for instance, and his efforts were rewarded with a total of at least $3,950 in campaign donations from the developer, his lawyer, and his family members. Another enacted bill, sole-sponsored by Reisinger and approved by his committee, was to down-zone a Locust Point property on Beason Street from manufacturing to residential use, prompted donations totaling $1,575 from the owner and his lawyers. There are other examples in Reisinger’s record of the same pattern, though there was one notable example, the Harborview development, in which he sided against the developer.

“Any developer who comes to me, I say, `You got to go to the community first, and if they see it as a win-win, then I’ll introduce the bill and I’ll support it,'” Reisinger says, explaining his protocol for handling land-use bills. As for how the same developers often donate to his campaign, he implies that they’re simply in the list of potential donors whom he calls. “I hired Colleen Martin-Lauer as a consultant to do my fundraising,” Reisinger explains. “And she has a book with a number of businesses and individuals that I call, tell them my spiel, and ask for a contribution. It doesn’t mean I carry water for them.”

Fair’s gloves come off when he talks about how Reisinger raises money: “It’s easy to raise money when everyone knows you’re for sale.” Hickey says he doesn’t want to hire a fundraiser–“I don’t want that book to raise money from.”–but acknowledges that if he becomes an incumbent running for re-election, “you may end up writing an article later that says I’m a hypocrite.”

Pruette says Reisinger’s fundraising strategy is “very common, and that’s the power of incumbency. But you have to be careful to represent your constituents and not those who fund our campaign. People have come to expect better than that, and I think that’s part of this race.”

In this race, the three challengers are all trying to slay a giant–Reisinger, the incumbent, who has all the trappings and advantages of longstanding power. If Reisinger wins, then his vote-splitting opponents, despite their intentions, will actually have served as his friends.

Coming Soon: The Box-Office Battle Between Baltimore’s Independent Movie Theaters Turns on the Imminent Arrival of a New National Player


By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, July 5, 2006

Moviegoers wanting to catch a flick in Baltimore City currently have very few options. The theater at the Maryland Science Center screens Imax films, and there are the X-rated movie houses, the Earle and Apex theaters, that serve their particular niche. Then there are a handful of ad hoc screening spots, from movie nights at the Creative Alliance to various film series in neighborhoods, clubs, churches, and DIY spaces. While screenings of general-release first-run movies are widely available in the suburbs, there are only eight screens that feature them in the city: one at the Senator Theatre in Govans, two at the Rotunda Cinematheque near Hampden, and five at the Charles Theatre near Penn Station. In a nation with about 8,000 people for each of its 36,000 movie screens, Baltimore City has about 80,000 residents per screen—meaning movie screens are approximately 10 times more prevalent nationwide than they are here.

Next spring, though, if all goes as planned, the city’s film-presentation capacity will almost double overnight when the Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatres chain starts operating seven new screens at the Harbor East complex, near the waterfront at the end of President Street. Landmark is known for presenting a mix of foreign and independent films and major releases, and it will be tapping into the market of potential filmgoers that either live nearby or are willing to travel to the planned location at 800 Aliceanna St. The city’s two existing first-run theater owners react quite differently to this prospect.

“This is going to be a blessed change in the dynamic,” predicts Thomas Kiefaber, the 54-year-old owner of the 900-seat Senator and the Rotunda Cinematheque, whose two screens have 130 seats each. Both are in North Baltimore, several miles from Harbor East, and mostly show mainstream Hollywood movies. Over the years since he purchased the Senator from his family’s movie theater business in 1989, Kiefaber has struggled to keep it afloat as debts have increased and been restructured, forever making noises that the end is near (passers-by this May might have noticed that the marquee briefly read the senator 1939-200?). But rather than viewing the Landmark as more competition, Kiefaber sees it as the cavalry riding in to save the day—if it’s not already too late. He says he’s looking to usher in a new age for the Senator.

“I’m the indie guy, I’m the anti-chain guy. Yet I’d like to go down there with my shovel and my bucket to help get [the Landmark] built as soon as possible,” Kiefaber remarks. “How does the saying go? The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”

At the Charles Theatre—Kiefaber’s “enemy”—the reaction is decidedly less gleeful. “I don’t know exactly what we can do, but it’s going to make life more difficult,” says John Standiford, 41, a Charles co-owner. The Charles’ total 1,150 seats are two miles away from the planned Landmark. Not only is the Charles closer to Harbor East than the Senator, but the Charles serves moviegoing preferences similar to those catered to at Landmark’s 200-plus screens around the country, so the new theater presents it with a direct challenge. (City Paper has an ongoing cross-promotional relationship with the Charles.)

James “Buzz” Cusack, Standiford’s 65-year-old uncle and the main owner and operator of the Charles, contends that his theater has certain advantages over the proposed Landmark: lower overhead costs, better parking, easier access from highways and main thoroughfares, and an established local reputation that attracts faithful patrons. Nonetheless, he admits that Landmark’s arrival “likely will limit choices” for booking films at the Charles, but he says that “it’s going to be harder for [Kiefaber], too.”

The actual impact of the Landmark’s arrival on the Charles, Senator, and Rotunda won’t be known until after the new theater’s planned opening in spring 2007. But Kiefaber, Standiford, and Cusack’s speculations are based in large part on a little-discussed factor in the film-distribution business: “clearance.” That’s when a theater is prevented from showing a film that’s playing at another theater in the same market. The Charles “clears” the Senator and the Rotunda, so they can’t show films already booked at the Charles, but the Senator and Rotunda don’t clear the Charles. (The ill will between them over this issue is fierce, though otherwise each has a high regard for the other as film exhibitors.)

Soon, the Landmark may have clearance over the Charles—or, in what most observers say is a less likely scenario, clearance over all three independent theaters—so the national theater chain may be able to hoard the most promising new releases at its waterfront screens. Or it may choose not to clear anyone. Either way, the looming possibility of a national chain blocking the independents’ access to films has brought Kiefaber’s simmering gripes against the Charles to the fore, providing a glimpse into the murky world of film distribution in Baltimore City.


