Many New Mexico residents are familiar with the old ’30s/’40’s-era movie palaces of Downtown Albuquerque, as several (El Rey, Sunshine, KiMo) still operate today as live entertainment venues. Just as important as those seminal cinemas were the single-screen theaters of Nob Hill, many of which operated as art house theaters. “Art house” was an entertainment industry designation from the late ’50s and early ’60s for smaller theaters that screened foreign, classic, cult and, yes, “adult” films, often aimed at a college-area crowd.
The remnants of these theaters can still be seen today … if you know where to look.
Location: 3013 Central Ave. NE
Opened: August 1938, Closed: August 2000
The long-lived Lobo launched with a “gala opening” featuring red carpets, fireworks, spotlights and a live radio broadcast on KGGM (now KNML). It was built by Texas Consolidated Theaters for “second run” features. By the early 1940s, it was operated by Paramount Pictures Inc. through their subsidiary Hoblitzelle & O’Donnell. From ’52 to ’68 it was operated by Albuquerque Exhibitors Inc. (which, at various times, ran the Cactus, Chief, El Rey, Hiland, KiMo, Sandia, Star, State, Sunshine, Rio, Yucca and 66 Drive-In theaters). As the first theater outside the Downtown area, it showed second run, classic Hollywood and a lot of European films (British comedies were popular). By 1953 it was frequently called “Lobo Art Theatre” or “Lobo Fine Arts Cinema.” In ’56 Albuquerque Exhibitors sold the screen to Frontier Amusements of Dallas, which was absorbed by Commonwealth Amusements of Kansas City by the late ’60s. In its last couple of decades, the Ciccarello brothers turned it into a popular “dollar theater” hangout for the university crowd. After its closure in Y2K, it was revamped as Calvary Nob Hill Church. The church closed down in 2019. It is currently being remodeled as a “premier live music venue.”
Location: 4804 Central Ave. SE
Opened: April 1950, Closed: Summer 1995
Today: National Dance Institute of New Mexico
Hiland theater opened after the “Golden Age” boom that first brought cinemas to Downtown Albuquerque. (The pioneering KiMo opened in September of 1927, when films were still silent.) But Hiland offered a unique attraction to people patronizing businesses outside the urban center: It had its own parking lot! Some 300 cars could fit in the “free” parking lot behind Hiland. Before then parking was primarily on public streets, and patrons had to fight for space. The idea of a business owning an entire parking lot behind its storefront and catering specifically to the new generation of post-war motorists was what would lead to the midcentury creation of shopping districts and malls. In its nearly 50-year lifespan, the lavish Hiland screened some of Hollywood’s biggest hits. After it shut down in the mid ’90s, the venue was taken over by Musical Theater Southwest, which moved in 2004. In 2009, after a $9 million renovation, the venerable theater became home to the Nation Dance Institute of New Mexico, which sponsors children’s dance performances and classes (ndi-nm.org).
Don Pancho’s Arts Theater (later Don Pancho’s Art Theatre)
2108 Central Ave. SE
Opened: April 1961, Closed: 1988
Today: Iron Cafe
Local construction company owner Frank William Scheer Jr. partnered with Don Dee Dunham (who later started Roxy and Guild) to open his first theatrical enterprise with a film called Mating Time. It was advertised as a “sequel” to the 1955 British farce Wee Geordie—but was actually a retitle of 1959’s The Bridal Path, which is unrelated to Wee Geordie. In 1962 the owners sold out to Art Theatre Guild, America’s largest circuit of art theaters. That same year the Santa Fe Archdiocese declared the theater “out of bounds” to all Catholics for screening such sacrilegious films as Never on Sunday (a 1960 Jules Dassin film about prostitutes in Greece) and Expresso Bongo (a 1959 musical starring British pop star Cliff Richard). Between 1972 and ’73, the theater switched over to showing hardcore X-rated films as part of the “porn chic” trend that followed the release of sex flick hits Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door. After that brief experiment, Don Pancho’s stuck with the cult classics and foreign films that were popular with college audiences. Local radio station KRST sponsored midnight movies, featuring everything from The Marx Brothers to Fantastic Planet to The Song Remains the Same. Throughout the ’80s Don Pancho’s was a popular spot for late-night Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings.
The Roxy Art Theatre
Location: 2406 Central Ave. SE
Opened: April 1963 Closed: March 1966
Today: Frontier Restaurant
Tom Coleman and Don Dee Dunham opened Albuquerque’s second art house theater with Russ Meyer’s 1961 sex comedy Eve and the Handyman. At the time “art house” theaters were considered “adult theaters,” screening American sex comedies and European sex dramas. But the films they ran would barely earn an R rating in today’s market. During its short life, the Roxy mixed in the occasional arty drama, such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Eclipse/L’Eclisse (which was still kinda erotic for 1962). Want to catch a glimpse of history? Next time you go to Frontier, look at the front of the building. In the windows facing Central, you’ll see a funny little “bump out” alongside the door in the middle of the block. That’s the box office for the Roxy!
Guild Cinema (Guild Art Theatre)
3405 Central Ave. NE
Opened: February 1966
Today: Still open
This Nob Hill institution opened with Red Lanterns, a sequel to Jules Dassin’s Never On Sunday (the film that got Don Pancho’s into hot water with the Catholic Church). Tom Coleman and Don Dunham’s C & D Enterprises threw all their efforts behind this new venue, closing their Roxy Art Theatre two months later. Guild started playing foreign films but quickly switched to “nudie cutie” comedies (Wild Gals of the Naked West), sexploitation (Russ Meyer’s Mudhoney) and other, not-quite-X-rated European erotica (France’s Notte Erotique a.k.a. Night of Lust). In 1971 Movie Inc bought the theater and started showing Hollywood revival and indie art films. It closed in ’77, reopened in ’79 and closed again in 1988. A series of owners took over, sticking with foreign and indie films. Current owner-operator Keif Henley recently reopened after a year-long, pandemic shutdown. Check out film times at guildcinema.com.
3211 Central Ave. NE
Opened: June 1969, operated until at least May of 1973 when owners placed an ad in the Albuquerque Tribune, looking for a “good looking, well built topless cashier.”
Seats: under 100
Today: Two Fools Tavern
Art Theater Guild of America (owners of Don Pancho’s) opened this slip of a storefront theater exclusively for “adult films.” At the time that still consisted of “nudie cutie” comedies and “foreign” films—mostly of Swedish origin after the success of 1967’s infamous I Am Curious (Yellow). Friday and Saturday Midnight Shows were “restricted to men only.” It was the first adult theater to open in Nob Hill. Dozens of hardcore, X-rated theaters would flood the district by the mid-’70s. In December 1969, oddly enough, the theater premiered an “art film featurette” written, directed and produced by local author Max Evans (The Rounders, The Hi-Lo Country) called “The Advancement.”