ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Albuquerque has had dozens of movie theaters come and go in its history. Some have been demolished, some are still standing, and some only lasted a few months. Needless to say, from the Orpheum to High Ridge, a lot of tickets and popcorn have been sold across the Duke City.
First Movie Theater
According to local film historian Jeff Berg, the first films shown in Albuquerque were probably at the Grant’s Opera House at Third St. and Central Ave. in 1898 showing Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Rider films. “They had 1,000 seats in the opera house and they did different things there of course as well,” said Berg. The Grant’s Opera House would burn down in June of 1898.
Albuquerque’s first movie theater was The Orpheum Theater at Second St. and Coal Ave. It was built in 1898 and opened as a theater in 1911. Berg says the first film it showed was that year’s “Dante’s Inferno” starring Salvatore Papa. “The Orpheum was an actual movie theater,” said Berg. “It was huge and they had different Vaudeville things, it was like an all-purpose kind of venue.” The building is still there and is used as a community hub.
Other theaters downtown would begin to open over the years. The Sunshine Theater opened in 1924 and would operate as a movie house until the 1980s. The El Rey Theater would open in 1941 and stay a movie theater until 1969. It would then serve as an adult movie theater until 1971 when it closed. Today, both the Sunshine and El Rey theaters operate as live music venues.
History of the KiMo Theatre
The KiMo Theatre opened in September of 1927 with just over 1,300 seats. Its existence is certainly a unique story. In the early 1940s, the theater was operated by Paramount Pictures, and by 1974, the KiMo changed into an adult movie house. By 1977, the theater was on the verge of being torn down until it was saved by being added to the National Register of Historic Places. By September of 2000, the theater was restored and is now one of the city’s prime spots for performing arts.
Something unique to Albuquerque was something called the Circle Autoscope Drive-In. Based on an idea by Tom Smith of Buffalo, MO, the Autoscope opened in June of 1963 and was a drive-in of sorts that had 259 screens about the size of a television for cars to pull up in front of. “They had a projection thing that had a fish eye lens that projected to all the other screens,” said Berg. “They had a huge, huge opening and it lasted six months. It was too much like watching TV, I think.”
Albuquerque also had its fair share of drive-ins. Berg says at one time, Albuquerque had at least nine drive-ins operating. “There was the Sunset, Route 66..all sorts of them,” said Berg. “One of the last ones to go was right along I-25… and it was a multi-screen thing. And at the end of their life, they were showing adult films and so all of the traffic would go like, two miles an hour by there.”
History of the Lobo Theater
The Lobo Theater opened in 1938. “When it first opened, it was considered, at that time, a ‘suburban theater’ because it was one of the first theaters that were away from downtown,” said Berg. In the 2000s, the theater closed and Calvary Church moved in, however, in October of 2021 under new ownership, the Lobo Theater reopened as the Lobo Lounge & Event Center.
One of the city’s first art house theaters, Don Pancho’s Art Theatre, opened in April of 1961 with a 280-seat capacity. Located across the street from the University of New Mexico at 2108 Central Ave. SE, the theater was started by two alums of the school, Don Dunham and Frank “Pancho” Scheer. The theater concentrated on foreign, revival, and independent films. Although Don Pancho’s would change hands numerous times, it would be closed under the ownership of Joseph Esposito of Tucson in 1989.
History of the Guild Cinema
Esposito also pops up in the history of Guild Cinema – the only independent theater left in Albuquerque – as one of its owners. The Guild Art Theatre opened as an adult movie house in February of 1966 with a screening of the 1963 Greek film, “The Red Lanterns,” starring Jenny Karezi. The theater spent most of the 70s as a revival theater but was closed in 1977. It would have another run starting in 1979 and closing again in 1988. Esposito bought both Don Pancho’s and The Guild in April of 1988 but both closed again in March 1989.
The Guild Theatre reopened, however, a few months later and stayed in business until 1998, when it changed ownership hands again. Keif Henley and a partner would buy The Guild Theater in 2004 and Henley continues to own it to this day. “A few years ago, they were one of the last theaters to go digital – because they just couldn’t afford it, I don’t think – and they had a fundraiser and they got the money like that from the patrons of Albuquerque, which is pretty cool,” Berg says.
In the late 90s, stadium seating was introduced to Albuquerque with the Century Rio 24, built on the site of one of the city’s last drive-ins – the Albuquerque 6 Drive-in, which closed in 1995. Rio 24 set the standard for what has become the norm – stadium seating and high-end audio and visuals.