Tom Kiefaber purchased the vintage 1939 Senator Theatre from Durkee Enterprises, his family’s local theater-chain business that had once owned 10 theaters with 28 screens, in 1989. “We sold our theaters,” Kiefaber recalls on a recent June night, as he sits outside of the Grand Cru wine bar at Belvedere Square, the shopping center across York Road from the Senator. “And I carved the Senator out of the deal and took it independent, against the advice of some of the older people in my family, who said, ‘You need to have a chain around you. You’re going to get killed out there by yourself.’”

Initially, he says, “things were going along fairly well. And then General Cinema built Towson Commons.” The eight-screen multiplex opened in early 1990s and immediately cleared the Senator, about two miles away, from screening films it was showing.

A memorable example of General Cinema clearing the Senator was in 2001, when Kiefaber tried mightily to screen Pearl Harbor, the Michael Bay-directed period epic that was expected to be that summer’s blockbuster. Shut out by clearance, he had to settle for Shrek, which ended up being the better performer by far. But, to Kiefaber, that outcome was the exception that proved the rule.

“I was never able to play any of the films that ran on any of the screens at General Cinema for 12 years. No exceptions, not one,” Kiefaber says bitterly. “And they denied until the very end, when [the company] went bankrupt [in 2000], that they had any thing to do with film clearance. Whatever problems I had in not being able to play the films I wanted to play was, they said, entirely related to the whims of the distributors. That’s when I understood what clearance was. And I thought, You know what? This is a bad thing. And it became a bit of a crusade with me.”

After General Cinema was purchased out of bankruptcy by AMC Entertainment in 2001, Towson Commons’ clearance over the Senator ended, Kiefaber says, and he believes his crusade had something to do with it. By that time, his efforts to inform people about the evils of clearance had made The New York Times and CBS Sunday Morning, and had been featured on cable television’s History Channel as part of a segment on the Senator being designated one of the country’s 11 most endangered historic sites. “I was getting some resonance on the clearance issue,” he recalls of that time. “And I think AMC understood that and didn’t exert clearance from Towson. It wasn’t worth it for them.”

Thus, it was a new day—except the Charles was clearing the Senator, Kiefaber says. “It always did,” he adds. But that clearance was felt more acutely after Towson Commons stopped exerting clearance because, Kiefaber says, he sensed a change in moviegoers’ tastes. “The art/specialty film audience grew, and the indie movement came on as Hollywood started to run out of gas,” he explains. “And you get a shift. The reason you need equal access to first-run films is to develop an audience among a changing populace and a changing taste for film.”

In addition, in 1999 the Charles expanded from one screen to five. “That gave the Charles more booking power in town,” Kiefaber says. Meanwhile, Kiefaber was trying to expand the number of screens at his Govans facility. “I was not able to expand because the banks saw that Belvedere Square was going down the tubes,” he says. “And I couldn’t demonstrate that, if I had the additional screens, I had equal access to films that were going to make money because the Charles was clearing me. It was not a good time.”

Kiefaber’s frustration came to a head in 2004, when something unheard of happened in the film industry: a documentary film, Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing Fahrenheit 9/11, became a summer blockbuster hit. It was playing at the Charles, and because of clearance Kiefaber could not book it at the Senator.

“Up until this point,” Kiefaber says, “when Fahrenheit 9/11 started coming over the horizon, I was giving speeches around town whenever I could citing my comradeship with the Charles as a fellow independent, while at the same time prevailing on them behind the scenes to drop the clearance over me because it was deleterious to the survival of the Senator, and also it was ultimately going to be their undoing. We need to join together and started educating people as to what clearance is and provide some kind of bulwark against national chains coming in here—which we knew was going to happen—and upsetting the apple cart for both of us, depending on where they went. I was rebuffed.

“And then, Fahrenheit 9/11 comes along,” he continues. “And I started getting the e-mails, the calls, from Senator patrons: ‘Are you going to play Fahrenheit 9/11?’ I said, ‘Can’t.’ So, it was very frustrating to me. And I thought at the time, if there’s ever going to be a time when I was ever going to get Buzz [Cusack] in particular to change the Charles’ strategy in town and embark on a cooperative promotion of independently owned and operated theaters, this was it. I went public with the issue.”

Kiefaber garnered enough attention about clearance and Fahrenheit 9/11 that, through articles in The Sun and The Daily Record, word got out about his gripes. “The public is generally clueless about this business of clearance,” he says. “This is one of those behind-the-scenes struggles that goes on, and when people have some reason to care about it, and to think about it, and it starts to sink in on them, they are energized.” Indeed, as Cusack confirms, the Charles started to hear some complaints from moviegoers about its clearance of the Senator in the aftermath of the Fahrenheit 9/11debate—though Kiefaber contends that was never his intention.

But, as far as the Senator’s bottom line goes, Kiefaber says clearance has already done its damage, and continues to do so. “[T]he Charles’ clearance is not the only thing that has put us on the endangered list,” he writes in an e-mail, “but it is a primary factor that has taken its cumulative economic toll over the years, particularly in the last five years or more when so many of our former mainstream patrons are developing more of an interest in art/specialty film programming.”

Kiefaber acknowledges that other undeniable factors are hurting movie theaters in general—film attendance is down, for instance, likely due in part to competition from home-entertainment options. But he adamantly attributes the bulk of his problems to clearance, and the bulk of the Senator’s future promise to overcoming it.

Kiefaber appears relaxed in his sandals, shorts, and summer shirt outside Grand Cru, but he’s bound up with anxiety about the future of the Senator. “We’ve prevailed so far by fighting clearance, and fighting it and fighting it, and by increasing our debt for the day when we wouldn’t be cleared anymore,” he says. “It is like a family member who’s ill. You do what you need to do to keep them alive in the hope that there is going to be cure.”

