The va­ri­eties of cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence The his­tory of Santa Fe’s movie the­aters, 1900-1970

the his­tory of Santa Fe’s movie the­aters 1900-1970

Pasatiempo - - HAPPENING IN MAY - Elmo Baca

There’s a bit of mys­tery here — it is theater af­ter all. — Art Encinias, lo­cal his­to­rian

On the grand stage of Santa Fe movie-theater his­tory in the 20th cen­tury, the fig­ure of Col. Nathan Salmon looms epi­cally, cast­ing a long shadow down West San Fran­cisco Street. To­gether with his sonin-law, E. John Greer, Salmon dom­i­nated the lo­cal movie-theater busi­ness for decades, be­gin­ning with his very first ven­ture in 1914.

Although the re­mark­able story of Salmon and Greer’s Lensic Theater is of­ten and well told, their other theater projects and clan­des­tine busi­ness ne­go­ti­a­tions re­veal a glam­orous and cun­ning side of the emerg­ing lu­cra­tive film busi­ness be­fore the days of tele­vi­sion and mass en­ter­tain­ment. By 1950, Salmon and Greer En­ter­prises would op­er­ate three ma­jor cine­mas on San Fran­cisco Street: the Lensic, El Paseo Theatre (built on the site of the for­mer Paris Theater), and the Al­ley Theatre, while also ex­pand­ing into the St. Anne’s Church neigh­bor­hood around Hickox Street with the Arco Theater.


Be­fore Salmon opened the city’s first true cinema, 1914’s Paris Theater at 123 W. San Fran­cisco St., Santa Fe traced a proven tran­si­tion from the leg­endary “opry houses” of the West­ern fron­tier to the early ex­per­i­men­tal nick­elodeon shows, trav­el­ing vaudeville acts, and five- and six-reel­ers of early si­lent-film pro­duc­tions. New Mex­i­cans had mar­veled at the “mov­ing pic­tures” quite early in cin­e­matic his­tory, flock­ing to shows of 30-sec­ond movie fea­tures such as Parisian Dance and Surf at Long Beach in a Storm at A.A. Grant’s Opera House in Al­bu­querque in 1898. With the in­ven­tion and rapid de­ploy­ment of the Lu­mière Ciné­matographe pro­jec­tor and Edi­son’s Vi­tas­cope af­ter 1895, movie the­aters and im­pro­vised screen­ing au­di­to­ri­ums rapidly spread across the United States.

In the giddy years be­fore state­hood, com­mu­nity opera houses in New Mex­ico were equipped with film pro­jec­tors, and a few com­mu­ni­ties such as Arte­sia and Sil­ver City hosted movie events in air domes and tents be­fore 1910. Among the ear­li­est opera houses in Santa Fe was Mot­ley’s Opera House on Gal­is­teo Street, op­er­at­ing since 1882-1883 as a “sa­loon opera,” and host­ing a va­ri­ety of en­ter­tain­ments, in­clud­ing bare-knuckle-boxing matches. Both the Mot­ley Opera House and the Santa Fe Opera House, opened about 1905 and op­er­ated by restau­ra­teur and manager A.M. Det­tle­bach, of­fered movie en­ter­tain­ment in the ex­per­i­men­tal-cinema years af­ter 1900.

The May 5, 1907, New Mex­i­can re­ported that “Manager A.M. Det­tle­bach of the (Santa Fe) Opera House was busy to­day in­stalling an ex­ten­sive Edi­son mov­ing pic­ture ma­chine which he re­ceived yes­ter­day from the fac­tory. It is of the very lat­est model and rep­re­sents an in­vest­ment of $175. Com­menc­ing with this evening, Manager Det­tle­bach will give two per­for­mances at the opera house ev­ery evening at 7:30 and 8:30 o’clock and a mati­nee on Satur­day and Wed­nes­day af­ter­noons. Mov­ing pic­tures and il­lus­trated songs will fur­nish the amuse­ment. ... The ad­mis­sion has been placed within reach of all, be­ing 10 and 20 cents. The lat­ter will in­clude re­served seats.” By Novem­ber and De­cem­ber 1907, the Santa Fe Opera House was of­fer­ing a pro­gram of films and vaudeville acts, with “mov­ing pic­tures be­com­ing very popular ... and crowds are in­creas­ing nightly,” ac­cord­ing to The New Mex­i­can.

The Elks boasted elite and wealthy mem­bers who were able to build grand lodges and the­aters dur­ing the state­hood years. In 1909 Santa Fe, the Elks Opera House, lo­cated at 117 Lin­coln Ave. (just north of the Palace of the Gov­er­nors), hosted a va­ri­ety of movie screen­ings, stage plays, and trav­el­ing vaudeville acts.

