Albuquerque's Second Skyscraper.
Enjoying a Marble Brewery Pale Ale while watching a reggae, hip-hop, or rock concert at Sunshine Theater is an experience that most people fail to appreciate for many reasons. First, some locals may think that the venue quality of Sunshine Theater is not as good as other venues downtown. Second, the aging building maintenance by current management is considered non-existent by some locals1. Third, many lack any other historical knowledge about the building besides the use of a concert hall by locals. So, this essay is an attempt to give a greater understanding to importance of the Sunshine Building to the local community, visitors to Albuquerque, as well as the future generations who will either continue to enjoy it and fight for its survival or allow for its ultimate demise.
The Sunshine building is most famously known to some as “Albuquerque’s original cinematic palace 2.” However, it is important to look at the overall influence that the construction of the Sunshine “theatre” had on the history of Albuquerque alongside being one of the city’s first movie theaters. Before the Sunshine building was built, it was located on what was known as The White Elephant which was a saloon that closed down in 1920 due to prohibition3. The saloon was owned by Joseph Barnett who moved to New Mexico from New York in 1883 and was involved in real estate until he eventually became a local entertainment entrepreneur whom, at one point, owned most of the city’s theaters3. Barnett then went on to hire noted architect Henry C. Trost of Trost & Trost in El Paso to build Sunshine Theatre which would include a 920 seat theater and become the second ‘sky scraper’ in downtown Albuquerque 4.
The theater was built in a symmetrical Beaux Arts style not unlike the detailing that its architect Henry Trost had given to the new bank, a block west on Central Avenue” and incorporated into a two-part vertical block, the theater’s marquee and entry provided a visual base to the building with the five story vertical shaft rising above to the decorative cornice capping the building4. In addition to the building was a neon Sunshine sign which was later added to the facade and created the classic ‘American home-town’ feeling when visiting the theatre. Another notable historical fact in the building of the ‘Sunshine theatre’ is that Trost also led southwest construction techniques with the use of reinforced concrete as a construction material which was then covered with the yellow brick and is the facade that currently exists today4. Also, the building included an attendant operated elevator used for patrons viewing the from the balcony of the ‘theatre’ which is what gave the building historic value, along with the oak lobby boasts and facade, when it was registered for the National Registrar of Historic Places in 1985 2.
The building also includes offices on the upper levels of the building that housed F.D. Fogg and Company, a fine jewelry retailer that closed in 19705 and was also the site of the first meetings of Congregation B’nai Israel which connects the building to history of the current day New Mexico Historical Jewish Society6. The theatre continued to show films in to the 1960s when the interior was almost completely remodeled to allow an installation of a large movie screen for feature film screenings.
‘It was there that I would watch Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd and Mae West and the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton and WC Fields. It was there that I discovered such trivial but thoroughly enjoyable junk as Libeled Lady and It Happened One Night and North by Northwest and so forth. Delightful days. I enjoyed myself. It was sad that so few people showed up. In an auditorium the size of the Carlsbad Caverns, it was disheartening that the typical audience was only a dozen or so people7.’
Sunshine remained in operation until 1974 when the theatre stopped showing first-run movies but then eventually closed its doors as a movie theatre in 1980 and was seriously threatened with demolition in 1984 8.
The efforts to save the iconic Sunshine building were finally appeased when the city declared it as a historic landmark in 1985. The final renovation to the building came in 1990s when the theatre was renovated its current day purpose in the downtown which is a live music performance venue and has hosted some well-known acts such as: Strokes, Snoop Dogg, Stone Temple Pilots, The Smashing Pumpkins, Modest Mouse, Rancid, Coheed and Cambria, Social Distortion, Deftones, Deadmau5, and many others9.
Sunshine Building Today
Today, due to the building’s size, the Sunshine has two business addresses for the north entrance and businesses on the west facing section of the building. A quick google search will reveal that is now a concert stage for artists visiting Albuquerque and is one of the most popular venues in town10. More specifically important to the youth, as it is one of the few underage concert venues in town.
The images of above are of historic Sunshine Building in 1940s and current day Sunshine Building in 2015.