As a business strategy, nearly 20 years of repeatedly taking on new debt and refinancing the old for a suffering business may not be entirely sound, but that is Kiefaber’s way. After all, the Senator has been in his family for 67 years—the theater is his life’s work, and it means something much more to him than its out-of-whack balance sheet. It is also, as is the Charles, a traffic-drawing anchor for a commercial district that has in recent years rebounded from the doldrums. There is more at stake in keeping the Senator alive—even by incurring perilous rounds of debt—than Kiefaber’s passion and pride.

“If the Landmark was open today, it wouldn’t undo the past,” Kiefaber acknowledges. “I’d still have the accumulated debt. But I would have a hope that I could deal with that debt because I would go from a marginal operation to one that would become profitable, perhaps to the degree that it would eliminate the debt over time, or restructure in a way based on the fact that we now have equal access to the films that we need to be profitable.”

Asked about movies Kiefaber would have liked to book in recent years but couldn’t because of the Charles’ clearance, he cites Lost in Translation, March of the Penguins, A Beautiful Mind, and Brokeback Mountain—all hits.


“You can’t run a 900-seat movie palace as an art house and survive,” John Standiford says. He’s sitting in the backyard garden of his Reservoir Hill home, somewhat exasperated that the clearance debate with the Senator is in the public arena again. He and Cusack reopened the Charles in the spring of 1994, after former owner David Levy had ended its 15-year run a few months earlier, and kept it going through several lean years until the 1999 expansion turned the business around. “I mean, you have to play Harry Potter and Cars. So what Tom [Kiefaber] would like to do is have the option of picking the one art film that is a breakthrough film whenever he feels like it and sucking all the life out of that film for us. And those movies are important for us. It would really hurt us if those films could play the Senator, too, because our audience would be more than cut in half, I’m sure.

“It’s like Goliath beating up on David,” Standiford says of Kiefaber’s attacks on the Charles over clearance. “His is a 900-seat theater. Everyone wants to play [films] there. I mean, if he wants to be an art house, he can be an art house. If he wanted to start booking that way, nothing’s stopping him. He’d just have to book the movies before we do. But because he doesn’t, he doesn’t have the luxury of cherry-picking the one high-grossing art movie that we get every two years. And if he chose to start booking that way, he’d close, because he wouldn’t make enough money.”

Still, Standiford does not deny that the Charles exerts clearance over the Senator and the Rotunda. “Clearance is an arrow in our quiver that’s really important, because for some of the films we screen, the distributors actually would probably like to have it on two screens, including at the Senator. Us dropping clearance would be a clear advantage to him.

“But there are more serious problems with that arrangement than having a local five-screen art house clearing him,” Standiford continues. “Dropping clearance isn’t going to save the Senator, if that’s what he’s trying to say. Because having a 900-seat single-screen theater is just a really hard thing to do. I’m glad that he’s doing it and I hope that he continues to do it. If he had two other screens on-site, that would probably help a lot. But being a single screen is an anomaly because it is really hard to do.”

The main challenge of running a single-screen theater is that you have to pick movies that will succeed at the box office every time, because the flexibility of moving poor performers to another screen isn’t available. Kiefaber reopened the Rotunda’s two screens with that flexibility in mind, but, as Standiford points out, the increased overhead of running two theaters instead of one has more than likely undercut the additional revenue more screens bring in.

As for Kiefaber’s overture to enter into a cooperative arrangement with the Charles, Standiford says he and Cusack saw no advantage in the proposition. “I guess he was trying to sell us on the idea that if we dropped clearance he would join in a partnership with us,” says Standiford. “But that was kind of a nebulous idea, and it didn’t seem that appealing to us since he had spent the previous years trying to convince everybody that we’re doing something bad.”

For his part, Cusack believes that Kiefaber’s harping about clearance is “just something for him to shift the focus from his problem,” which is not about clearance, but about the challenge of keeping open a vestige of a bygone era of single-screen movie palaces.

“It’s very unfortunate, because it’s a great theater,” Cusack says during a phone interview regarding the Senator’s ongoing dilemma. “I feel sorry for him. But I don’t have any sympathy for him if he can’t appreciate his own participation in his own problem. He just goes from one bad debt to another.”

As for clearance, Cusack says he’s not sure what it is. “Believe me,” he contends, “it is not up to me what plays at the Senator. It’s up to the distributor. It’s not because of some power that we have, it’s because of a relationship that we have with them. If he wants art movies now, all he has to do is play the same distributors’ movies as we do and establish a relationship with them. All he has to do is book the movies before we do.”


“Can you say ‘bullshit’ in your paper?” asks D. Edward Vogel, the proprietor of the Bengies Drive-In Theatre near Martin State Airport in eastern Baltimore County. “Because D. Vogel says clearance is bullshit. Everybody should run a free zone, and whoever grosses the most is going to be the clear winner” in the competition to screen movies with the most box-office promise. “There are enough product and prints for everybody,” he adds. “So it’s greed, pure and simple, when someone clears someone else. In this day and age, it’s not fair. And the thing about clearance is, it exists, but nobody wants to talk about it.”

Vogel is no shrinking violet. The guy can talk, fast and long (“D. Day,” Film, May 31), and when it comes to booking movies and running movie theaters, he knows what he’s talking about. He’s an independent movie theater operator whose family has been in the film-presentation business since long before he was born in 1957. He knows how film distribution works because he’s been wrestling with the beast as the boss of the Bengies since he took control of the drive-in in 1988. At times, he says, he’s been cleared by other cinemas, though he declined to give specifics on the record. But he understands clearance, even claims he knows how to break it—though that’s a secret he’s keeping to himself, unless, he says, “you want to pay me a lot of money.”

In the context of the debate over clearance, perhaps the best gauge of Vogel’s reputation in Baltimore’s tight-knit film community, as someone both knowledgeable and forthright, is this: Standiford recommended him. “You know who might be a good person to talk to about this is D.,” Standiford said during his backyard interview.

“The Senator would be stupid not to split around the Charles and play monkey-in-the-middle [over film bookings] with the Landmark,” Vogel says. “Kiefaber would have every right to do that, the way he’s been treated by the Charles. What they should be doing is the Senator and the Charles should be pooling their screen power with the film companies, or say they’re running a free zone here, and make it harder for the Landmark to establish clearance. But I think it’s too late for that, after all this time with the Charles clearing the Senator. Uncle Buzz [Cusack] cleared the Senator, and that was shitty. Now the Landmark is going to do the same to him. Now he’s running scared. They’re all nuts. Nobody should be clearing anybody.”

As for Kiefaber’s strategy of taking on mounting debt in order to keep open the Senator and acquire the Rotunda, which reopened under his ownership in 2003, Vogel cautions against entering the “gray area” of owing creditors. “I don’t spend what I don’t have,” Vogel says. “I just won’t take the risk.” (The Charles did, when the Abell Foundation guaranteed a $720,000 bank loan and the state kicked in a $485,000 low-interest loan to finance its expansion, but the theater has since managed to become profitable.)

When the new national chain arrives on the waterfront, Vogel predicts the Charles will be cleared by the Landmark, but the Senator and Rotunda won’t be. If he’s right, Kiefaber will be able to screen first-run art-house films that typically had been shown at the Charles, and perhaps, Vogel says, that will salvage Kiefaber’s finances. Meanwhile, he adds, the Charles will have to adjust its mix of movies, probably by going after more major releases, for which—unlike foreign and indie films—plenty of prints are available from distributors. (The Charles already screens a smattering of more mainstream films: It recently played The Da Vinci Code.)

Kiefaber says he believes his audience in North Baltimore will fill his seats to see more typical art-house fare, just as they have at the Charles. “We’ve established statistically to the film companies that there is a viable untapped market of art/specialty moviegoers and movie lovers in North Baltimore, in a high concentration,” he contends. “The film companies still can’t run their films at the Senator because of the clearance from the Charles. So Landmark comes in and changes that dynamic, and the shackles come off. The film companies then are free to run movies in North Baltimore, at theaters in the locus of the demographic. And you’re going to see a blossoming of what this market could have been for the last 10 years but has not been because of this artificial repression.”

Kiefaber’s suggestion for how the Charles can adjust to Landmark’s arrival is not, as Vogel foresees, to screen more mainstream movies. It’s just the opposite: to bring to Baltimore films that otherwise would never make it here because neither Kiefaber in North Baltimore nor the Landmark on the harbor will screen them. In other words, as Kiefaber says, the Charles could “fulfill the mission that people have given them credit for, but which is not the real case.” More gay and lesbian films, harder-edged art movies, obscure films by underappreciated filmmakers, overlooked documentaries, and the like. The Charles books many films that fall into those categories now, Kiefaber observes, but nowhere near the amount it could in order to stay viable in Baltimore’s coming film-presentation environment.

“As far as the Charles goes, that’s probably true,” says Standiford, when presented with Kiefaber’s scenario for the theater’s potential to adapt to the Landmark’s arrival. “When there’s more competition, the bookings get more interesting. You’re forced to look wider because you don’t have access to the movies that are easier to book, the ones that make more money.” But Standiford reiterates that he doesn’t believe the Senator could make money off the standard Charles fare. “There aren’t that many movies that he’s wanted that we’ve played,” he says. “Week after week after week, we play movies that wouldn’t pay the bills at the Senator. And every now and then—the last one was Fahrenheit 9/11, two years ago—one comes along that would.”


“The Senator is one of the greatest places to see a movie in the world, certainly in North America,” says Jed Dietz, the head of the Maryland Film Festival. “And Tom [Kiefaber] has a great gut for picking movies that will do well.” But Dietz, whose annual festival hosts screenings at both the Charles and Senator, isn’t convinced that Kiefaber’s idea that art films will fill the Senator’s seats is sound. “That doesn’t sound like a solution to me,” Dietz says. “You’ve got to get another revenue stream.”

And that’s exactly what Kiefaber’s intentions have been since he took over the Senator almost 20 years ago. At that time, according to the press coverage of Kiefaber’s new acquisition, plans were announced to add two new theaters, one with 275 seats and another with 260 seats. By 1993, when a foreclosure auction was avoided by refinancing the theater’s debt, the Senator hadn’t added the additional screens. In 1997, the Senator received a $20,000 grant and a $20,000 loan from the city, to be used in part to develop the expansion plans. In 2000, when the Senator was facing possible foreclosure over a 1999 loan of $375,000 made to it by the Abell Foundation in order to stave off the theater’s previous financial troubles, the expansion plans still hadn’t been realized. And in 2003, when a $1.2 million loan package (half guaranteed by the city) restructured his existing debt and funded the reopening of a refurbished Rotunda, again the Senator’s expansion remained a distant dream. (Kiefaber maintains his payments are up to date on the $1.2 million loan. City Paper’s attempts to confirm this with the Baltimore Development Corp., the quasi-public economic-development agency that oversees the loan, were rebuffed.)

Today, Kiefaber has other plans. “My ongoing struggles to maintain my ownership of the Senator as a key element in achieving its potential are now placing the future of the beloved theater and the livelihoods of its extraordinary management staff in great jeopardy,” he writes in a June 27 e-mail. “It is my sincere belief that a restructuring of debt and ownership . . . must occur.” He’s hazy about the details, since they are still being worked out, but he plans to “enter into a strategic alliance with an equity partner or partners” that will “modify the current ownership structure, alleviate the existing debt load, and provide funding for the development of the Senator Theatre’s potential.”

The plans may end up including “an eventual expansion of the facility when the availability of art/specialty film programming has improved due to the arrival of the Landmark Theatres,” he continues. In the meantime, what Kiefaber has in mind is to turn the Senator and Rotunda into “multipurpose entertainment facilities specializing in, but not limited to, a full gamut of film presentations”—live concerts, closed-circuit digital entertainment, video concerts, and other “innovative special events.”