The Elks Opera House, de­signed by Rapp and Rapp Ar­chi­tects of Trinidad, Colorado, is sig­nif­i­cant for both its the­atri­cal his­tory and ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign, with its el­e­gant neo­clas­si­cal fa­cade. It was built in the years just be­fore the Span­ish-Pue­blo Re­vival style (aka Santa Fe Style) would be un­veiled to great ac­claim in 1917 with the open­ing of the New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art, as it is now called.

Be­tween 1910 and 1914, Sun­day evenings be­came a popular time for show­ing movies at 8 or 8:30, with live per­for­mances staged dur­ing the week. In 1914, the Elks Theatre, as the opera house was now known,

screened se­rial pro­duc­tions. The June 26, 1914, edi­tion of The New Mex­i­can ad­ver­tised The Quick­sands, star­ring Lillian Gish, along with the last in­stall­ment of The Ad­ven­tures of Kath­lyn.

With the im­mi­nent con­struc­tion and open­ing of Salmon’s Paris Theater in 1914, the Elks sought pro­fes­sional man­age­ment for their venue, and Tri-Kay Amuse­ment Com­pany, with part­ners Mssrs. Keefe, Kaune, and Koch, se­cured a con­tract to show movies. Chang­ing the name to the Kays Theatre, the new com­pany op­er­ated the Lin­coln Av­enue fa­cil­ity from July 1, 1914, to some­time in 1921. The open­ing show at the Kays was Ju­dith of Bethu­lia, “a four part Bio­graph master­piece.”

DAWN OF THE PARIS THEATER Salmon’s rapid rise in Santa Fe’s busi­ness and realestate-devel­op­ment worlds had its be­gin­nings in push­cart ped­dling in the 1880s and 1890s. Soon Salmon gained lease­holds at 429 and 243 W. San Fran­cisco St., and in 1906 built the Big Dry Goods Store at 111 W. San Fran­cisco St., with the name N. Salmon proudly dis­played on the two-story Clas­si­cal Re­vival fa­cade over lovely curved store­front win­dows.

Just a few years later, Salmon shrewdly as­sessed the lu­cra­tive po­ten­tial of the mo­tion-pic­ture busi­ness and made plans for the city’s first true cinema, the Paris Theater. Pho­to­graphs of the orig­i­nal Paris build­ing are rare. It was housed within a busi­ness-block model, a three-story build­ing, graced with clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails, that con­tained of­fices above an au­di­to­rium with 1,050 seats.

In the early-cinema era, nar­row and small seats, the nonex­is­tence of con­ces­sion stands, and min­i­mal lob­bies en­abled gen­er­ous au­di­ence ca­pac­i­ties. Movie re­fresh­ments were un­known to early film fans be­fore the in­ven­tion of re­frig­er­a­tion and com­mer­cial ap­pli­ances. The lack of air con­di­tion­ing in the au­di­to­ri­ums and brief five- and six-reel fea­tures meant that crowds moved in and out of the si­lent-pic­ture cine­mas ef­fi­ciently.

The grand open­ing of the Paris Theater was on Satur­day, Au­gust 15, 1914, and it fea­tured The Wrath of the Gods, a 56-minute movie di­rected by Regi­nald Barker and with a Ja­panese cast por­tray­ing char­ac­ters doomed by a cursed is­land vol­cano. The enor­mous suc­cess of the Paris Theater em­bold­ened Salmon to con­sol­i­date his in­ter­ests as the Roar­ing Twen­ties saw dra­matic ex­pan­sions in the Santa Fe amuse­ment-house busi­ness.

For Salmon and for Santa Fe the­aters, 1921 proved to be a wa­ter­shed year. Salmon ac­quired the lease for the Kays Theatre and changed its name to the Rialto Theatre. He op­er­ated the Rialto un­til 1926, pur­chas­ing the build­ing that year. Af­ter the Paris was spec­tac­u­larly re­mod­eled in 1926-1927, a com­mu­nity-theater com­pany took over the Rialto, of­fer­ing live per­for­mances, boxing, and wrestling matches. In 1939, the 117 Lin­coln Ave. build­ing was torn down.

MYS­TER­IES OF EL ON˜ ATE The big news of 1921, how­ever, was the in­cred­i­ble con­struc­tion of a mon­u­men­tal busi­ness-block com­plex at the north­west cor­ner of the Plaza and Palace Av­enue by James C. Cas­sell Jr., a lead­ing au­to­mo­bile dealer. Nes­tled within a ring of as­sorted store­fronts and Cas­sell’s car show­rooms, the twin Span­ish-Pue­blo Re­vival style mission tow­ers of the new El Oñate Theatre soared above the Plaza, ri­valed only by St. Fran­cis Cathe­dral and the Mu­seum of Fine Arts across the street.

