NEW MEXICO MOVIE HOUSES OF MY YOUTH

CLOVIS MOVIE THEATRES

The State with its still-famous and still-standing “tower” sign was the grade-a-number-one theatre. The State got the M.G.M., Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and Walt Disney pictures. It was where one took “nice girls” for dates (The Silver Grill (as I remember it being called) was right next door for Cokes, sandwiches, or sundaes after a show. The elite of Junior High School, the “Popcorn Gang,” always went together to the State.

The Sunshine was on the same side of Main Street as the State, right across a cross-street, next door to the Thrifty Drug. I worked at Thrifty, and when I was in back unloading deliveries, I clearly heard the movie playing next door. The Sunshine was narrow-fronted and inconspicuous. I don’t remember it having a projecting marquee or a “title tower,” and none shows in a 1950s postcard of Clovis’ Main Street in which Thrifty Drug is conspicuous. I think the Sunshine had been a silent movie theatre and never altered its façade. The Sunshine got mostly Paramount, RKO, Columbia, Universal, and United Artists movies.

Therefore, in my mind, the State is always showing a Gene Kelly, Betty Grable, or Doris Day/Gordon MacRae Technicolor musical while the Sunshine is playing a black-and-white Ma and Pa Kettle or Francis the Talking Mule or Martin and Lewis comedy or an RKO sociological drama. A great exception to this (possibly inaccurate) rule-of-memory is when I recall seeing the great color spectacle, “The Greatest Show on Earth” over and over again at the Sunshine. Once the Sunshine showed a “roadshow” movie, “The Lawton Story,” a “family movie” about the annual religious pageant in Lawton, Oklahoma. I suspect some touring company just rented the Sunshine on a “four-walls” basis for this presentation, for the ticket-sellers and ushers and a man who tried to sell the audience a poster and a souvenir booklet were all strangers.

The Lyceum, across Main Street from the Sunshine, was in the early 1950s the “kids’ theatre” of Clovis, playing double bills of shoot-em-up westerns, car-chase cop movies, and wacky kid-comedies. The Lyceum was also where I performed in a tap dance recital. It was very good for the purpose, for it had full stage riggings, ropes and belaying-pin racks, and I assumed it must have started life as a vaudeville house, or as a theatre for touring plays. The Lyceum also occasionally played first-run, “A” movies that were not considered quite right for the State or the Sunshine. For instance, I saw the British ballet movie, The Red Shoes” there.

The Mesa was just across the street from the Hotel Clovis, right by the railroad tracks, and was tacitly thought of as a diversion “for transients,” which would include traveling salesmen, land- or cattle-buyers, military personnel, migratory workers, and the like. One could pick up illegal whisky at the Mesa. “That end of town” was thought of as slightly sleazy, although it can’t have been more than five blocks from the shiny intersection of Main and Seventh Streets, where the Courthouse, the First Methodist Church, the high school, and the wholesome commercial paradise of The Village (an early miniature mall with a soda shop, record store, and magazine stand) presided over virtuous pursuits. On those rare occasions when an “adult” movie was allowed to slip into town, it played the Mesa. My brother-in-law took me there with him to see a movie of strip-tease dancers. The performers never got farther down than to pasties and bikinis, which rankled my brother-in-law. He said that usually when he went to see such movies there, they showed whole breasts. An exception to the rule that adult movies played the Mesa was a “roadshow” called “Mom and Dad,” a sort of negative instructional drama about teenage pregnancy, which played at the Lyceum. There were separate showings for boys only and girls only.

Most striking was the rapid gradation of Clovis’ sunny Main Street from pristine to prurient in five very visible blocks. Standing at the intersection of Seventh and Main where the high-school, the courthouse, the First Methodist Church, and the squeaky-clean Village stared each other down, one could see in a line as straight as a bowling lane the marquees of the shiny State, the functional front of the Sunshine, the moth-eaten grandeur of the Lyceum, and at last the murky Mesa, catering to salesmen and servicemen from the adjacent train depot or the facing Hotel Clovis (whose gift-shop concealed some “naughty novelties” among its souvenir ashtrays and magic tricks), as well as to wandering workers, poor husbands out for some cheap-seat relief, and urgent adolescents begging to buy illicit liquor from corrupt cops. And all of this in one straight-line five-block stretch! It’s a wonder Clovis never turned out a major social novelist!
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

ROSWELL MOVIE THEATRES

I was ticket-taker/usher/popcorn boy at four of Roswell, New Mexico’s five Main Street movie theatres in 1954-55. Well, the Yucca was just off of Main Street. The Yucca, the Plains, the Pecos, and the Chief were under one management. We ushers were shifted from one to the other when needed.

I principally worked the Yucca across a side street from the Public Library. Its lobby was small but rather glorious, with Art Deco carpeting and indirect neon lighting. The most popular movie we had was “Magnificent Obsession,” the only movie we ran for a full week.

Other than that, the most popular movies were the big westerns in color, which were treated almost as civic events. They mostly showed at the Plains. People who lined up after church to catch the first Sunday showings of these westerns on cold days were served coffee from a chuck-wagon, and local “old-west” survivors entertained the waiting patrons and pan-handled them.

