Theatre celebrates new decade on Main Street
By Zak Hansen
Las Cruces Bulletin
For nearly 90 years, the Rio Grande Theatre, 211 N. Main St., the epicenter of an increasingly populous and popular Downtown area, has entertained Las Cruces audiences with motion pictures and performances. However, just more 10 years ago, that legacy was in serious jeopardy.
To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the theater’s reopening after nearly a decade dark, the Doña Ana Arts Council will host a 10th anniversary celebration on Main Street and inside the iconic theater Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 24-26.
The three-day celebration kicks off at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24, with a screening of local writer, actor, filmmaker (and former Rio Grande Theatre manager) David Salcido’s mini-documentary on the long and illustrious history of the theatre. Following the screening, attendees will head out to Main Street at 7 p.m. for an evening of cake and music.
The next evening, at 6 and 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25, the theater will host two screenings of the 1953 Marilyn Monroe/ Jane Russel comedy classical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” — a fitting prelude to the upcoming premiere of Tony Award-winning local playwright, director and educator Mark Medoff’s “Marilee and Baby Lamb: The Assassination of an American Goddess,” centered on the twilight years and death of the iconic actress, which premieres Oct. 13.
The next day, Saturday, Sept. 26, begins with dual screenings of the all-ages fantasy favorite “The Princess Bride” at 9 and 11 a.m. — perfect timing to step out of the heat, hustle and bustle of the Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces — before Main Street Downtown is decked top-to-bottom in rock ‘n’ roll regalia.
Starting at 5:30 p.m. with a nostalgia- drenched rock ‘n’ roll-themed dinner at the steps of the historic theater, Saturday evening’s events include a performance of longtime friends and frequent guests of the Rio Grande Theatre Remember Then … A Class Act playing your favorite tribute tunes from the 1950s and ’60s.
From there, the gala event moves inside for A Salute to the Platters — one of the most successful early rock ‘n’ roll vocal groups responsible for 40 Billboard Top-100 hits including “The Great Pretender,” “Only You,” “I’m Sorry” and “The Magic Touch” and an appearance in “Rock Around the Clock” — featuring Elmer Armstrong. Tickets to the dinner and concert are $60 each. For more information, call 523-6403 or visit www.riograndetheatre.com.
History of the Rio Grande Theatre
Opened as the small southwestern city’s first motion-picture house by pharmacists and Las Cruces Drug Store owners Carroll Thomas “C.T.” Seale and Bert George Dyne in 1926, the Rio Grande drew its first large crowds for the silent pictures, beginning with the July 29, 1926 inaugural screening of “Mare Nostrum” — and certainly not
for nothing, the city’s first air-conditioning — through the earliest “talkies” of the 1930s, before a 1931 earthquake and a 1933 fire rendered left the theater nearly destroyed.
After footing the bill for the repairs, even enlisting the original architect to restore the theater, Seale and Dyne reopened the Rio Grande, where it continued to entertain residents for the next five decades as one of Las Cruces’ primary social centers.
As time went on, budgets went up and multiplexes crept their way across the country, the historic theater shifted hands a number of times, eventually landing under the control of Allen Theatres in 1982, which operated it as a “second-run” picture house for 15 years.
In 1997, the Rio Grande Theatre — unprofitable, difficult to maintain and falling further and further from its former glory — closed its doors, some feared for good.
Of course, this being Las Cruces, that was not to be the case. The next year, Carolyn Muggenberg and Jan Clute — granddaughters of C.T. Seale — offered ownership of the prized but tarnished property to the Doña Ana Arts Council, a nonprofit group established in 1971 to promote the performing, visual and literary arts as integral components of education, economic growth and community development.
Soon, the Arts Council purchased the other half of the theater, beginning in 2000 a capital campaign raising funds for a fullscale restoration of the downtrodden theater and, in 2004, deeding it to the City of Las Cruces to make it eligible for legislative funds. In the end, more than $3.2 million in federal, state, county and private funds and thousands upon thousands of dedicated man hours would go into the project, culminating with a grand reopening celebration held Sept. 16, 2005, that included a screening of — what else? — “Mare Nostrum.”
In the 10 years since under the stewardship of the arts council, the Rio Grande Theater has once again played host to a variety of unique and recurring programming highlighting the best local and regional artists and performers and inviting to town national and international acts the likes of which have never been seen in the Mesilla Valley. With the reopening of Main Street in 2012 after decades of closure – a casualty of the city’s ill-fated dalliance with late-1960s urban renewal – and the state-of-the-art lighting, projection and surround- sound systems recently installed in the theater by the city, it seems the famed Rio Grande has once again regained its luster as the “crown jewel” of Main Street Las Cruces.
Zak Hansen can be reached at zak@lascrucesbulletin. com.