El Oñate opened as a Para­mount stu­dio af­fil­i­ate on Au­gust 15, 1921, billed as the “Theatre Dif­fer­ent,” prob­a­bly be­cause of its unique ar­chi­tec­tural style evok­ing the great mission church of Acoma Pue­blo. The theater was leased to John McManus in its in­au­gu­ral year of op­er­a­tion, but Salmon briefly took over the lease in 1922, be­fore Cas­sell can­celed it and awarded the fa­cil­ity to Carl Gil­bert. Salmon, how­ever, re­fused to va­cate the build­ing and shut­tered its doors.

The next few years of El Oñate’s op­er­a­tions are shrouded in clan­des­tine ne­go­ti­a­tions and ac­ri­mony: Ap­par­ently, Salmon closed the new venue to elim­i­nate com­pe­ti­tion for the Paris and Rialto the­aters. A law­suit against him was filed in fed­eral court on Fe­bru­ary 26, 1926, by the Rocky Moun­tain Theater Cor­po­ra­tion, rep­re­sent­ing Gil­bert and var­i­ous other in­ter­ests and seek­ing dam­ages of $5,000.

Cas­sell stated in the Fe­bru­ary 16, 1926, edi­tion of The New Mex­i­can that he had signed an eightyear lease of El Oñate to the Rocky Moun­tain Theater Cor­po­ra­tion, adding that “I had no­ti­fied Mr. Salmon that I had con­sid­ered the lease he took in April, 1922, had been can­celled be­cause of vi­o­la­tions of some of the pro­vi­sions. I re­fused to ac­cept the rental from Mr. Salmon point­ing out that in my opin­ion his keep­ing El Oñate closed was in vi­o­la­tion of both state and fed­eral statutes by be­ing in re­straint of trade in an ef­fort to keep out com­pe­ti­tion. I de­manded pos­ses­sion of the theater but Mr. Salmon re­fused to give it.”

Salmon, how­ever, had the last laugh. He pre­vailed in fed­eral court, and the law­suit against him was dis­missed. On De­cem­ber 9, 1926, Salmon wrote in a per­sonal let­ter to Miss Martha Ab­dou that “we won from A to Z, ...and the theater that had the suit against us will be turned into a garage in­stead of op­er­at­ing a pic­ture theater. ... Thank God we had real at­tor­neys to take care of the case. Old Judge Roberts sure shines, and he sure savvies his busi­ness. By the way, he wants to be re­mem­bered to you.”

Salmon’s let­ters in 1926 to friends, elected of­fi­cials, fam­ily mem­bers, and busi­ness ri­vals re­veal a mas­ter busi­ness strate­gist and charmer at work as the sixty-year-old ty­coon was se­cur­ing his le­gacy. On March 9, 1926, Salmon as­sured his “Dear Friend Sam [Brat­ton, Demo­cratic U.S. se­na­tor from New Mex­ico, from 1925 to 1933]: It is true that I have sold out my busi­ness but by no means that I am leav­ing Santa Fe or the State ei­ther. My full in­ten­tion, by sell­ing the mer­can­tile busi­ness, is to de­vote all my time to the new build­ing which I ex­pect to erect in the near fu­ture.” Was he re­fer­ring to the new re­mod­el­ing of the Paris Theater or to the Lensic Theater?


By July 9, Salmon hired famed theater ar­chi­tect Carl Boller of Los An­ge­les to remodel the Paris, promis­ing him “a nice Navajo blan­ket ... for all the seats you can (give me) ... over the thou­sand mark.” The new Paris Theater fea­tured a “candy shop room and Shoe Shin­ing Par­lor in the lobby” and a float­ing box of­fice sur­rounded by an en­trance foyer flush with the side­walk on the north side of West San Fran­cisco Street.

Pa­trons en­joyed a mod­ern cool­ing and heat­ing sys­tem at the 1927 Paris, along with Ten­nessee mar­ble floors in the lobby. An iron-and-glass-canopy awning pro­tected ticket buy­ers from the el­e­ments. Per­haps the most ex­trav­a­gant ac­cent was the hor­i­zon­tal-lighted mar­quee with the five let­ters P-A-R-I-S that reached above San Fran­cisco’s brick street for at least two decades be­fore fire de­stroyed the theater in 1945. The Paris was re­opened on Jan. 6, 1927. In 1929, it pre­miered Santa Fe’s first talkie, Uni­ver­sal

Stu­dio’s Broad­way, a pi­o­neer­ing tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion that fea­tured a technicolor se­quence at the end.

