The Pueblo Deco Palace Where 'Everyone Went'
Albuquerque's historic KiMo Theatre is more than just an edifice studied coldly by scholars. People loved this place.
By Mo Palmer / Tribune Columnist
March 1, 2003
The KiMo just celebrated its 75th anniversary with some fun hoopla that I missed. Although I've mentioned the KiMo in this column, I've never talked about it in depth -- shame on me for that. It's as important to this town as was the Alvarado Hotel.
Tons of articles discuss its unique architecture and how it got its name, but what's important is what the KiMo meant to us and the part it played in our lives. When we're gone, all that will remain are scholarly words about the edifice. Good history is the reconciliation of facts and biography. Maybe someday someone will read this column and say, "Huzzah! People loved this place!"
My friend Ed B. and I were e-mailing about the KiMo, and he wondered how an Italian-American immigrant, Oreste Bachechi, came to build America's foremost Indian theater, Pueblo Deco-style. I pondered it and decided Bachechi was the following: one highly tuned-in dude, aware of our first Americans and wanting to pay them homage; looking to help his city attract tourists while the Gallup Indian ceremonials were packing them in; alert to America's attack of movie madness; and turned on to what was hot in pop culture.
The KiMo is a congruence of events connecting us to world history.
What is deco, anyhow? Well, in 1925, Paris held L'Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratif etIndustriels Modernes a World's Fair to celebrate things modern art, architecture, fashion, furniture and the resumption of life after that War to End All Wars, World War I.
Paris roared in the 1920s, home to expatriate Americans such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Aaron Copland, et al. Everything was thoroughly modern, streamlined, winged, curved, decorated, geometric, zigzagged, angled and totally awesome. The style took off like the rockets it resembled.
Look up Art Deco on the Internet you'll recognize the style, if not the term. The Art Deco label was retro-applied in the '60s by English historian Bevis Hillier. (Throw that out at a cocktail party and let someone go "Oooh! Aaah!")
Pueblo Deco is a unique architecture that combines features of our indigenous architecture stepped-back massing and adobe color with Art Deco decor.
Before the daring deco 'do, moving pictures, previously considered seedy entertainment for the unwashed masses, had been "respectabilized" by ladies. I've talked about this. The first films played in storefronts and penny arcades. Money-mad movie moguls invented picture palaces baroque, overstuffed opera house clones that made it OK for the washed masses to attend. In no time at all, gorgeously, gaudily appointed picture palaces appeared all over the country. Most of them are gone now, so we're lucky ours has been restored to its original glory.
You can read all about the architect, Carl Boller, and artist Carl von Hassler on the city's Web site. Just go to www.cabq.gov and type in "KiMo" for a plethora of pleasurable perusals.
Read about Vivian Vance Ethel Mertz and about the first movie shown there in 1927 at the grand opening, to which, of course, everyone flocked. You can spot a small town instantly by such a phrase.
The movie was "Painting the Town," a giddy little silent number about a man who follows a flapper to New York for love, invents a high-speed automobile motor and wins the girl. I found a photo of the actors on eBay. What a hoot!
First-run movies played at the KiMo or at the Sunshine. Many aging Albuquerque children remember riding their bikes down there on Saturday to see the cliffhangers those truly weird serials that ended with someone in a dire situation that miraculously resolved the following Saturday, sometimes without explanation. Amazing stuff. And the cartoon. And the newsreel Eeew! Boring! And the feature: Abbott and Costello, Roy Rogers, Errol Flynn swashing his buckle, whatever that means. We all recall those pale cow skulls with red, glowing eyes that watched your every move. Scary deco.
Morris Rippel of Albuquerque walked to the KiMo because he, like loads of other kids, lived Downtown.
Morris was, and is, crazy about airplanes. He'd go see war movies, stunt flyers anything that featured aircraft. One of his life's major disappointments was when he went to see "The Plainsman." There was Gary Cooper, being "toasted over an open fire, or something" and not a plane in sight. He had wasted his dime.
Dick Ruddy of Albuquerque liked to take girls to the KiMo for a truly classy date in a wonderful theatrical atmosphere. He liked horror films, because girls would hold your hand. He saw "Psycho" at the KiMo. We think of downtown as declining eons ago, but it didn't. The Alfred Hitchcock classic was released in 1960, before Winrock even opened. The decline and fall of Downtown are pretty recent events.
The KiMo loaned its stage to all sorts of live acts -- vaudeville, dance recitals, concerts, singing chickens and whatever.
The Albuquerque Little Theater mounted quite a few productions there before it got a big Little Theater on San Pasquale, where it is now. (We'll talk about its history sometime. Very famous people have played there, and the development of such community playhouses is another good story.)
Underprivileged kids were often treated to a show at the KiMo by various organizations, by the Clyde Brothers Clyde Tingley and Clyde Oden and other city boosters who would fork over their own money to send kids from the St. Anthony's Home for Boys or other groups to a movie, with popcorn and a drink pretty generous. If you don't know about St. Anthony's, that's OK, we'll get to it.
No institution stands through time without something bad happening, and the KiMo is no exception. In 1951, a little boy died when hot water pipes, a boiler or the furnace suddenly exploded. The tragedy has been so sensationalized by "phantom hunters" that I'm not sure exactly what went down. What I do know is that it was the worst thing a parent could endure send your excited, happy child to the picture show and never see him alive again. Apparently there have been mysterious manifestations in the place ever since, disappearing props, falling lights, fires, cold spots and other paranormal events.
My friend Linda K. worked at the KiMo and says it's quite an experience to be alone in there at night. Over time, a shrine has appeared backstage donuts, Pez dispensers, toys, gum small gifts for a small, seeking spirit. The least we can do is comfort him with trinkets. Theater tradition says that, once you acknowledge him with your gift, productions proceed smoothly. Surely some sorrowful energy of such events remains behind.
When you go Downtown to see this marvel and you ought to be sure to look at the marquee. It's one of the small, boxlike ones popular on early theaters. The Sunshine had one, too. Later, it was replaced with one of those Moby Dick White Whale numbers that covered the entire front of the building -- very '40s and '50s.
There was extra space on either side of the theater, where a men's store, eateries, a jewelry store and such nestled under the shade of the gazebo created by the overhanging sign. You can look at that kind of marquee on the Hiland Theater. Just go "uptown," as we used to call it.
We owe a debt to the Bachechi family for giving us such a monument to the golden age of movies, to Art Deco, to Pueblo Deco, to indigenous arts and to the ghost of Albuquerque past. You've got to wonder whether Oreste knew when he built it in 1927 that his creation would endure and represent so much.
Albuquerque is lucky. We've preserved the KiMo. It's a popular venue for old movie showings, ballets, songs, music and the finer things a city has to offer.
When you cry for the Alvarado, the Korber Building, Temple Albert, the Armory and other halls of remembrance we've lost, look around at the KiMo, at the streamlined, moderne Sears Building across the street, at the Yrissari and Rosenwald buildings at Fourth Street and Central Avenue, and at the others we have saved.
Use your history and biography to promote preservation, to rejoice and grieve not.