Dietz has another idea that has been bandied about in recent years as a way to salvage the Senator from its revenue problems. “Tom should turn it into a nonprofit and go out and raise money,” he says. But Kiefaber says he has explored that possibility and, last fall, concluded that that route would be a “counterproductive error . . . primarily because of its current debt load.” Instead, a for-profit Senator may embark on “synergistic associations and alliances with nonprofit entities,” he writes.

Kiefaber would also like to realize another long-sought goal: to open the Senator Diner on a nearby property, an idea that he believes holds “terrific profit-generating potential.” On this score, too, Dietz is dubious: “The idea that a restaurant, the only type of business more risky than a single-screen theater, could save him has always been beyond me.”


Landmark Theatres and its partners in opening the proposed seven-screen theater on the harbor-front—Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse and H&S Properties Development Corp.—were given ample opportunity to add their voices to this discussion of the future of film presentation in the city. By press time, however, they hadn’t made themselves available for an interview or photo shoot. Film distributors, too, were not available. Sharon Weiss of Allied Advertising, which promotes films in the Baltimore area, says she “can’t really go on the record” about clearance issues.

Still, it is clear that seismic changes are in the offing in Baltimore’s tiny film-exhibition scene. “If the Charles is a competitor” in the way it has exerted clearance over Kiefaber’s screens, Dietz says, “then the Landmark is a tough competitor. It’s their business to be tough, and they are tough. But that’s good for the consumer, because the city is underscreened.” The Landmark’s entry will force the Charles to “do better programming,” he predicts. And it will “make the Charles better all around—because Buzz needs to spend some money for upgrading the theater.” If the Landmark liberates the Senator and Rotunda from clearance by the Charles, then Kiefaber’s fortunes will improve. “My guess is,” Dietz opines, “the Landmark will be good for everybody.”

Plot Device: Equal Parts Rant and Amateur Investigation, “The Midnight Ride of Jonathan Luna” Looks For a Conspiracy Behind the Death of a Local Prosecutor

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 23, 2005

“There’s time for a second edition,” says William Keisling, a 46-year-old Pennsylvania writer whose 515-page The Midnight Ride of Jonathan Luna was just published by his own Harrisburg, Pa.-based house, Yardbird Books. He’s defending the fact that the book is nearly devoid of interviews, and instead relies on court documents from the final case prosecuted by Jonathan Luna, an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore until his death on Dec. 4, 2003, when his body was found in a Lancaster County, Pa., stream, stabbed 36 times. But readers can easily be left wondering whether to trust Keisling to give a solid interpretation of the events leading up to Luna’s death. And trusting the writer is paramount here: In Midnight Ride, Keisling finds the most likely suspect in Luna’s death to be an FBI agent.

“People will know where I’m coming from, if I don’t get totally destroyed over this,” Keisling worries as he finishes a crab cake at Mamie’s Café at 911 W. 36th St. in Hampden—an address the restaurant once shared with Stash House Records, the rap studio at the center of a drug investigation that was the last case Luna worked on. “I really put myself out here with this book,” Keisling continues. “I really hung myself out. But I really care about what’s going on in this city, and I really care about what happened to [Luna] and his family.”

Keisling is guileless in his attempt to construct a theory of Luna’s death. He’s flabbergasted by the lack of attention given to the story so far, he says, and he’s outraged by leak-fueled media coverage that the case may be a suicide, or that Luna had a sordid personal life that had something to do with his fate. But the result of Keisling’s effort to put the pieces together is a display of fantastic logic, as hard to believe as it is, at times, to read.

Court transcripts (and, by Keisling’s estimate, 200 to 300 pages of Midnight Ride are taken up with them) give raw narration recorded under oath, but they don’t give insights into body language, inflection, and the things that go on when the recordings stop. Instead, Midnight Ride riffs freely off the court record and ends up pointing the finger at a federal agent as the likely culprit—without even providing the accused an opportunity to respond. (Due to that lapse in protocol, this review won’t mention the agent’s name.)

Of course, Keisling’s theory could end up being the right one. Since the book itself presents this theory in convoluted layers, here it is in Keisling’s spoken words: “It points to an internal courthouse murder. He’s stabbed 36 times, once for every thousand bucks missing from the safe. Coincidentally, [that is] also the number of times that the Dawsons called 9-1-1. The theory of the case is that he was covering up FBI and Justice Department culpability in the Dawson murder[s].”

Some explanation is necessary. As the book points out, in a previous Luna case from October 2002, $36,000 used as evidence went missing between the courtroom and the nearby evidence storage area, and Luna, another prosecutor, and federal agents were the only ones who had access to it. Midnight Ride assumes that an agent who worked with Luna on the Stash House Records case also figured in that unsolved theft case. This same agent, Midnight Ride claims, bungled the handling of a cooperating witness in the Stash House case, allowing a violent drug offender to go free, discharge a firearm, and deal drugs while on the FBI payroll as a paid informant.

The public furor over the arson murders of the seven members of the Dawson family in East Baltimore, who died at the hands of a repeat offender while the FBI was working the Stash House case, made the misadventures of the Stash House informant a sensitive issue for Baltimore’s federal law-enforcement bureaucracy, Midnight Rideasserts. The local police, with its corrupt leadership, didn’t help the Dawsons in time, so where were the feds? the book asks. Paying criminals to continue committing crimes, it answers.

Compounding the public-relations threat alleged in Midnight Ride were congressional investigations that were pulling the covers off of FBI informant scandals. On the morning that Luna’s body was found, the mishandling of the Stash House witness would have come to light in the courtroom—unless a plea deal could be reached, and Luna was preparing those agreements when he suddenly left his office to meet his demise. But, Midnight Ride discloses, the plea deal—which was accepted by the court the next morning—was patently improper, flouting federal rules by letting a suspect off the hook for a drug-related murder. After Luna’s death, the leaks began, disparaging the prosecutor’s character and throwing the public off the scent of what the book concludes is manifest: that the feds killed Luna. Presumably, Luna had balked at finishing the questionable plea deals and thus was going to let the Stash House embarrassment come out in court the next day.