A poignant June 1945 pho­to­graph of the Paris Theater in the Mu­seum of New Mex­ico’s col­lec­tion shows a line of (mostly) chil­dren at a mati­nee fea­ture. The fa­cade of the build­ing has been stuc­coed over to con­form to the Santa Fe Style that trans­formed the his­toric down­town. A con­tem­po­rary mar­quee has re­placed the cast-iron canopy. This mati­nee was an in­no­cent pre­lude to the fire that would de­stroy the beloved Paris be­fore the year’s end.


Salmon emerged from the El Oñate legal en­tan­gle­ment and the Paris re­mod­el­ing in 1927 as the dom­i­nant player in the Santa Fe movie mar­ket. The next five years in Amer­ica would wit­ness the crash of the stock mar­ket on Wall Street and the con­struc­tion of movie palaces na­tion­wide, epit­o­mized by Grau­man’s Chi­nese Theatre in Hol­ly­wood, which opened in 1927, and At­lanta’s Fox Theatre in At­lanta, which opened in 1929.

New Mex­ico fol­lowed the movie-theater ma­nia en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, as Al­bu­querque un­veiled the KiMo Theatre in 1927, com­mis­sioned by en­tre­pre­neur Oreste Bachechi and de­signed by Carl Boller. Boller was also re­spon­si­ble for Gallup’s El Morro Theatre, built in 1928.

Joined by son-in-law E. John Greer, Salmon an­nounced plans for a spec­tac­u­lar new “Span­ish Style” theater on March 27, 1930. With Boller as ar­chi­tect, the de­sign devel­op­ment pro­gressed swiftly. Ground was bro­ken on Sept. 26, and the new Lensic Theater, a name sub­mit­ted in a con­test us­ing the ini­tials of

Salmon’s six grand­chil­dren, was ready for its open­ing on June 24, 1931.

The mag­nif­i­cent Span­ish Colo­nial Re­vival style ar­chi­tec­ture of the Lensic fea­tures a deep foyer that dramatically opens into an am­ple, dou­ble-height lobby. The au­di­to­rium ex­pressed the “at­mo­spheric” am­bi­ence of great movie au­di­to­ri­ums built about 1930, with a sim­u­lated sky above a back­lit ar­chi­tec­tural fan­tasy meant to com­pletely trans­port the au­di­ence away from the hum­drum of daily life and into a world of ro­mance, adventure, or com­edy. With its Moor­ish ac­cents and Span­ish Baroque splen­dor, the Lensic sings a melody of An­dalucía.

The night of June 24 was un­usu­ally warm, as Santa Fe was blis­ter­ing from a heat wave. The mod­ern re­frig­er­a­tion sys­tem was an in­cen­tive for el­e­gant women in evening gowns and men in tuxe­dos to at­tend the gala. News­pa­per ac­counts would re­call the grand open­ing “fea­tur­ing so many lux­u­ries it was hard to enu­mer­ate them all.”

Con­tribut­ing to Salmon’s vi­sion, the Lensic hosted sep­a­rate clubs on the mez­za­nine level, one for ladies to play cards and an­other where gen­tle­men smoked cigars. A rooftop gar­den of­fered an es­cape for in­ti­mate con­ver­sa­tions and fresh air on sum­mer nights. Small light bulbs in the ceil­ing gave guests the im­pres­sion they were gaz­ing up into a clear, starry night.

The Lensic in­stantly be­came the main at­trac­tion of Santa Fe’s so­cial, cul­tural, and en­ter­tain­ment scenes. Its heavy pro­gram­ming of new Hol­ly­wood re­leases — up to four per week, shown three times daily — re­flected the public’s rav­en­ous ap­petite for movie en­ter­tain­ment in the 1930s.

The Lensic stage has, of course, wel­comed many great per­form­ers and celebri­ties over the years, in­clud­ing Claudette Col­bert, Judy Gar­land, and Rudy Vallee, but per­haps the great­est movie event in its cel­e­brated his­tory was the 1940 pre­miere of Santa Fe Trail.

An es­ti­mated 60,000 peo­ple clogged West San Fran­cisco Street for the oc­ca­sion and for a glimpse of stars Er­rol Flynn, Ron­ald Rea­gan, and Olivia de Hav­il­land. Those fans most prob­a­bly no­ticed a new theater across the street from the Lensic — an­other Salmon and Greer tri­umph called the Al­ley Theatre but of­ten re­ferred to as the Burro Al­ley Theatre — a more mod­est cinema of 500-seat ca­pac­ity that be­gan con­struc­tion in March 1939 and was open be­fore Flynn came to town.

