Editor’s note: The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a twice a month column in which staff writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.
Anyone born in the last five decades probably doesn’t realize what a novel treat it was to go to the movies. Nowadays, movies travel around in our pockets, only a touchscreen away.
But in the 1920s, people were wild for moving picture shows and Albuquerque resident Joseph Barnett capitalized on America’s latest pastime by building the city’s first grand movie palace. Barnett already owned two other “motion picture houses,” according to a 1920 story in the Albuquerque Journal.
The Sunshine Theater opened to much fanfare on May 1, 1924 on the southeast corner of Central Avenue and Second Street, where the White Elephant gambling hall and saloon once stood. There’s no official record of how Barnett came up with the name, but there might be a clue in the state’s slogan at the time. New Mexico had unofficially branded itself the “Sunshine State,” even printing it on license plates. However, Florida also began using the nickname, eventually leading New Mexico officials to go with the Land of Enchantment instead.
We may never know the official naming story.
What we do know is that the emblematic, six-story, Renaissance Revival building is still standing and its grandeur remains.
According to Barnett’s 1954 obituary, he was the son of Italian immigrants. He ran away from home as a boy with nothing but an elementary education. He came to Albuquerque penniless, playing a fiddle in local saloons to earn money. He eventually became a saloon owner and sank every penny he earned into more real estate.
He had the keen ability to envision future growth. According to one story, he bought a piece of property on the corner of Second Street and Copper that was home to a livery stable. He declared “The day will come when a great hotel will be on that land.”
A great hotel did come.
The Hilton Hotel, now Hotel Andaluz, was built there in 1939.
Upon his death at the age of 88, it’s believed he was one of the city’s largest individual landowners.
The swashbuckler movie “Scaramouche,” starring Mexican actor Ramón Novarro, graced the screen on opening day of the Sunshine. The price of admission was only 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. According to the Albuquerque Morning Journal, thousands of people showed up and filled the theater to its 1,200 capacity through numerous showings that day. A live orchestra accompanied the film and guests were greeted by a lobby of floral arrangements Barnett had received from friends.
“Joseph Barnett, owner of the building, who began the day by taking his place in an obscure corner in the rear, did not remain long out of sight,” the article said. “His friends began asking for him that they might congratulate him …”
When films weren’t being played, live vaudeville graced the stage. Local church and civic groups used the theater for gatherings, governors and the U.S. Forest Service held offices there, and several movie stars made movie premiers there, including Bob Hope and Kirk Douglas. In addition to the theater, the building housed shops and office space. The Sunshine Cafe sprung up across the street on Second to take advantage of the crowds the theater drew.
Sunshine Theater thrived until the Heights became the darling of Albuquerque. Merchants began to migrate to newer neighborhoods and when Winrock opened in 1961, it became the center of the city’s retail culture, stealing away the crowds and weakening Downtown’s commercial power.
National chain Commonwealth Theaters company announced in 1974 that it was not going to renew its lease at Sunshine. The company spokesman said it was “a lack of customers” that led to the decision.
The theater tried to reinvent itself.
In 1976, Sunshine started showing old, classic movies from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. That continued until 1979 when Luna Theaters, a company from Texas, took over the lease and began showing Spanish films.
Just four years later, Sunshine Theater was facing the wrecking ball. In 1983, a team of developers, hoping to revive Downtown and once again make it the center of city life, proposed demolishing the building and installing a festival retail marketplace. But, the grow, grow, grow at any cost mentality of the 1940s and 1950s seemed to have waned by this point, especially at the expense of historic buildings. There was much debate about the project on the City Council and a group of citizens banned together to rescue the theater from destruction. They formed a Save the Sunshine committee and argued that any redevelopment on that corner should incorporate the Sunshine.
In a May 20, 1984 opinion piece, committee member and journalist V.B. Price discussed the proposal.
“The festival market concept is a good one and has worked well in other cities,” he said. “It could do much for Downtown, as long as its life doesn’t depend on cannibalizing what little is left of Downtown’s historic identity.”
The project withered on the vine and the plans never materialized, leaving the building to absorb another day of sun. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the New Mexico State Register in 1985.
The old theater became a live music venue in the early ’90s and remains that today.
Hungry developers it seems, have set down their forks – for now.
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at ebriseno@ abqjournal.com or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”