Further searching on a google will also reveal yelp reviews of the venues current condition which include: sound quality in theater being really bad, restrooms falling apart, venue layout being too small for crowds that tickets sales allow, the balcony not being opened for concerts, and the most commented on was the customer service given by staff, bartenders, and security in the venue1. One review, from a resident that moved to Albuquerque, praised the small venue sized because it is much more of an intimate setting which allows for anyone in the theater to have the opportunity to be in the front row of any concert and makes for more of a memorable experience. Furthermore, if any patron goes early or stays after the concert, then there is a chance that they can get a glimpse or even a picture with the band or artist through the back stage entrance that leads out on to the street11.
However, the building facade is a depiction of the decades that the building has seen through the aging yellow bricks that cover majority of the building. The window ornaments that were added in the 1950s to the facade of the building cover up window trimmings that are from the original construction in the 1920s. Also, the once vibrant neon sign that was attached to main entrance of the building was sold to a museum by the late owners of the building7 and has since then taken away the classic ‘American home-town’ feeling from that section of downtown central.
Also, There are not many photos of the old movie theatre that existed in the current music venue and one of the few is only of an exit sign that was pictured in a news article advertising its opening in May of 1924. The last remaining detail of the old theatre is the balcony but is not always open to the public during events at the venue. Furthermore, some might even argue that the current design of the Century 14 Downtown is an attempt to represent of the classic movie theatre days which is ironic being that the Sunshine Theatre is just around corner and was originally where the movie theater industry in Albuquerque ordinated.
The most recent headline of the Sunshine Building in the news was a graffiti incident that occurred in 2015 when vandals climbed to the top of the building and defaced the building’s facade. The news article explains that concerns of the buildings historic value and height of the building would make it difficult to clean up the graffiti 12. Other than this article in the news, there is not much references about the historic value of the Sunshine Building to the city of Albuquerque which is only solidified upon visiting the theater for a concert and seeing the shambles the building is in versus the prestige it once held.
Sunshine Building in the future
Overall, the theater and moonlight lounge remain a main staple of the Sunshine Building and seems to not be facing any decline within the next chapters of downtown Albuquerque13; but, as a fellow Albuquerquen, it is easy to wonder when the next challenge will come to the Sunshine Theater that will be the metaphorical straw that will break the camel’s back. As a city, we should band together to create a new narrative for what downtown as well as all of Albuquerque means to us and this means advocating for city projects that will include items like restoration of historical sites, more art projects to make our streets beautiful, and actual histories of the city written by people from the city. Until then, people will going about their way downtown without noticing the Sunshine Buildings importance until be any threats come the buildings way and will ultimately determine whether the building is as important as it once was to Albuquerque.
‘Sunshine Theater Albuquerque.’yelp.com, 2014. ↩ ↩2
‘Sunshine Building Albuquerque.’ city-data.com, 2017. ↩ ↩2
‘Sunshine Building.’ Historic ABQ Inc., 1999. ↩ ↩2
Kammer Ph. D., David. ‘The Historical Development of Motion Picture Theaters in New Mexico, 1905-1960.’Nmhistoricpreservation.org, April 2006. ↩ ↩2 ↩3
‘Jewelry store closing after 83 years in ABQ.’ Albuquerque Journal, December 2004. ↩
‘2014 Conference.’ New Mexico Jewish Historical Society 2014. ↩
Sandhu, Ranjit. ‘The Sunshine Theatre: A Most Informal and Personal Story.’ rjbuffalo.com, 2009. ↩ ↩2
‘Sunshine Theatre and Office Building.’Henrytrost.org, 1990. ↩
‘About Sunshine Theater.’ Sunshinetheaterlive.com, 2017. ↩
‘Sunshine Building.’ Wikipedia, 2017. ↩
Chavez, Lorilei. Personal Account: At a Tribal Seeds concert in March 15, 2015, I was able to watch the show front row and meet the band as they were loading their tour bus at the end of the show. ↩
McKee, Chris. ‘Historic ABQ building hit with graffiti.’ KRQE News, February 23, 2015. ↩
Vogal, Joe. ‘Sunshine Theatre.’ Cinema Treasures.org, 2006. ↩