Salmon lived to see his dreams made man­i­fest for the city that so am­ply re­warded his tal­ents and vi­sion. With his death in 1941, a true show­man and bold en­tre­pre­neur left the Santa Fe stage, but his master­piece, the Lensic Theater, lives on.


In con­trast to the ex­pan­sive au­di­to­ri­ums of the Lensic and Paris, the com­pact size of the Al­ley Theatre en­abled more di­ver­si­fied en­ter­tain­ment pro­gram­ming. Built in a con­ven­tional in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Span­ish-Pue­blo Re­vival style, with dec­o­ra­tive vi­gas on the street fa­cade, the Al­ley Theatre was the poor re­la­tion of the re­gal Lensic di­rectly across the street.

Lo­cal his­to­rian and re­tired judge Art Encinias re­called in an in­ter­view that the Al­ley Theatre was rented oc­ca­sion­ally by spir­i­tu­al­ist Edna Bal­lard in the 1940s and ’50s for read­ings in­ter­pret­ing the I AM school of phi­los­o­phy. In 1938, I AM had more than a mil­lion fol­low­ers world­wide, en­joy­ing a cult­like sta­tus.

Encinias re­ported in his blog “Slouch­ing To­wards Santa Fe” on Feb. 3, 2009, that by 1951 the “mem­bers of the I AM sect ... were a familiar part of the Santa Fe scene ... and wore dif­fer­ent colors for each day of the week; Satur­day for ex­am­ple was a day for vi­o­let or pur­ple colors. The colors red and black, how­ever, were evil and never worn.”

By 1950, the Al­ley Theatre had be­gun screen­ing Span­ish-lan­guage films. A Novem­ber 1950 ad for the Al­ley an­nounced “Comen­zando Hoy [Start­ing To­day] Esther Fernán­dez y An­to­nio Badú en Solo Ver­acruz es Bello [Only Ver­acruz Is Beau­ti­ful],” a Mex­i­can film fea­ture dis­trib­uted by Azteca Films. Santa Feans crowded the Al­ley to en­joy the lat­est Mex­i­can fea­tures star­ring Cantin­flas, María Félix, Jorge Ne­grete, and An­to­nio Aguilar. Th­ese fea­tures proved to be re­li­able money mak­ers for Greer En­ter­prises, more than enough to en­cour­age mar­ket ex­pan­sion into the pre­dom­i­nantly His­panic neigh­bor­hoods near St. Anne’s Catholic Church around Hickox and Ali­cia streets.


The death of Salmon in 1941 sym­bol­ized the pass­ing of an era in many ways. He had en­joyed great suc­cess as an in­de­pen­dent theater owner, lock­ing up the Santa Fe mar­ket and re­sist­ing the power of the Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem. By the 1940s, great stu­dios such as Para­mount and Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Fox not only owned their movies, but the­aters and movie stars as well (signed to long-term con­tracts and re­quired to per­form in film pro­duc­tions at the stu­dios’ dis­cre­tion).

In 1940, only 13 of New Mex­ico’s 71 the­aters were af­fil­i­ated with Hol­ly­wood’s five ma­jor stu­dios, yet

the in­de­pen­dents were at a dis­ad­van­tage, hav­ing to wait for hit movies af­ter their runs in big­ger cities. To chal­lenge the dis­par­ity, sev­eral New Mex­ico the­aters, in­clud­ing Salmon and Greer’s Santa Fe houses, joined a co­op­er­a­tive called Gi­bral­tar En­ter­prises, which also in­cluded in­de­pen­dent theater own­ers in Colorado, Ne­braska, and Utah. Af­ter the land­mark de­ci­sion in the United States v.

Para­mount Pic­tures Supreme Court an­titrust case in 1948, movie stu­dios were forced to sell their the­aters and re­form their prac­tice of block-book­ing fea­ture films. Gi­bral­tar En­ter­prises sur­vived un­til the 1960s and, along with Salmon and Greer En­ter­prises, main­tained con­trol of Santa Fe, their lo­cal power un­chal­lenged un­til Don Beers opened the Santa Fe Theater.


In 1948, Greer’s son Nathan joined the busi­ness and helped pre­pare for a ma­jor ex­pan­sion. There was a flurry of movie-theater ac­tiv­ity in and around Santa Fe at the time, as new op­er­a­tors and lo­ca­tions re­flected the growth of the city, new busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties, and leisure-life­style choices. In post-World War II’s boom­ing econ­omy, au­to­mo­biles were more af­ford­able than be­fore. This meant that movie fans were able to travel far­ther dis­tances to the­aters. Drivein the­aters, first un­veiled in Cam­den, New Jer­sey, in 1933, were on their way to New Mex­ico.