In the end, Keisling says, Luna’s death was like that of Christopher Marlowe, the early English dramatist and spy whose death, centuries later, remains a much-argued mystery. Keisling, with Midnight Ride, is the first to fire a salvo in the neglected debate about Luna’s mysterious death, and he begs for others—especially Congress—to enter the fray. Fourteen months of federal investigation have gone by, without any answers—not even a hint about what the motive may have been. At some point—especially given the facts Keisling dug out of the courthouse about the Stash House case—Congress has a duty to step in and take a close look at how the Justice Department has handled Luna’s death. Maybe then Keisling’s inventive theory will be exonerated. Or maybe, by then, Midnight Ride’s second edition will come out—with its literary flourish replaced by the fruit of hard, investigative labor.

Stung By Honey: Viryta Is Hard To Know, Easy To Like

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 21, 2005

I was force-fed a little Latin as a tyke, so when I see a word like “viryta” I’m reminded of “veritas,” Latin for “truth.” And as someone who’s known to be, on occasion, a bit of a tippler, when I see “viryta” on a liquor label, I think, “in vino veritas”—in wine is truth. But when it comes to viryta, a sweet and potent honey liqueur popular at the city’s Lithuanian gathering places, the truth is hard to come by.

My first encounter with viryta was in early 1996, when a series of snow and ice storms incapacitated the city. My piss-yellow Dodge Diplomat was encased in the tundralike mixture, and the city’s snow-removal effort had seemingly lost my address, so I was walking to work. As I passed Hollins Market trudging east one of those mornings, a familiar face poked out of an open window on the second floor above the Corner Coffee House. It was a young fellow from the neighborhood, of proud Lithuanian stock, and he was beckoning me upstairs for a taste of ethnic pride.

“Hey, Van!” he shouted out. “Come on up! My grandmother’s cooking up a batch of vitatis.” That’s what I thought he said—“vitatis”—and that was how I referred to his grandma’s potion until just recently, when I finally was schooled about viryta within the bounds beyond which outsiders aren’t welcome to venture.

At first, I balked at my friend’s kind invitation, claiming to be duty-bound to my waiting desk at the paper, but he cajoled me until I relented, propelled as much by curiosity as his browbeating. At the very least, I wanted to see what had made this normally reticent gent so upbeat and red in the face this early in the morning.

Upstairs, in the family kitchen, his nana, robed in a flower-printed housedress, was using a long wooden spoon to stir something in a large pot on the stove. Empty jars and bottles of honey and grain alcohol were scattered on the counter, along with various spices and some dried grassy-looking vegetation. Everyone there—three generations, maybe a half-dozen people total—was ebullient, excited about the snow, and happily expectant about the product of the old lady’s labor, which they’d already tasted prematurely.

“It’s just about ready,” my friend said, “but we couldn’t wait.” The simmering batch of viryta scented the room like a Christmas candle, and the grandmother shooshed sniffing faces away from the lip of the pot. Then the ladle came out, and the teacups, and I had my first taste of viryta—and my only taste of it hot. When I finally did make it to the office, no work got done.

Since then, I’ve taken many opportunities to introduce people to viryta, and to enjoy it, cold or at room temperature, with wizened aficionados. Mum’s, a bar in South Baltimore, has it, drawn from a bottle labeled “Evil.” At the Harbor Way Inn in Ridgely’s Delight, they try to keep viryta in stock, but the supply-and-demand chart is a little out of whack. The Lithuanian Hall in the Hollins Market neighborhood is, of course, a hotbed for viryta tasting, but its management tends to have a Soviet bloc-type attitude when it comes to answering questions about the shots that have made Baltimore’s Lithuanians quasi-famous. And J-Ray’s Tavern at the corner of Carey and Herkimer streets—a watering hole frequented by city cops—has it, too. There, the stuff’s reputedly mixed using whiskey—and cheap whiskey, at that. To each his own.

For those intimidated by such hostelries, I suggest awaiting the annual Lithuanian Festival, held mid-May at the Catonsville Armory. Next year’s will be the 34th festival, and each year plenty of viryta washes desra (Lithuanian sausage) and koputsai (sauerkraut) down many gullets.

Though I can’t claim to be a wizened aficionado myself, I thought, with nearly a decade as a viryta taster under my belt, that I’d imbibed some knowledge about the stuff. At the very least, I believed the label that dubbed it “Lithuanian Nectar of the Gods.” But then photographer John Ellsberry, a man with a drop or two of Lithuanian blood in his veins, returned from a trip to Lithuania a few falls ago with the news that no one he spoke to there had ever heard of viryta. Turns out, it’s strictly a Baltimore thing, hon. Well, maybe Chicago, too. Both cities have a strong Lithuanian presence.

“It was the Lithuanian community in the United States that discovered viryta, using their own ingenuity,” explains Vytautas “Vito” Makauskas, the 78-year-old erstwhile proprietor of the Harbor Way, who in 2003 gave the bar—which his mother had given to him in 1952—to his 32-year-old daughter, Anna “Spooky” Makauskas. “So it is not Lithuanian—though the botanicals in it come from Lithuania.”

These rare “botanicals,” found only in certain swampy areas of Lithuania, are the secret ingredients in viryta, the identities of which, Makauskas explains, cannot be shared with outsiders, “on pain of death. I would no longer be welcome in the Lithuanian community if I told you.” And these leaves of grass are not cheap. A bundle, about eight inches long and the diameter of a beer can, costs on the order of $90 and is shipped here by suppliers in the mother country. He declines to provide a list of other ingredients, but recipes available online list cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cardamom, and caraway, among other spices. The honey used in the best viryta, Makauskas says, is from the linden tree.

