Born out of the Great Depression, the Lensic is still entertaining Santa Fe - Albuquerque Journal

Born out of the Great Depression, the Lensic is still entertaining Santa Fe


Lensic Theater
The Lensic Theater in downtown Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Editor’s note: The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a once a month column in which writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.

It was 1931 and in Santa Fe watermelon was 3 cents a pound, two dozen oranges would put a person back 27 cents, a lady could get a silk dress for $2.98, and as of June 24, residents could watch a moving picture with sound at their very own opulent, newly-opened Lensic Theater for $3 or less.

The theater boasted seating for 1,150 people, and even more if they brought in chairs, and became a hub of social life in Santa Fe shortly thereafter.

Na’aman Soleiman, who was born in Biskinta, Syria, and Americanized his name to Nathan Salmon, is responsible for the theater’s existence. He reached American soil via New York City in 1866. This was followed by wandering the roads of southern Colorado and the Southwest, wagon in tow, full of goods for sale. One day, a snowstorm stranded him in Santa Fe on his way back to Durango, Colorado.

“Down to his last 25 cents, Salmon pawned his watch to wire a friend for a loan,” the Lensic claims on its website. “With that help, he resumed business as a ‘cart peddler.’ ”

He remained in Santa Fe and prosperity followed. He bought a dry goods store on San Francisco Street in 1884 that, according to family lore, he paid for with winnings from a pool game. He also snatched up property throughout Santa Fe and Albuquerque, but it’s not clear if it was the same game of pool that allowed him to do so. Probably not, because that would have had to have been one prolific, high-stakes game.

Soon after, the Great Depression swept through every city and town in America, but the tenacious Salmon defied the odds. He and his son-in-law E. John Greer announced on March 27, 1930 they were going to build a Spanish-style theater in Santa Fe featuring the latest and greatest advances in projection and sound so they could show “talkies.”

Lensic Theater
A crowd dances in the ballroom on opening night at the Lensic Theater. (Courtesy of the Lensic Performing Arts Center)

The city was just a fraction of its size today with about 11,000 residents at the time. (Santa Fe now has more than 88,000 residents, according to the latest census figures) But, that didn’t stop Salmon enlisting big-city architects to design the theater. He hired Boller Brothers of Los Angeles and Kansas City, “who had been building picture palaces throughout the United States since 1900.” They were the same firm who designed Albuquerque’s KiMo Theatre in the distinctive Pueblo Deco style that is still earning praise.

Crews broke ground on Sept. 26, 1930, and, in what was probably an effort to drum up excitement about the project, Salmon held a contest to find a name for the theater. He offered $25 to the person who came up with the best name. He asked for either a Spanish moniker or something that incorporated the names of his grandchildren Lila, Elias John, Nathan, Sara, Mary Irene and Charles.

The winning entry was from a woman who suggested the name Lensic to pay homage to the grandchildren but also was a nod to the lens of a movie camera. Unfortunately, we don’t know her full name, because women back then were not afforded a public identity separate from their husbands. She was simply identified as Mrs. P.J. Smithwick.

The day of its grand opening Santa Fe residents were grappling with a relentless heat wave, but the theater boasted of its “modern refrigeration” and encouraged all the attending gentlemen to don tuxedos. Chet Grass and his Frontier Knights Orchestra greeted the partygoers. The guest list was littered with high-profile dignitaries including the governor, the mayor, a senator and a congressman. After taking in the entertainment, the crowd headed to the theater and took their seats.

The Lensic’s first movie, “Daddy Long Legs,” featuring Janet Gaynor and Warner Baxter, began to roll. A newspaper article at that time mistakenly spelled it “Daddy Longlegs” but the reel clearly shows it was two names. There were four different types of seats available. A rocker and smoker seat would cost $3, while the main floor was $2.50 and the balcony cost $1 or $1.50.

Following the premiere, movie-goers adjourned to the ballroom for a dance that was scheduled to go until 12:30 a.m.

“Movies proved to be the great tonic of the Depression years and the war years that followed,” the Lensic’s website said. “The marquee changed four times a week – three shows daily, with ticket prices from 25 cents to 75 cents.”

Lensic Theater
In 1931, the Lensic opened as a vaudeville and movie house. (Courtesy of the Lensic Performing Arts Center)

However, the once grand theater, just like many others around the country, fell into disrepair by the late 1990s. The availability of cable television and home rentals kept people at home and the money flowing elsewhere. The theater shuttered its doors and dropped its curtain for what could have been the final time in 1999 while under management of United Artists.

But the community wasn’t quite ready to let go of its old theater.

“From the very beginning, the Lensic has been a place where the community has come to see their friends and neighbors and bond over shared amazing and creative experiences,” said Joel Aalberts, current Lensic executive director. “I feel this even more since quarantine. That time away reminded us you can’t take this for granted. Performances feel more moving than ever. Sharing them with a full theater of people is more meaningful.”

Local businesses, the city and performing arts groups helped raise $9 million to transform the Lensic and save it from permanent closure. Renovations and refurbishments got underway in 2000 and the following year it was reborn as a performing arts center.

Today, performances take place at the reimagined theater more than 200 nights a year.

At the base of the wall near the theater’s entry is a specially inscribed marble cornerstone signed by Salmon and Greer dedicating the theater to the people of Santa Fe. The theater was Salmon’s way of showing gratitude to the city that stranded him, took him in and allowed him to thrive in America.

“I made all my money here and I wanted to give the people something to show my appreciation,” he said.

Salmon has long since died, but I’m sure those who witness his theater’s stunning architecture or are given the chance to attend a performance there are indeed basking in that appreciation.

Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email writer Elaine Briseño at or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”


Home » Life in NM » What's in a Name? » Born out of the Great Depression, the Lensic is still entertaining Santa Fe

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