Af­ter the demise of the Paris by fire in 1945, the prop­erty was dor­mant for three years un­til it would be re­built by Salmon and Greer En­ter­prises as El Paseo Theatre. An ar­ti­cle in the May 1, 1948, edi­tion of

The New Mex­i­can an­nounced the project at a cost of $50,000 and a floor plan that “fol­lows a new treat­ment which con­nects the bal­cony to the main floor with a sta­dium ar­range­ment of seat­ing.” Just one month later, on June 6, Santa Fe Mo­tors owner Don Beers an­nounced in the pa­per his plans to build a cinema next to his auto deal­er­ship at 521 Cer­ril­los Road.

Mean­while, Cristo Rey Church had re­ceived a $10,000 grant in Jan­uary from the Catholic bish­ops com­mit­tee of the South­west to help re­tire debt in­curred in the build­ing of the new parish hall. Fa­ther Smith’s plan to raise money was an­nounced in the Jan. 16, 1948, is­sue of The New Mex­i­can: “putting on movies in a com­mer­cial way on Satur­days and Sun­days be­gin­ning to­mor­row. His pro­gram is Span­ish films for three weeks, then a West­ern or some­thing else for va­ri­ety on the fourth week.” Santa Fe’s theater wars raged anew in earnest, as they had done in 1922 — with sim­i­lar re­sults.

Salmon and Greer had found a huge new au­di­ence for Span­ish-lan­guage films fea­tured pri­mar­ily at the Al­ley Theater in the 1940s and ’50s. In 1948, Greer En­ter­prises opened a new neigh­bor­hood theater in a spanned-arch con­struc­tion, or Quon­set hut, on a lot at the cor­ner of Hickox and Er­rett streets. A con­test to name the theater yielded the win­ning en­try, Arco, which in Span­ish means “arch.”


Billed as Santa Fe’s “First and Finest Neigh­bor­hood Theater,” the Arco promised com­fort and con­ve­nience at af­ford­able prices. The Home­stretch, with Cor­nel Wilde and Mau­reen O’Hara, opened on Oct. 10, 1948. Tick­ets were 35 cents for adults, 16 cents for chil­dren, and 45 cents for loge seats — spe­cial box seat­ing. The Arco’s fea­tures pol­icy was touted as sec­ond-run ma­jor stu­dio at­trac­tions on Sun­days and Mon­days; the best Span­ish fea­tures avail­able on Tues­days, Wed­nes­days, and Thurs­days; and ac­tion-packed hits and Westerns on Fri­days and Satur­days.

De­cem­ber 1948 brought two lav­ish Christ­mas presents to Santa Fe — new cine­mas that opened the same week. On Dec. 12, The New Mex­i­can noted, “Never a city to do things by halves, Santa Fe this week will have two theater open­ings.”

Beers’ new Santa Fe Theater opened on Wed­nes­day, Dec. 15, with The Smug­glers, a Bri­tish film star­ring Michael Red­grave, which sug­gests that the theater was al­ready strug­gling to book popular Hol­ly­wood fare. With 877 seats, the Santa Fe Theater topped its ri­val El Paseo, which opened the next night with 672 seats.

E. John Greer’s ag­gres­sively com­pet­i­tive tac­tics were al­ready en­gaged for El Paseo’s open­ing, as pa­trons of the Lensic and Al­ley the­aters were given free tick­ets to El Paseo in ad­vance, thus as­sur­ing a sell­out crowd. For Love of Mary, a com­edy star­ring Deanna Durbin, was the fea­ture. Thus a fierce ri­valry be­tween Greer En­ter­prises and Don Beers be­gan and would rage on for years, to the ben­e­fit of movie pa­trons, as free hol­i­day mati­nees and other pro­mo­tions vied for au­di­ences.

Encinias and lo­cal-his­tory buff Richard Mon­toya re­mem­ber those days fondly. Grow­ing up near the Santa Fe Theater meant that week­end mati­nees were highly an­tic­i­pated. “The Santa Fe Theater used to have lots of car­toons and give away prizes like bikes and BB guns,” Encinias re­called. “One time I won a sil­ver dollar.”


In 1949 and 1950, Santa Fe kids had new en­ter­tain­ment ad­ven­tures to dream about as the Yucca Drive-In opened on Cer­ril­los Road and Greer En­ter­prises built the Pue­blo Drive-In on the north side of Te­suque, on the Old Taos High­way. Built at a cost of $100,000, the 400-car-ca­pac­ity Pue­blo Drive-In opened on June 9, 1950, with John Ford’s clas­sic West­ern She Wore a Yel­low Rib­bon, star­ring John Wayne.