The Yucca and the Plains showed the “major” first-run movies. The Chief, right across Main Street from the County Courthouse, showed “B” movies of the classier kind (which mostly meant that they were in color, most often in some cheaper color process other than Technicolor) and now and then a “hold-over” movie, that is, a hit which moved from the Yucca or Plains for a second run. I believe the Chief’s admission price was cheaper.

The Pecos, on Main Street right around the corner from the City Bus Depot, mostly showed double bills for kids, that is, westerns and silly comedies which packed the brats in on weekends. It also showed the occasional “adult” movie, something with a sexy angle, a nudist “health” movie or something with a title like, “Child Bride.” By the way, an “Adults Only” sign meant only that kids who wanted to see these basically rather prudish “sex” movies had to pay adult fare. During the week and at night, the Pecos was largely considered to be, if I may use the language of the day, “for Mexicans,” who were not made to feel very welcome in the other theatres. This meant that we ushers weren’t expected to keep it very clean (Mexicans were considered to have lower standards, you see), and that we were to ignore drunkenness and sex in the back rows on the part of Latino customers (being poor migrant workers, they often had no other place to drink or date). Also, although there was no smoking section in the Pecos, we ignored back-row marijuana smoke. Only if violence broke out, which it not infrequently did, were we to intervene and/or call the cops. I don’t think blacks were allowed in the movie theatres at all, but I may be wrong. They may have just been made to feel so unwelcome on the Main Street that they just didn’t come. I know that we had no orders to turn them away. When the black-cast “Carmen Jones” showed at the Plains, a special two-or-three row section was roped off at the very rear of the auditorium to allow blacks to see it.

The most interesting movie theatre in town was the El Capitan (named for a nearby mountain peak), across the street from the Pecos. Independently-owned by a very stern-looking matron, it was obviously an un-remodeled silent theatre, with speakers hanging on each side of the screen rather than behind it. Also, the owner had never bothered to spruce up the front or add a marquee. Movies were advertised with posters in standup frames such as one sees in photos of silent movie houses. This theatre survived by showing, for instance, the Disney movies, whose high rental the main chain refused to pay, and questionable movies like “The Outlaw” with Jane Russell’s unbound breasts, and “Stromboli” with Ingrid Bergman, which the main chain wouldn’t show because Ingrid Bergman had gotten pregnant out of wedlock. Although ticket-selling was definitely considered “women’s work,” the El Capitan owner hired moonlighting young men from the local Air Force base as ticket-sellers, and had no ushers and sold no popcorn or candy. These deviations from the norm made the place vaguely suspect and weird in the 1950s, when ANY deviation from the norm freaked people out. But El Capitan also showed the few re-runs which the studios released back then, a blessing for young movie-buffs like me. None of my friends would attend it with me. However, it prospered.

All five of these theatres, within a four-block radius, played two bills of movies a week (the Pecos, Chief and Capitan double-bills), at least twice a day. The Plains also had a “Midnight Preview” at 12 pm on Saturday night of the feature it was to open the next day, hopefully to keep the teenagers and Air Base boys off of the streets and out of trouble. This was a major occasion for gay town-guys and lonely servicemen from Walker Air Force Base to meet.

All these performances prospered, believe me. I’m amazed when I realize how many people must have seen all or most of the sixteen feature films thus offered per week (and that’s before the local drive-ins opened!). The movies really were at least as pervasive a cultural force as were church and schools!
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Advertisements

6 Responses to “NEW MEXICO MOVIE HOUSES OF MY YOUTH”

  1. Mary Gray Says:

    I have a picture of the Sunshine Theater if you would like me to email it to you. Was the Thrifty Drug on the corner to the left of the theater?

    • Robert Says:

      Oh, would you please e-mail it to me? rbrtptrck@aol.com Yes, Thrifty Drug was to the theatre’s left, though to one’s right as one faced both establishments. Are you in Clovis? I visited there for an hour last September and was amazed how basically unchanged it is. Most of the houses I lived in are still standing! Here I am in front of the State Theatre, posing like Gene Kelly! http://screencast.com/t/rbbvmUc3dT5i

  2. Ian Clayton Says:

    I am a local boy who grew up in Roswell during the 40’s & 50’s, and movies were my passion. The Sat. afternoon matinees and of course all those great serials. I have pictures of the Plains and Yucca theaters but cannot find any photos of the Chief and Pecos Theaters. If you can help me in this matter I would be grateful. Thank you for your time in this matter. All I have is an E-mail address

    • Robert Says:

      Alas, I have no photos of the Chief, Pecos, or El Capitan theatres. Did we know each other? I was known as Bob O’Connor. I was in the Roswell High School production of “Our Town” in 1955, as the drunken choirmaster. My best friends were George Caraway and John Starr. Here’s my High School yearbook photo. http://screencast.com/t/1BwN5dW3ks

  3. Christen Says:

    Hi, I stumbled upon your blog when doing research on a novel set in Clovis around the 1950s. (I was born there but don’t really remember much) Your blog was just kind of information I’d been looking for. Do you happen to have any more memories from that area/time that you’d be willing to share?

  4. Robert Says:

    Hello! Sorry to be so long getting back to you. I’d love to talk about Clovis with you. I’ve always wished I could write a novel about it myself. 🙂 My e-mail is rbrtptrck@aol.com and on Facebook I’m ROBERT PATRICK PLAYWRIGHT.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: