Don Pancho's Art Theatre
2108 Central Avenue SE,
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Previously operated by: Art Theatre Guild of America, Inc., Movie, Inc.
Architects: Jr. Frank William Scheer
Previous Names: Don Pancho's Arts Theater
This was a storefront conversion that first opened as a movie theatre on Friday, April 14, 1961. Don Pancho’s Arts Theater, as it was then called, was the brainchild of Don Dee Dunham and Frank William “Pancho” Scheer, Junior, who owned and operated it as independents. About four weeks after opening, Dunham quit, leaving Scheer the burden of handling not only his construction firm by day, but Don Pancho’s by night.
Don Pancho’s was not Albuquerque’s first “art house.” That honor goes to the Mission Theatre downtown, which alternated between mainstream and “art films” from 1936 through 1941. We also need to keep in mind the various nonprofit film societies that leased space at various halls at UNM beginning in 1940. Beginning in 1952, the Lobo Theatre began more and more to concentrate on foreign and off-beat movies, but it was Pancho Scheer, enamored of “artsy” films, who turned the tide and opened his tiny little cinema directly across the street from the university. He was an instant success and, intentionally or not, he stole much of the Lobo Theatre’s audience away. His personal life soon took a tragic turn and that is when he decided that he wanted out. He put the building and the business on the market, and that is how Louis K. Sher’s Art Theatre Guild of America, Inc., took over programming on Friday, 8/3/1962. Sher changed the name slightly to Don Pancho’s Art Theatre.
It was under Scher’s ownership that Don Pancho’s briefly became a haven for underground midnight shows, which presented works by Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Richard Hillard, Robert Nelson, Bruce Conner, the Kuchar brothers, Bruce Baillie, among others. It was for those films that a Bell & Howell FilmoArc was purchased.
As the 1960’s were drawing to a close, product became scarce, forcing the Art Theatre Guild to begin endless repeat bookings. The Art Theatre Guild soon gave up and switched mostly to porn and second run. In 1971, when The Guild up the street, operated by a new DBA called Movie, Inc., began to imitate the repertory programming that was so successful for Dan Talbot’s New Yorker in NYC, the Art Theatre Guild went into competition. Beginning in January 1973, The Guild and Don Panchos’s were running almost identical programming, and by August 1974 the Art Theatre Guild gave up the fight and sold Don Pancho’s to Albuquerque’s porn empire, the Madowhy Corp., which brought in entirely random programming: oldies and second run and hardcore and foreign product. Madowhy’s reign was brief, from Wednesday, August 21, 1974, through Sunday, March 16, 1975. After legal battles, Madowhy surrendered and allowed the sale to Movie, Inc., to go through.
Albuquerque now had two small repertory houses, but when Movie, Inc., attempted to expand even further to the Screening Room Twin downtown, on Friday, February 13, 1976, the owners realized they had overreached. In a mere eleven weeks they abandoned the Screening Room. Money was so tight that they were compelled to close The Guild a little over a year later, though the closure was temporary and lasted only a few years. The owners slashed the budget for Don Pancho’s in every way conceivable.
On April 29, 1982, the entire Movie, Inc., chain was bought out by the Landmark Theatre Corporation of California, and the Movie, Inc., owners found themselves Landmark executives. Business at Don Pancho’s took a downturn and the building was placed on the market in September 1985. A sale fell through, but Bill Neal of Dallas purchased both Don Pancho’s and The Guild in late-March 1987. He was not successful. On Monday, January 18, 1988, Don Pancho’s and The Guild both went dark.
Joseph Esposito, a Tucson lawyer, purchased Don Pancho’s and The Guild and re-opened them on Friday, April 15, 1988, but could not make a go of the venture. He closed the two houses in March 1989.
Though Don Pancho’s specialized in foreign fare, independent fare, and older fare, which mandated that the operation use a full range of film formats, it was set up only with widescreen, specifically 1:1.66. That rendered many films entirely incoherent. Anamorphic films were run with undersized apertures. Because of the placement of the exit door, the screen was installed about two feet left of center. The machines were purchased used in 1961 and by the 1970’s the Brenkert picture heads and the Simplex SH-1000 sound heads were leaking badly. By the 1970’s, the Bell & Howell FilmoArc (converted to xenon) was malfunctioning and the AC drive motor was over-speeding wildly. Rather than take it in for repairs, management decided to get rid of it altogether.
The throw was 81.5 feet and the screen was nine feet tall. There was a tiny platform in front of the screen that in early-1963 was several times used for concerts by the Rafiel Trio. In March 1964, the vanishingly small platform was once used for a children’s play.
The original booth operation was carbon arc and manual-change-over 2,000' reels. In January 1973, during a five-day closure, a primitive change-over system was installed together with 6,000' reel arms, and the warning bells were removed. That is when the Peerless Magnarc lamps were converted to xenon.
The sightlines were poor, and on a crowded night, it was difficult to see over the heads of the people in front of you. Despite published reports, there were only 238 seats with a center aisle. Don Pancho’s did not provide musical accompaniment for silent prints. Those prints were run dead silent. The only sounds one could hear were those made by the audience, on top of the conversations in the lobby, the popcorn machine popping away, the traffic outside, and the clatter of the projectors.
For all its faults, Don Pancho’s had an easy-going laid-back atmosphere that attracted many regulars. The audience’s favorite employee was Lela Abbin, or Mrs. A, as everybody called her. She was the elderly ticket-taker, born in 1905, who was hired in 1961 and whose integrity and honesty were unquestioned. She was a delightful conversationalist, and some people paid for tickets not to see the movie, but just for the pleasure of spending time chatting with her.
The former theatre has since been gutted and remodeled, first as a tattoo parlour, then a CDB shop and by 2022 it is the Iron Café restaurant. Nothing remains of the former theatre interior.
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