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» Cinematour Forum   » Cinemas and Theatres   » Six New Mexico Small Town Theatres Listed in National Register of Historic Places

Author Topic: Six New Mexico Small Town Theatres Listed in National Register of Historic Places
Adam Martin

Posts: 1090
From: Dallas, TX
Registered: Feb 2003

 - posted February 09, 2007 11:51 AM      Profile for Adam Martin   Author's Homepage   Email Adam Martin         Edit/Delete Post 
February 5, 2007

Six New Mexico Small Town Theatres Listed in
National Register of Historic Places

Tom Drake

Santa Fe — Most of them are individually owned or family run out of love for a small-town tradition that has all but died in most New Mexico communities. Some are empty, but all remain crowning architectural landmarks of their downtowns and reminders of time when very little money bought a night of entertainment and camaraderie in small-town America.

Six movie theaters built between 1916 and 1948 are the most recent historic properties in New Mexico to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the state Historic Preservation Division, Department of Cultural Affairs announced today. They represent architectural styles as disparate as El Raton theater’s Gothic-Revival style complete with atmospheric ceiling, to the stripped-down modernism of Lovington’s Lea Theater and its stand alone tile-and-glass ticket booth that still sparkles from a deeply recessed entrance.

“These listings recognize ongoing efforts to preserve the architectural character of the theaters and the roles they have played as community centers and sources of community pride,” said State Historic Preservation Officer Katherine Slick.

The Keeper of the National Register at the National Park Service listed the theaters this year following the decision in 2006 by the state Cultural Properties Review Committee to list the buildings in Clayton, Clovis, Raton, Tucumcari and Lovington to the State Register of Cultural Properties.

In winter months, Roy Leighton fires up the old boiler hours before opening the Luna Theater in Clayton so its clanging doesn’t drown out the movie’s sound for his audience.

He owns the Luna with his wife Nancy, and holds the titles projectionist, ticket man and janitor. He has been known to open the theater on demand, but shows regular features on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Passersby still stop to photograph the Luna’s distinctive lunar-themed neon sign.

“We could show a movie cost-efficiently for 10 people,” he said of his 375-seat theater. That’s half a row of seats.”

His barrel-roofed, two-story theater with its Mission Revival façade and parapet is considered the best example of a former nickelodeon in the state. It boasted a wood-floor ballroom in the basement until a 1990 flood caused by nearby roadwork severely damaged it.

Originally opened as the Mission Theater in 1916 by the Morris Herztein family after their mercantile store on the same spot burned to the ground, the Luna became a town gathering place and even showed features for free to farm kids. It was purchased in 1935 by Gibralter Enterprises, a group of theater owners in the Rocky Mountain states.

The company updated the theater with new seats and Art Deco fixtures. Opening-night crowds were so large many had to be turned away from Clayton’s premiere of Shirley Temple’s “The Little Colonel.” The Gibralter group sponsored a contest during the opening where local girls received a month of free passes for winning a writing contest.

Consulting architectural historian David Kammer, who wrote the six nominations, said the Luna provides an “excellent example” of how theater operators responded to changing tastes and expectations in theater appearances and amenities.

El Raton has been closed a year-and-a-half, but owner Fran Eigenberg said she is hoping publicity surrounding the listing of the 1930 Late Gothic Revival-style theater will renew interest in her economically-challenged town.

“We are so pleased, I am so happy, and I think Raton will be as pleased as I am,” she said.

El Raton resembles the Moorish-influenced theaters found in much larger cities with its castle towers, crenellated parapet and stage flanked by interior castellated towers and a series of arched, blind arcades across the top of the proscenium.

Eigenberg upgraded the theater with Dolby digital sound, new bathrooms and other amenities for what is the only motion picture theater in town. Never succumbing to corporate ownership, El Raton has always been owned by the Thomas Murphy family, with daughter Fran now at the helm.

“We could open it tonight,” she said almost wistfully.

At one time a vaudeville house, the Lyceum in Clovis was built in 1919 and 1920, and like the Luna and El Raton has space for commercial businesses on either side of its theater entrance. Its stage now extends forward from the proscenium, covering the former orchestra pit. A fly-tower holds the theater’s original stage curtain.

During its peak years of 1920-1940, the Lyceum provided the best show in town. Tom Mix, Will Rogers, Gene Autry, and John Philip Sousa and his band performed on its stage. Its owners, Eugene Hardwick and his sons Russell and Charles chose the Kansas City architectural firm of Boller Brothers, well-known theater designers in the Midwest. They appear to have taken their inspiration for the Lyceum from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroads depots and Fred Harvey’s “Harvey House” hotels in their design. It featured an air-cooling system, 600 seats and its interior design largely is intact.

The Hardwicks contracted with Paramount Pictures to show films and maintained a tradition from an earlier Lyceum of using the theater for community events. The local MainStreet program and the city took ownership in 1982, remounting the restored marquee, and began holding community events.

Listing the theaters in the State and National registers will draw renewed attention to them, according to HPD. The attention, when coupled with active MainStreet programs and other downtown revitalization plans, could help spur new economic activity downtown and renew interest in these small-town movie palaces.

“Movie theaters were the heart and pride of small-town New Mexico,” said John Murphey, HPD Register coordinator. “Their slow demises as downtowns emptied only accentuated the ghost-town feel many communities took on, leaving few reasons for area residents to stroll their once-busy main streets at night.”

Down the street from the Lyceum, the Hardwicks opened the State in 1940. It is considered the most striking example of modernism found in any New Mexico theatre. A circular glass-block tower rises from above the marquee and reaches higher than the curved parapet that masks a barrel roof. Its modern air-conditioning system and fresh style inspired the Hardwicks to restyle the Lyceum’s exterior, giving it a molded stucco façade in the Moderne style. The Hardwicks kept up to date and retained a competitive edge over theater chains that started to move into Clovis at the time.

West of Clovis is Tucumcari where the Odeon opened in 1936. The facade’s glass block, decorative geometrical molding and large fluted vertical column supporting an Art Deco-style neon sign announced Hollywood had come to Tucumcari.

As with all six of the historic theaters, the Odeon began as a family business run by the Hurley family with partner Gene Hawkins. The chose the name “Odeon, ” a popular theater name in France at the time, but townsfolk just called it “the new theatre.” The Hurleys received congratulatory telegrams from movie greats Frank Capra and Mary Astor when it opened in May of 1936.

Further south, Lovington welcomed the opening of the Lea Theater with a parade that ended with live performances and speeches given from the new theater’s stage. Although the town had several small theaters dating from as early in 1910, its boom and bust economy had stagnated until oil fields were developed nearby in the 1940s.

The Lea Theater opened in 1948 as “one of the finest, small-city movie houses in the United States” its boosters proclaimed. In stark contrast to the surrounding buildings that line the courthouse square, the Lea’s modern touches made it a stand-out.

Built by the R.E. Griffith Theaters, Inc., a regional theater chain based in Dallas, business boomed at the Lea through the 1950s. The town’s population nearly doubled after the discovery of oil nearby at the South Lovinginton Pool. The Lea, like many of New Mexico’s theaters, hosted numerous civic events and even a Mrs. America contest where women were judged on appearance, homemaking abilities and poise.

The theater changed hands in the 1960s and went dark in the late 1980s . Reopened after an extensive restoration in 1991 by the Joy family, it won the New Mexico MainStreet “Best Building” award in 1997. The Lea County Museum, which operates from a hotel listed in the State Register, shows old films at the Lea.

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