The Pue­blo Drive-In was re­mark­able for its mag­nif­i­cent Span­ish-Pue­blo Re­vival style screen struc­ture, which fea­tured a mon­u­men­tal mu­ral by famed Navajo artist Quincy Ta­homa (1920-1956) of a war­rior on a rear­ing horse spooked by a skunk. Stephen Earnest posted on the web­site Vo­ces de Santa Fé, “I re­mem­ber only one movie Trea­sure Is­land, only be­cause it scared me when that lit­tle crea­ture bounded down the hill. ... The strong­est mem­ory for me [of the Pue­blo Drive-In] is the pun­gent smell of Rus­sian olives [trees] and the sound of bull frogs across the road.”

One of the mys­ter­ies of the Pue­blo Drive-In in Te­suque is why it was torn down in 1955, af­ter only five years of op­er­a­tion, and re­lo­cated to Cer­ril­los Road in Santa Fe. It is prob­a­bly that com­pe­ti­tion from the Yucca, opened one year ear­lier by Wiles En­ter­prises and closer to the city, may have been a fac­tor.

Lo­cated on 13 acres on the out­skirts of Cer­ril­los Road, the Yucca Drive-In, with more than a 500-car ca­pac­ity, proved popular with fam­i­lies un­til its fi­nal sea­son in 1994. Many Santa Feans re­mem­ber the $15-per-car­load ad­mis­sion price in later years.

The Yucca opened in 1948 with Sit­ting Pretty, a com­edy from that year star­ring Clifton Webb, Robert Young, and Mau­reen O’Hara, and closed with Forrest Gump and Sit­ting Pretty on Oc­to­ber 31, 1994. Long­time Yucca owner Richard Wiles gave the prop­erty to Con­cor­dia Col­lege of Moor­head, Min­nesota, in a char­i­ta­ble trust in the mid-1980s, and the prop­erty net­ted more than $3 mil­lion when it was sold in the mid-1990s, as the Cer­ril­los Road com­mer­cial cor­ri­dor ex­panded south to­ward Air­port Road.

The Pue­blo Drive-In met a sim­i­lar fate in 1985; it was torn down to make way for a new Wal-Mart. Drive-in the­aters ev­ery­where de­clined as tele­vi­sion and mul­ti­plex cine­mas com­manded the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try af­ter 1970. To­day, only the Fort Union Drive-In in Las Ve­gas and the Fi­esta Drive-In in Carlsbad sur­vive in New Mex­ico.


The early baby-boom years of the 1950s of­fered Santa Fe movie fans a daz­zling va­ri­ety of venues and pro­gram­ming be­fore in­de­pen­dent fea­tures and for­eign films be­came popular.

The Santa Fe Theater pre­miered the city’s first 3-D movie on May 5, 1953, Man in the Dark, but it was a fleet­ing tri­umph in a mar­ket still dom­i­nated by Greer En­ter­prises. By 1957, ap­par­ently un­able to li­cense popular first-run film prod­ucts, Beers threw in the towel and leased the cinema to his ri­val “Greer in­ter­ests,” ac­cord­ing to the Septem­ber 29, 1957, edi­tion of The New Mex­i­can. The same ar­ti­cle noted that Span­ish-lan­guage fea­tures at the Al­ley Theatre would only screen on Satur­days and Sun­days. The Al­ley re­mained dark dur­ing week­days.

For Beers, the Greer lease was a bit­ter pill to swallow. He filed a $483,000 law­suit in fed­eral court against a group of the na­tion’s lead­ing film dis­trib­u­tors on Nov. 20, 1958. Af­ter Salmon and Greer En­ter­prises leased the theater, Beers closed it down and con­verted into an au­to­mo­bile show­room. The law­suit claimed that Loew’s, Inc., 20th Cen­tury Fox, Columbia Pic­tures, RKO Ra­dio Pic­tures, United Artists, Buena Vista Films (Dis­ney), Para­mount, Gi­bral­tar En­ter­prises, and oth­ers “mo­nop­o­lized the trade ... in such a way as to pre­vent the Santa Fe Theater from ob­tain­ing de­sir­able fea­ture films on first run,” ac­cord­ing to The New Mex­i­can. The demise of the Santa Fe Theater ex­posed some of the harsh re­al­i­ties of the cinema busi­ness as the in­dus­try was ma­tur­ing into a mass-en­ter­tain­ment mar­ket in­creas­ingly af­fected by tele­vi­sion.

