Historic Sunshine Theater has survived changing trends and hungry developers
Editor’s Note: The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?”
Anyone born in the past five decades probably doesn’t realize how much new pleasure it was to go to the movies. These days, movies travel in our pockets, just a touch screen away.
But by the 1920s people were passionate about movies, and Albuquerque resident Joseph Barnett took advantage of America’s last hobby by building the city’s first grand cinema palace. Barnett already owned two other “movie houses,” according to a 1920 article in the Albuquerque Journal.
The Sunshine Theater opened with great fanfare on May 1, 1924 at the southeast corner of Central Avenue and Second Street, where the White Elephant Game Room and Saloon once stood. There is no official record of how Barnett came up with the name, but there could be a clue in the state slogan at the time. New Mexico had unofficially labeled itself a “Sunshine State,” even printing it on license plates. However, Florida also began to use the moniker, which ultimately led to New Mexico officials choosing the Land of Enchantment instead.
We may never know the official history of the name.
What we do know is that the iconic six-story Neo-Renaissance style building still stands and its grandeur remains.
According to Barnett’s 1954 obituary, he was the son of Italian immigrants. He ran away from home like a boy with nothing but an elementary education. He came to Albuquerque penniless, playing the violin in local salons to earn money. He eventually became a salon owner and invested every penny he earned in more real estate.
He had the ability to envision future growth. According to one story, he bought a property on the corner of Second Street and Copper that housed a livery stable. He said: “The day will come when a great hotel will be on this earth. “
A great hotel has come.
The Hilton Hotel, now the Andaluz Hotel, was built there in 1939.
When he died at the age of 88, he is believed to have been one of the city’s largest landowners.
The swashbuckling film “Scaramouche”, starring Mexican actor Ramón Novarro, graced the screen on the opening day of The Sunshine. The entrance fee was only 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. According to the Albuquerque Morning Journal, thousands of people showed up and filled the theater to its capacity of 1,200 through numerous screenings that day. A live orchestra accompanied the film, and guests were greeted by a hall of floral arrangements that Barnett had received from friends.
“Joseph Barnett, owner of the building, who started the day by taking a seat in a dark corner at the back, was not out of sight for long,” the article said. “His friends started asking him to congratulate him …”
When the movies weren’t playing, live vaudeville graced the stage. The local church and civic groups used the theater for gatherings, governors and the US Forest Service held offices there, and several movie stars had film premieres there, including Bob Hope and Kirk Douglas. In addition to the theater, the building housed shops and offices. The Sunshine Cafe sprang up across the street on Second to take advantage of the crowds the theater attracted.
The Sunshine Theater flourished until the Heights became the darling of Albuquerque. Traders began to migrate to newer neighborhoods and when Winrock opened in 1961 it became the center of the city’s commercial culture, driving away crowds and weakening the commercial power of the city center.
The nationwide Commonwealth Theaters Company announced in 1974 that it was not going to renew its lease at Sunshine. A spokesperson for the company said it was “a lack of customers” that led to the decision.
The theater has tried to reinvent itself.
In 1976, Sunshine started showing old classic movies from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. This continued until 1979 when Luna Theaters, a Texas company, took over the lease and started showing Spanish films.
Just four years later, the Sunshine Theater faced wrecking ball. In 1983, a team of developers, hoping to revive the city center and make it the center of city life again, proposed to demolish the building and set up a festival retail market. But, the growth, grow, grow at any cost mentality of the 1940s and 1950s seemed to have weakened by this point, especially at the expense of historic buildings. There was a lot of debate on the project about the city council and a group of banned citizens together to save the theater from destruction. They formed a Save the Sunshine committee and argued that any redevelopment of this corner should incorporate Sunshine.
In a May 20, 1984 opinion piece, committee member and reporter VB Price discussed the proposal.
“The concept of the festival market is good and has worked well in other cities,” he said. “It could do a lot for the downtown area, as long as its life does not depend on cannibalizing what little remains of the historic downtown identity.”
The project withered on the vine and plans never materialized, leaving the building to soak up another day of sunshine. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the New Mexico State Register in 1985.
The old theater became a concert hall in the early 90s and remains today.
The hungry developers, it seems, have put down their pitchforks – for now.
Curious about how a city, street or building got its name? Email editor Elaine Briseño at [email protected] or 505-823-3965 as she continues her monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?” ”