Rio Grande Theatre continues as a Downtown Las Cruces icon
The Rio Grande Theatre (RGT) has a long and storied history in Las Cruces, and has been called the crown jewel of downtown. The building located right across the street from the new Downtown Plaza, was a movie house for much of its history, opening in February 1926 with a showing of Mare Nostrum, a silent picture set during World War I. Sound equipment was installed and the first talking movie was shown at the theatre in 1929.
Southwest architect Otto Thorman created the look of the new theatre in the Italian Renaissance Revival style that was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The movie theatre survived an earthquake and a fire in the 1930s, but could not sustain itself through changing economic times and closed in 1997. After more than $3 million in renovations, the Rio Grande is today owned by the City of Las Cruces and managed under a city contract by the Doña Ana Arts Council (DAAC). It is “the only remaining two-story adobe theatre in the country,” according to DAAC’s website.
The theatre is “a major City of Las Cruces facility,” says DAAC Executive Director Kathleen Albers. DAAC has been a major player in the redevelopment and operation of RGT since renovations began in the late 1990s. The arts council took control of RGT in the summer of 1998 when one-half of the then privately owned theatre was donated to the council. DAAC purchased the other half at auction for $20,000.
DAAC was the sole owner of the theatre from 1999 to 2001, when it quit-claimed RGT to the city. And, because the city could not solicit donations to renovate the theatre, DAAC began a capital campaign that raised $3.3 million in cash and received many in-kind donations and the physical labor of many individuals to completely restore the theatre.
The theatre was placed on the State Register of Cultural Properties in August 2003 and on the National Register of Historic Places in January 2004. In 2005, “we got the darned thing open,” Kathleen recalls. “It’s a great story of the community coming together and saving this treasure.” RGT held a 10-year grand re-opening celebration in September 2015.
“It has taken a village of dedicated art lovers to first renovate the building, and then to keep it going,” adds Kathleen, who has been involved with DAAC for 20 years. (She began as a volunteer at DAAC’s Renaissance ArtsFaire in 1997, served four years on the board, was a half-time arts and education coordinator, and became executive director in 2010.)
The back wall of the theatre (on its west side) features a 12-foot wide by 23-foot high mural depicting RGT’s 90-year history. The mural was completed on July 29, 2015, exactly 89 years to the day since the showing of the first movie at the theatre. The artwork was painted by Las Cruces lead artist Sebastian Velasquez; along with artists Steven Monget, Makayla Frietze, Jude Smith, and Daniella Prieto, who were all high school students when they worked on the project. The artwork is part of a four-mural collaboration of Court Youth Center, Ocotillo Institute for Social Justice, and the Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico.
Inside, RGT has a 40-foot fly loft and 426 seats, including 318 on the first level and 108 in the balcony. A new state-of-the art sound board was installed in 2016, which can be operated from anywhere in the theatre. Additional RGT renovations on Kathleen’s “wish list” include expanding the theatre lobby and adding showers to the back-stage dressing rooms.
The RGT lobby includes the El Paso Electric Gallery, which features the works of local and regional artists. Gallery exhibits change every month. The Clute-Muggenberg Gallery, on the north side of the lobby, is home to RGT memorabilia.
The theatre has been recognized as a cultural icon by Heritage Hotels and Resorts. And, last October, it received a historic plaque from the National Society of Colonial Dames XVII Century.
The society’s El Camino Real Chapter President Blanche Nelson Goldsmith worked in the theatre box office as a teenager, earning 50 cents an hour. She says, “This building has been so much a part of our lives from the time when we were kids until today.”
DAAC’s arts integration and education programming at RGT includes the summer Career Art Path, Missoula Children’s Theatre, and Opera Storytellers summer camp, offered in partnership with the Santa Fe Opera. Moon Mouse: A Space Odyssey, which has an anti-bullying theme, is also part of RGT’s live theatre performances for children and families. Scholarships based on financial need are offered for many of DAAC’s program offerings for children. m
for Everyone at RGT!
DAAC continues the New Mexico Heritage programming series it began at RGT in 2015 to bring Native American, Hispanic, and western-themed performers to the stage. Through the series, RGT partners with local performers like Yolanda Martinez and Randy Granger, and even Las Cruces native Josh Grider, who has become a country music recording star.
RGT has also welcomed local live theatre productions, including Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the world premiere of Tony-winning playwright Mark Medoff’s Marilee and Baby Lamb: The Assassination of an American Goddess, and Scaffolding Theatre Company’s production of the Steven Sondheim musical Passion. It also has hosted the premieres of locally produced films, including Lost Padre Mine and Lady Belladonna. Las Cruces arts activist, writer, and storyteller Irene Oliver-Lewis starred in Dichos de Mi Madre, a one-woman show that she wrote in honor of her parents.
Kathleen Albers calls RGT’s free Every Second Wednesday performances at RGT “our gift to the community.” The live shows feature local singers, musicians, actors, dancers, and magicians. RGT also welcomes national touring companies, which have brought world-class entertainment to its stage, including Grammy-award winner Judy Collins and singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff, who has written songs for Bonnie Raitt, Wynonna Judd, Lynn Anderson, and Linda Ronstadt, among others.
RGT has a 40-foot fly loft and 426 seats, including 318 on the first level and 108 in the balcony.
For more information on the Rio Grande Theatre, call DAAC at 575-523-6403 or visit daarts.org and riograndetheatre.com