Sheesh! Just what the heck was going on in Albuquerque 50 years ago?
In any list of banner years for the city, 1966 would have to be near the top. In just that single year, three iconic and city-changing venues were opened:
• Popejoy Hall
• The Pit
• Sandia Peak Tramway
I know; it’s hard to believe. Try to get even one project of that magnitude done today.
Where did they find all the dreamers with the fortitude – and ability to raise the needed funds – to push through those big ideas? We certainly could use more of them today.
It took about 19 years for Popejoy Hall to go from idea stage to its October 1966 opening with a concert by the Utah Symphony Orchestra. Money was usually the issue.
But, through the persistence of then-University of New Mexico President Tom Popejoy, enough money was raised to create a true center for music and theatrical arts in Albuquerque. Thomas L. Popejoy Jr. has been quoted as saying that his father “told me he begged, borrowed and stole the money.”
In the end, it cost a bit under $2.7 million to build. It seated 2,002 – if the orchestra pit was used for seating, that added 92 seats – and was noted for its outstanding acoustical qualities.
Originally, it was simply called the UNM Concert Hall. It was named after Popejoy when he retired in 1968, ending a 20-year term that saw incredible growth of the university.
The story goes that when the Raton-area native announced his retirement, regents offered him his choice of what he wanted named after him – he really didn’t want anything, but everyone thought it would be the UNM Arena, which also opened in 1966.
Instead, Popejoy chose the Concert Hall, which he had fought for over the years. Nice.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of show-biz fans of all ages attend performances at Popejoy Hall. And thousands of young students get the chance to attend professional performances – many for the first time – through Popejoy’s Schooltime Series.
Some major offerings yet to come this year include “Disney’s The Lion King” and “Mariachi Christmas.”
Another big UNM project that opened in 1966 was the Pit, home of the Lobos men’s and women’s basketball teams, which has consistently been ranked as one of the top college arenas in the nation.
Everyone knows the Pit.
That’s not only because of its award-winning design, which was very unusual at the time – it was built into the ground in a giant hole that, when dug, resembled a meteor strike – but also because of the intensity and volume of noise generated by Lobos’ fans.
The arena, which is used almost exclusively for basketball, has played host over the years to NCAA and NIT college basketball tournament games, and each year hosts the state high school basketball championships.
It has been the site of some annual events, like the Gathering of Nations Powwow and the Ty Murray Invitational bull-riding rodeo, and has hosted occasional big concerts, from Led Zeppelin in the old days to George Strait more recently. Evangelist Billy Graham once packed the Pit in the late ’70s.
The Pit has brought the city national acclaim over the years and was instrumental in making Albuquerque a basketball town.
And, believe it or not, it cost only $1.4 million to build.
Sandia Peak Tramway
Since it opened on May 7, 1966, the Sandia Peak Tramway has taken more than 11 million passengers up and down the western face of the Sandia Mountains.
It takes just about 15 minutes for passengers to ascend 4,000 feet – a 2.7-mile diagonal trip – from Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights to the 10,378-foot mountain summit. And although you are dropped off near a restaurant and the ski area, the big attraction is the view. You pretty much can see forever.
A good trick is to go up late afternoon, hike or have dinner, stick around for the sunset and then enjoy the city lights – “like a diamond in the desert,” according to the song “The Lights of Albuquerque” – on the ride down.
It’s no wonder the tram is one of New Mexico’s premier tourist attractions.
And it was a private development, brought to fruition by Robert Nordhaus, one of the founders of the Sandia Peak Ski Co., and Ben Abruzzo, who just six years later would help create the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta and make the city an international center for hot-air ballooning.
Nordhaus had visited Europe and was inspired by the tramways he rode there.
Remarkably, it took only two years for Nordhaus and Abruzzo to push through all the needed state and city hearings, win support from the U.S. Forest Service and a skeptical local population, find the financing, and get it engineered, constructed and running. It cost about $2 million. What a feat!
While these three venues were direction-changers for the city, they were not the only things that happened that year.
Also, in 1966:
• Indoor track came to the Duke City in a big way. The AAU Indoor Nationals – now called the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships – were lured away from New York’s Madison Square Garden and drew about 20,000 fans to Tingley Coliseum. The meet was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated on March 14, 1966.
While indoor track came and went over the ensuing decades, in 2004, the city purchased an indoor track for the Albuquerque Convention Center, which has emerged as one of the top indoor track and field venues in the nation.
• The Guild Cinema opened its doors. The tiny movie house in Nob Hill originally screened adult movies, but soon began showing art and foreign films, opening and closing a few times under different owners over the years. Today, it remains an independent theater showing art, foreign and classic films you won’t find elsewhere in town.
And there were some other happenings in 1966 you might find interesting.
Pete Domenici won an election for the first time, to the Albuquerque City Commission. As you should know, he would become an influential U.S. senator who served New Mexico for six terms.
Reies Lopez Tijerina and his followers organized as part of the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Land Grants), and had protest marches in Albuquerque and Santa Fe in 1966. The group’s infamous armed raid on the Rio Arriba County Courthouse occurred in 1967.
“… And ‘Now Miguel,'” a Universal Pictures production, had its world premiere in Albuquerque. The film, shot at Ghost Ranch, San Ildefonso Pueblo and Santa Fe, was based on an award-winning novel by Joseph Krumgold and told a coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old Hispanic shepherd in northern New Mexico.
It was a big deal. Some Albuquerque schools reportedly gave students the day off to attend the premiere. At Lavaland Elementary School, we were taken on school buses to see it at the KiMo.
The College of Saint Joseph on the Rio Grande became the University of Albuquerque. The campus is now home to St. Pius X High School.
A windowless West Mesa High School was opened on what was then a lonely and remote stretch of the mesa next to the runway of a small airport. It looked like a prison. (I can say that; it’s my alma mater.)
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