Well, it’s almost Halloween, and I feel moved to talk about a movie palace whose wall sconces are made out of actual skulls. The style of this theater, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, may be unique in all the world: Native American, specifically Pueblo.
How is this possible? Though the concept of a “palace” may be far off the Native American cultural mark, the cliff-dwelling peoples are and always have been agricultural (as were their ancient ancestors, the Anasazi. Farming is not nomadic; it results in permanent structures.
So I give you the KiMo, a not-entirely-bizarre blending of Pueblo style and what some call Art Deco. It’s a movie theater designed to resemble the inside of a ceremonial kiva, with log-like ceiling beams depicting dance and hunt scenes. The skulls (Buffalo, actually) that I mentioned function as variations on wall sconces throughout the theater. Unsurprisingly, rumors abound that the theater is haunted. Beyond the skulls, the death of a small boy in the 1950’s adds credence to this myth.
Who dreamed this movie house into reality? Oddly, it was Oreste Bachechi, an (Italian) immigrant, who made his living in dry goods and liquor. Like so many successful small-town entrepreneurs, he wanted to build his own movie palace, a building "that would stand out among the Greek temples and Chinese pavilions of contemporary movie mania." His family, especially his wife, had close ties to local citizens of Pueblo descent, a very American story, the newly-arrived embracing a culture whose roots go back to the first millennium. Accordingly, Oreste hired an architect, Carl Boller, of Boller Brothers, out of Kansas City, who had already built an impressive number of movie theaters in the west and midwest. This was a sizable commission for Carl, who didn’t just dream up Native American flourishes, but traveled extensively, visiting the pueblos of Acoma and Isleta, and the Navajo Nation in search of inspiration.
On September 19, 1927, the theater opened to a sell-out crowd of 1,321. Pueblo and Navajo citizens ("numerous prominent tribesman of the Southwest...”) performed on stage that night: Isleta’s Pueblo Governor, Pablo Abeita, offered a name for the new theater, KiMo, is combination of two Tiwa words meaning "mountain lion," liberally interpreted as "king of its kind."
The KiMo was then and is today three storeys in stucco, with the stepped characteristic of native Pueblo architecture, blending with recessed spandrels and a strong vertical thrust reminiscent of Art Deco. Both the exterior and interior of the building offer a variety of indigenous motifs: a row of terra cotta shields above the third-floor windows, hand-woven rugs disguising air vents, and chandeliers shaped like war drums and funeral canoes. Wrought iron birds descend the staircases, and those garlanded buffalo skulls with glowing amber eyes are in full evidence.
As part of the Paramount chain, the theater had a good run until the early sixties, when a fire destroyed most of the stage and the proscenium arch, and did other considerable damage. It’s a familiar story: downtown Albuquerque was wracked with white flight, and the theater had been reduced to showing “adult” fare. A brief flirtation with demolition (1977) ended when the City of Albuquerque and a group of concerned citizens intervened.
An extensive renovation included many small singular efforts, including the matching of door handles that were original kachina dolls (a Hopi motif). In one notable case of delicate restoration, “The balcony railing in the lobby, composed of wrought iron bird figures, was 11 inches too short to meet modern safety codes; but Harvey Hoshour [restoration architect] devised a novel solution to retain the railings' original look. Additional metal was inserted in the birds' necks and legs to make the railing taller. The talented craftsman who performed the work was none other than the grandson of the man who created the original railing.”
Lobby murals of Southwestern landscapes that include cliff dwellings, were restored in another phase. In a third and final (1999) phase, perhaps the most expensive, “conservationists worked for months atop scaffolding far above the auditorium floor to restore the spectacular 'environmental' artwork [that had been destroyed by fire]. Vigas (roof beams) decorated with Pueblo Indian motifs seem to open onto a starry night sky,” a nod to atmospheric theater styles.
What happened to Oreste Bachechi? Sadly, he died the year after his theater opened, although his sons operated the KiMo for the intervening decades. Reflecting for a moment on the turtles, birds, buffalo, stars and other natural effects that grace his beautiful theater, I found this: “27 acres of fertile valley farmland,” the former Bachechi estate, is apparently on the verge of being developed by the City of Albuquerque, with hopes of turning it into a kind of wildlife preserve, a “balanced master plan... that promotes non-competitive recreational uses and environmental educational opportunities such as wildlife viewing, hiking, multi-use trails, improved and dedicated equestrian parking, native landscaping, an expanded pecan tree orchard, a memorial rose garden dedicated to the Bachechi family, an expanded wetland, and an agricultural field to attract migratory water fowl with perennial crops of bluestem, sacaton, lovegrass, and ricegrass.”
Now that the movie palace has been safely restored, what better way is there to treat the local movie mogul’s fertile acres?
When Europeans arrived, some ten million people were already living here, in what we have come to call America. (That our continents, North and South America, were named for a European adventurer, Amerigo Vespucci, underscores the point I’m about to make. History is like a twisted ribbon, whose surfaces blend. Despite centuries of bloodshed, native peoples (First Nations in Canada) are remarkably still around, and such miracles should be honored. Think Sherman Alexi, the poet/filmmaker/novelist or John Herrington, astronaut of the Chickasaw nation, or Charlene Teters said to be the Rosa Parks of Native American culture. Then there’s the heritage of naming: hardly a state in the lower forty-eight exists that isn’t woven through with Native American river names: Mississippi, Shenandoah, Ohio, Tallahassee, Missouri, Miami, Truckee, Kankeekee, to name a few. I wonder how many movies that portrayed the old cowboy vs. Indian theme played the KiMo mid-twentieth century?