Given the ingredients, no wonder viryta is supposed to be good for you. “It’s quite effective on coughs and colds,” Makauskas deadpans. “I strained my back once, and drank some viryta, and that cleared it right up,” Spooky Makauskas adds, apparently neglecting to give the grain alcohol (or vodka, or whiskey, or whatever liquor the maker uses) any credit for sparing her some pain.

Vito Makauskas dates the invention of viryta to, oh, sometime around 1913. “Everybody was experimenting,” he says. “It started out like a hot toddy, and at picnic time everybody brings their own. And then they found somebody who made the best. I got the original recipe of it, but it’s a pinch of this, a pinch of that. How much is a pinch? But my mother made her own in a big kettle, and would always keep a bottle around.” And where did Makauskas’ mother make viryta? “Washington Boulevard,” he says, “just around the corner from here.”

Makauskas may have been born in Lithuania, but he’s very much of his neighborhood. His path to becoming the Harbor Way’s patriarch was via war-torn Poland and Germany, as a boy, and it involved a lot of walking and border-crossing red tape. But here he sits, in his daughter’s tavern that was his for decades and, before that, his mother’s, and cheerily points out three bullet gouges on the bar’s coral-colored linoleum surface and a stuccoed-over bullet hole from his own .45 next to the front door. These scars are from a shootout in 1972, he recalls, when armed invaders stormed the place, then quickly turned and ran off at the sight and explosive sound of an itchy-trigger-fingered Makauskas in a cloud of gun smoke. His stories are hard-earned but happily shared—and often shed light on the shaky ground on which the truth sits.

Like this one: “Two drunks are sitting on a bench,” he gleams as he starts in on a favorite joke. They’re beholding a glowing orb, hovering in the sky. “One says it’s the moon rising. The other says it’s the sun setting. And they can’t agree. So a third drunk comes along, and they ask him, is that the moon rising or the sun setting? And the third drunk says, ‘I don’t know. I’m not from this neighborhood.’” This sends me and my friends into fits of laughter. I know, you had to be there. It was all in the delivery. But the point’s well taken. What is truth, when it all depends on how you look at it?

So, many thanks to Makauskas for dispensing some semblance of truth about viryta, including the meaning of the name. It has nothing to do with truth—except, perhaps, as a truth serum, in which case it doesn’t work on local Lithuanians, because they generally declined to give me many sought-after truths about it. The Lithuanian word means “cooked” or “stewed,” appropriately enough, given its effect on people who drink too much of it. And given my introduction to viryta—being stirred on a stove by an old Lithuanian lady—the literal name fits like a glove.

Still, one source of viryta lore eluded me. The reputed local master of viryta-making, who lives near the Lithuanian Hall, was suspicious of a reporter’s requests for an interview. She, along with the hall’s leadership, distrusts my motives for wanting to introduce the spirit to the general public. Makauskas says she once was approached by a large liquor company who wanted to purchase her recipe for a goodly sum, but she declined in a huff. For fear of alienating myself from all the Lithuanians in town, I’ll decline to give her name, even if I could spell it. After all, I still want my viryta, even if I still don’t know all that much about it. I suppose that’s as it should be.

Wired: Alleged Drug-World Figures Tied to Local Politics

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 2, 2005

Anthony B. Leonard’s Downtown Southern Blues restaurant on North Howard Street’s Antique Row had a meteoric run starting in 2002, drawing a clientele of local notables, including many in politics. But today, the Howard Street location is closed, and Leonard and his restaurant businesses (Leonard’s Southern Blues carry-out in Randallstown remains open) are allegedly part of a violent drug conspiracy called the Rice Organization, which prosecutors say operated in Baltimore for the past decade. The federal trial in the case is scheduled for next January.

Shades of politics color the background of the Rice Organization case, but they are not spelled out in the 41-page indictment, which was made public on Feb. 2. In fact, very little detail is revealed in that document, other than names and some addresses associated with those charged. From campaign-finance and other public records, though, it’s clear that Leonard, Downtown Southern Blues, and at least two other Rice Organization defendants played the political game, and, in Leonard’s case, entered it on the heels of an earlier chapter in Baltimore’s history of overlapping political and drug-world cultures.

That earlier chapter centered on Leonard’s Howard Street landlord, K.A.J. Enterprises, Kenneth Antonio Jackson’s family company. Jackson is an ex-con strip-club owner whose drug-world past has made his political activities controversial. This time, though, the political dealings of Leonard and others allegedly involved in the Rice Organization occurred while prosecutors say they were running drugs.

The indictment claims that 35-year-old Leonard and his 12 co-defendants, including brothers Howard and Raeshio Rice, ages 38 and 32, raked in $27 million as they distributed more than 3,000 pounds of cocaine and heroin to Baltimore’s streets since 1995. Other co-conspirators include 30-year-old George Butler, a character from the now-infamous Stop Fucking Snitching DVD, which warns viewers against cooperating with law enforcement, and Chet Pajardo, 36, co-owner with movie actress Jada Pinkett Smith of an East Baltimore corner-store property (“Star Crossed,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 16). The federal government seeks forfeiture of defendants’ assets, including vehicles, the Pajardo-Pinkett property, other real estate, and whatever is left of Leonard’s two restaurant businesses.

The Rice Organization allegations make the political ties of Leonard, Downtown Southern Blues, Pajardo, and 26-year-old co-defendant Eric Clash symbols of how the drug economy is embedded in modern civic life. When Downtown Southern Blues sought a liquor license in 2002, then-state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV (D-44th District) and former state senator Larry Young (D-44th District) were copied on administrative correspondence. Shortly after the restaurant opened that year, political business came its way. The financial details show only that political money changed hands in ’02 and ’03 involving businesses and people who only recently were accused of being part of the Rice Organization. There is nothing to suggest that any of the parties to the transactions have any other links to the drug world. Here the are details:

> In ’02 Antonio Hayes, the legislative-affairs director for City Council President Sheila Dixon (D), ran and lost in the race for the 40th District Democratic State Central Committee seat; he spent $1,200 on a June 2002 fund raiser at Downtown Southern Blues.

