ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The iconic neon sign hanging in front of the KiMo Theatre signifies to all travelers that they have arrived in Downtown Albuquerque.
The theater itself stands as a symbol of a bygone era when America’s love affair with talking pictures was ignited. Like any new romance, the relationship was deep, passionate and completely devoted. Italian immigrant Oreste Bachechi understood this and set out to build a monument to that love.
The architecturally stunning Pueblo Deco-style theater opened on Sept. 19, 1927. Bachechi put great effort into every aspect of his building, including its name. He held a naming contest and asked the public to mail in suggestions of six letters or fewer.
A June 16, 1927, Albuquerque Journal article offers insight into the theater’s naming.
Bachechi received “a deluge of letters estimated at over 500.”
That’s right. Well before email and text messages were a thing, more than 500 people took the time to sit down and compose letters. The entries came from all over the state “on expensive stationary, on scratch paper, scrawled, typewritten and even printed.”
Suggestions continued coming in even after the deadline, and if that’s not an indication of the state’s enthusiasm for the new theater, I don’t know what is.
KiMo is the combination of two Tiwa words meaning “mountain lion.”
Tiwa is not a written language, and the word’s spelling was constructed specifically for the naming of the theater.
Some people have mistakenly believed that KiMo means “King of its Kind,” which longtime theater manager Larry Parker says is more of a liberal interpretation of the word than the actual meaning.
The confusion could have originated at the time of the theaters naming. The Journal article refers to the mountain lion as “king of beasts.”
And then there’s this quote by Oreste’s son, Arthur Bachechi: “It was thought exceedingly appropriate that the name of KiMo, king of beasts, should be adopted for this the king of theaters. In addition, KiMo was favored because it contains the first letters of the main words in king of movies.”
The KiMo was nearly destroyed by a fire in the early 1960s and faced demolition in the 1970s but was saved when the city purchased it in 1977.
It became what it is today – an event venue for the public.
But the theater wasn’t the first movie theater in Albuquerque or even Downtown. That title belongs to the Sunshine Theater, at Second and Central, which opened in 1924 as the city’s first movie theater.
When the KiMo was built, the city’s Downtown corridor was in its heyday – spurred by the arrival of the railroad in 1880.
Bachechi took advantage of this, erecting a tent near the railroad stop in 1885 to offer merchandise to train passengers. He eventually expanded his business and became a successful wholesale liquor dealer, but he didn’t have much time to enjoy his dream theater. He died a year after it opened.
The judges for the naming contest were James Fulton Zimmerman, president of the University of New Mexico, and attorney Henry G. Coors, for whom the city named Coors Boulevard (but that’s a story for another day.)
The winning suggestion came from Isleta Pueblo Gov. Pablo Abeita, who pocketed $50 for his idea. More on him in a bit, but first let’s talk about Eloma.
The name Eloma was the runner-up for the contest and was submitted by Isis L. Harrington, principal of the now-closed Albuquerque Indian School. Harrington won two tickets to the KiMo for her suggestion. She said at the time that the word was Hopi and had a symbolic meaning.
“I have selected this name because the word signifies a combination of the beauty of earth and sky,” she wrote in an essay she submitted with her entry. “It is the legendary name of an Indian goddess whose beauty is symbolized in the butterfly design so much used in the southwest.”
Meanwhile, Abeita was a prominent figure in New Mexico, speaking both Tiwa and English, and was said to have had friendships with many civic leaders, including Bachechi. He served in many leadership positions within his pueblo and even received a visit from Albert Premier, king of the Belgians, in 1919, according to UNM professor and Indigenous Design + Planning Institute founder and director Ted Jojola.
Later in his life, Abeita was given the honorific title of Grand Old Man of Albuquerque, Jojola said.
Entering the contest, Jojola said, didn’t go over well with the tribal elders, which some say was because he didn’t ask permission.
“This caused controversy in his pueblo, where he was admonished by elders in the community,” Jojola said.
Despite the scolding, the name prevailed and has become a staple of local vernacular.
But I’m really liking that second-place name.
Who couldn’t use some goddess power in their lives?
Maybe the KiMo will consider taking on a middle name. Probably not. Wouldn’t fit on the sign. But I may forever refer to it fondly as the KiMo Eloma Theatre – a palace among urban dwellers that to this day serves as a place where the community can gather and escape the world.
*Some of the historical facts in this column came from Jacqueline Murray Loring’s new book “KiMo Theatre: Fact & Folklore.”
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”