The 1950s, so­cially con­form­ist in many ways, had dawned bril­liantly and boldly on the Santa Fe theater scene as three new cine­mas and two drive-ins vied for pa­trons. By the decade’s end, the Arco and Santa Fe the­aters had be­come mem­o­ries for a gen­er­a­tion of baby boomers. Santa Fe had man­aged to re­main a fam­ily-busi­ness movie town, but that would change in the 1960s.

The cinema mar­ket re­mained sta­ble through the 1960s, though by the dawn of the ’70s it was clear that the for­tunes of the Al­ley Theatre were wan­ing. In 1968, Com­mon­wealth The­aters of Kansas City had en­tered Santa Fe, strik­ing a deal with Greer En­ter­prises to op­er­ate the Al­ley, Pue­blo, and Lensic the­aters. By 1971, Com­mon­wealth had built a new twin cinema at the Coron­ado Shop­ping Cen­ter on Cordova Road in Santa Fe.

Ex­cept for the Lensic Theater, com­pletely re­ha­bil­i­tated from 1999 to 2001 in a com­mu­nity ef­fort led by Bill and Nancy Zeck­endorf, the fab­u­lous show­biz le­gacy of Nathan Salmon and his fam­ily part­ners has faded into mem­ory and the West San Fran­cisco streetscape. The site of the Paris Theater, where Salmon’s dreams and movie-busi­ness em­pire arose 101 years ago, still pre­serves the walls of the El Paseo Theater and so much more.

Elmo Baca is an au­thor and movie-theater his­to­rian who grew up in Las Ve­gas, New Mex­ico, and en­joyed many B films at the Kiva Theater on Bridge Street. His is also ac­tive in the New Mex­ico Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment Depart­ment and New Mex­ico Main Street’s his­toric theater ini­tia­tive. Re­search as­sis­tance was pro­vided by J. West, Art Encinias, Richard Mon­toya, and To­mas Jaehn.

MovieStill­sPho­to­graph ArchivesofNewMex­ico #4293,NewMex­ico Col­lec­tion;State

Santa Fe theater en­trepreneurs E. John Greer (left) and Nathan Salmon (sec­ond from right) dom­i­nated Santa Fe’s cinema in­dus­try for half a cen­tury. Here they are joined by Ray­mond Shayla (sec­ond from left) and Jus­tice Clarence J. Roberts, circa 1935. Above, built in 1909, the Elks Opera House on Lin­coln Av­enue, be­hind the Palace of the Gov­er­nors, of­fered vaudeville en­ter­tain­ment, si­lent-movie fea­tures, and sport­ing events for three decades; left, El Oñate Theatre opened in 1921 on the north­west cor­ner of Santa Fe’s Plaza. It was im­pres­sive for its Span­ish-Pue­blo Re­vival ar­chi­tec­ture in­spired by the Acoma Pue­blo Mission Church. It closed a mere five years later af­ter a busi­ness dis­pute.

Pho­toTylerDingee,1951;Palace Ar­chives,Neg.No.073830 oftheGover­norsPhoto

Above and left, the in­te­rior and fa­cade of the Al­ley Theatre on West San Fran­cisco Street. The theater, which opened in 1939, was a fa­vorite venue for the lat­est Mex­i­can movie re­leases, and fea­tured a whim­si­cal neon burro over the mar­quee. Far left, chil­dren line up for a sum­mer mati­nee at the Paris Theater in June 1945, just months be­fore a fire would de­stroy the beloved cinema. Bot­tom, West San Fran­cisco Street, with a view to­ward St. Fran­cis Cathe­dral, shows the newly opened Paris Theater on the left and the dis­tinc­tive mar­quee bridg­ing the street, circa 1928.

The re­gal Lensic Theater opened in 1931 with an “at­mo­spheric” au­di­to­rium, par­lors for men and women, and a rooftop gar­den. Be­low, Gi­bral­tar En­ter­prises rep­re­sented movie-theater own­ers in four states and was or­ga­nized to re­sist the block-book­ing power of the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem. Among its lead­ers was E. John Greer, shown here at the ex­treme left, at a meet­ing for man­agers in Den­ver, Au­gust 1936.

El Paseo Theatre, seen here in 1959, was built on the site of the de­stroyed Paris Theater. It fea­tured an in­no­va­tive au­di­to­rium de­sign with a sta­dium-in­spired seat­ing plan. Be­low, street pro­mo­tions for com­ing movie at­trac­tions at the Lensic Theater rep­re­sent the lost art of show­man­ship from Hol­ly­wood’s golden years.

Navajo artist Quincy Ta­homa’s mag­nif­i­cent painted mu­ral of a war­rior on horse­back spooked by a skunk greeted pa­trons of Te­suque’s short­lived Pue­blo Drive-In, circa 1950.

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