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New Mexico, you’re a star

CORRECTION: This story published in Friday’s Journal about the new Albuquerque Museum exhibit, “Hollywood Southwest: New Mexico in Film and Television,” said Thomas Edison shot “Indian Day School,” which was filmed in 1898 at Isleta Pueblo. The camera operator was Frederick Blechynden. Thomas A. Edison’s company produced the short film.


The marquee lights frame “Hollywood Southwest” like a necklace of stars.

Inside lurks a mummified hand from “Breaking Bad,” Jeff Bridges’ signed “Crazy Heart” CD and Johnny Depp’s crow-crowned Tonto costume from “The Lone Ranger.”

The Albuquerque Museum’s “Hollywood Southwest: New Mexico in Film and Television” takes a look at the star-studded history of the industry in the state. It premieres at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Posters from movies filmed in New Mexico will cover the walls inside the Albuquerque Museum exhibition "Hollywood Southwest"

Posters from movies filmed in New Mexico will cover the walls inside the Albuquerque Museum exhibition “Hollywood Southwest.” (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The exhibit spans the silent films through the Westerns before moving on to ground-breaking television series such as “Breaking Bad” and the Oscar-winning film “Crazy Heart.” Hundreds of posters hang near piles of scripts, props and costumes. The KiMo Theatre’s original 1929 projector practically whirs.

When the state approved tax incentives for filmmakers 12 years ago, directors, producers and stars flocked to an area offering breathtaking landscapes, abundant light and the studios and crews to churn out their projects.

“Santa Fe and Albuquerque began to blossom,” University of New Mexico history professor and curator Paul Hutton said. “It was also because Hollywood stars like to stay in fancy hotels and eat in five-star restaurants. That cachet of Santa Fe comes out and the movies became a very powerful draw.”

A display of well-known props from "Breaking Bad" on display in "Hollywood Southwest" at the Albuquerque Museum

A display of well-known props from “Breaking Bad” on display in “Hollywood Southwest” at the Albuquerque Museum. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“Breaking Bad” is the star of the show. The exhibition features a door panel from Walter White’s Pontiac Aztec and a final call sheet signed by the stars. There are “Breaking Bad” paper dolls and action figures, and a Heisenberg matchbook (White’s street name), along with his hat, plus chicken logo money from Los Pollos Hermanos (the show’s fictional fast-food chain) and a poster signed by Bryan Cranston.

“‘Breaking Bad’ is highly responsible for making New Mexico a film mecca,” Hutton said.

In the beginning

It all started in 1897 with Thomas Edison, Hutton said. Edison’s company shot “Indian Day School” at Isleta Pueblo. It was his invention of the Kinetoscope that germinated the film industry. Tom Mix starred in a series of silent Westerns around Las Vegas, N.M.

“New Mexico was so exotic,” Hutton said. “You could go to the mountains for snow and shoot (throughout) the seasons.”

Then came D.W. Griffith (“Birth of a Nation”), who made “The Tourists” in 1912. The picture starred Mabel Normand, the Lucille Ball of her era, who often appeared with Charlie Chaplin and “Fatty” Arbuckle. Griffith filmed the movie in and around Albuquerque’s old Alvarado Hotel.

“It was your typical romp comedy,” Hutton said. “They miss their train, so they’re stuck. She gets flirty with the Indian chief.”

Rise of the Western

New Mexico was ground zero for Westerns, thanks to its landscape, light and the railroad. So long as they dominated the screen – especially during the 1940s and ’50s – Gallup was the nucleus.

In 1939 John Ford’s “Stagecoach” brought the genre roaring back after a decline triggered by bulky sound equipment. Its star, John Wayne, would go on to film several movies in New Mexico, including “Chisum” (1970) and “The Cowboys” (1972) . The exhibition features movie tie-in paperbacks and film stills, but few props and no costumes because they were either recycled or destroyed, Hutton said.

This 1927 Simplex projector was stored in the KiMo Theatre before being moved to the Albuquerque Museum exhibit

This 1927 Simplex projector was stored in the KiMo Theatre before being moved to the Albuquerque Museum exhibit. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

More often than not, Native Americans (usually played by white actors) served as targets for rugged cowboy heroes. But the tragedy of cultural loss and conflict also inspired such films as “The Vanishing American” and “Redskin.”

By the 1940s, Westerns made up one-third of Hollywood’s output, a trend that lasted about 30 years, Hutton said.

Billy the Kid proved to be cinematic catnip to film and TV producers, who made at least 70 films about the state’s most famous outlaw. Both the big and the small screen paired him with everyone from the Three Stooges to Dracula.

The exhibition showcases press books for “Billy the Kid’s Range War” (1941), Bob Dylan’s soundtrack for “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973) and a Paul Newman “Left-Handed Gun” (1958) comic book, as well as his autographed photograph.

In 1969, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were biking in “Easy Rider.” The museum has lobby cards, film stills and a publicity still signed by Fonda.

By the 2000s, the success of “Breaking Bad” lured more TV series. In 2012, A&E brought “Longmire,” Craig Johnson’s popular crime series about the fictional sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyo. The series stars Robert Taylor, Adam Bartley, Katee Sackoff and Lou Diamond Phillips. The exhibit showcases “Longmire’s” mostly denim costumes and sheriff’s badges.

“Manhattan” followed on WGN America in 2015. The producers built a replica Los Alamos at Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe. The exhibition features call sheets, scripts and a “Tin Man” costume, as well as a prop Geiger counter.

In 2011, Marvel filmed “Thor” in and around Santa Fe and Galisteo. The exhibit features faux-armor and leather costumes, as well as the protagonists’ plastic and Styrofoam gun. The film starred Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman.

The 2013 version of “The Lone Ranger” (estimated cost $215 million) was filmed at Albuquerque Studios, Shiprock, Abiquiú and in the Rio Puerco Valley, south of Albuquerque. The show features both Tonto’s (Depp) and the Lone Ranger’s (Armie Hammer) costumes. Walt Disney Pictures is so particular about the clothing that it sent its own curators to unbox and drape the mannequins, museum communications manager Denise Crouse said.

Today, “Breaking Bad’s” successor, “Better Call Saul,” still films in and around Albuquerque.

“The success of ‘Breaking Bad’ drove this modern renaissance,” Hutton said.

Hutton will speak about the history of film in New Mexico at 1 p.m. Saturday at the museum.

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