> Democrats for Ehrlich, a campaign committee supporting then-Republican Congressman Robert Ehrlich’s successful 2002 bid for governor, spent $4,000 at Downtown Southern Blues in November of that year for a post-victory reception in honor of Ehrlich’s running mate, Michael Steele.

> In 2002, Leonard and the restaurant made donations to the campaign committees of Mitchell ($250) and Rodney Orange Sr. ($200), the former head of the NAACP’s Baltimore chapter. Mitchell and Orange were running primary campaigns for senator and delegate, respectively, for the West Baltimore’s 44th District. Orange’s campaign also received $80 from Eric Clash. Mitchell and Orange both lost.

> In 2003, the campaign of City Comptroller Joan Pratt, who was running uncontested in the city’s Democratic primary, spent $2,200 on catering from Downtown Southern Blues. Pratt’s campaign also received $200 from Pajardo. The committee of then-City Councilwoman Catherine Pugh (D), who was mounting an unsuccessful campaign to unseat council President Sheila Dixon (D), spent $600 on a party for Larry Young at Downtown Southern Blues.

> Also in 2003, Pajardo donated $100 to the campaign of Democrat Charese Williams, who challenged incumbent City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings Blake (D-6th District) and lost in the September 2003 primary.

In a Feb. 28 phone call with City Paper, Rodney Orange Sr. said Leonard and Clash are related to him—they are both second cousins, he explained—so he is not surprised that they donated to his campaign in 2002. At the time of the donations, he continued, “there was no knowledge on my part of any activity on their part that was illegal.” Hayes said he’d booked his fundraiser with Downtown Southern Blues’ predecessor, Britton’s, and he went ahead with the scheduled event anyway. “Fortunately,” he added, “he didn’t contribute to my campaign.”

The other politicians or campaigns whose ties are disclosed above could not be reached for comment by press time.

By 2002, when Leonard leased the space for Downtown Southern Blues from K.A.J. Enterprises, the property’s ties to 47-year-old Kenny “Bird” Jackson were already well known. From 2001 until Leonard took over, the location was used by another Jackson-related company, Universal LLC, to house Britton’s, a restaurant where politicians spent nearly $1,500 in ’01 and ’02 combined, according to state campaign-finance reports. The manager of Britton’s, James Britton, owns Class Act Catering, which has gotten $120,000 worth of business from Maryland political committees since 1999. Britton, like Jackson, earned a drug-related criminal record when he was younger: He pled guilty in 1983 to pot and handgun charges in Baltimore city.

Jackson’s days in the drug business in the 1980s were summed up by The Wire producer David Simon, a former newspaper reporter, in a 1987 Sun series about a famous Baltimore drug trafficker, “Little” Melvin Williams.

“Wholesale exchanges of narcotics were carefully controlled, according to detectives,” Simon wrote, “with Williams represented by tested lieutenants such as Glen Hawkins or Kenny ‘Bird’ Jackson—men identified in court papers as Williams’ most trusted surrogates, men who allegedly had the authority and knowledge to carry large amounts of cash and make purchases without being cheated. The loyalty of such lieutenants was unquestioned.”

Jackson’s convictions in 1978 (manslaughter), 1979 (resisting arrest), and 1984 (a gun charge) were accompanied by dozens of other criminal charges in numerous jurisdictions that didn’t stick. In 1992, Jackson faced bribery charges in New Jersey, but pleaded down to one count of giving false information to a state trooper who had stopped him with nearly $700,000 in cash in his car. Meanwhile, Jackson sought to establish himself as a legitimate manager of his family’s strip club, the Eldorado Lounge, and as an accepted figure in the city’s political circles. In 1995, Jackson was a major backer of a short-lived political-action committee called A Piece of J.U.I.C.E., which was run by one of Orange’s sons. A Piece of J.U.I.C.E., which sought to give political voice to inner-city residents, made a total of $8,000 in contributions to city candidates in 1995, including Pratt, Dixon, Orange, and then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D).

Later, after the 1999 city elections, as the city’s plans for redeveloping the west side of downtown forced the Eldorado to move, Jackson’s contributions to politicians again became a public issue. Dixon got $2,500 and Mayor Martin O’Malley (D), ducking controversy, returned $2,000 he’d received from Jackson’s mother, Rosalie Jackson. In 1999, Jackson had former governor Marvin Mandel represent him in a paternity case, a measure of Jackson’s access to politically connected help. Meanwhile, donations from Jackson and those tied to him continued at the federal level. In 1999, Rosalie Jackson gave $1,000 to then-Vice President Al Gore’s committee in the 2000 Democratic presidential primary. More recently, in 2003, Kenneth Jackson gave $500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. And in 2004 Universal LLC, which operated Britton’s, donated $250 to Lt. Gov. Steele’s campaign.

Leonard, in his 2002 city liquor-license application to fill the vacancy left by the closing of Britton’s, wrote that he had been self-employed since 1999, and had previously worked from ’95 to ’99 at the Starlite Lounge, a West Baltimore bar. The sources of funds for starting Downtown Southern Blues were disclosed as proceeds from the Southern Blues carry-out in Randallstown and from Raphael Barber Shop, also in Randallstown Plaza. The purchase price for the restaurant was $350,000, with $3,394-per-month payments to K.A.J. Enterprises. Under Leonard’s proprietorship, violence struck at Downtown Southern Blues in October 2003, when an argument that started in the restaurant spilled outside, resulting in four men shot and another stabbed. Today, a new restaurant called Gambrino’s of Spain is preparing to open up there, with owners who moved here recently from Elizabeth, N.J., and a letter in the files on the property kept by the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners indicates that K.A.J. Enterprises is considering selling building.