The historic KiMo Theater in the heart of downtown Albuquerque is one of Southwest’s most unusual and recognizable structures. Built to showcase both movies and live performances, it opened in 1927, the same year the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, was released.
The KiMo’s distinctive architectural style is known as Pueblo Deco. Briefly popular in the 1920s and 1930s and confined to this part of the country, it is a fusion of traditional southwestern elements including geometric shapes with softly rounded corners, Native American symbolism and the sleek Streamline Moderne style that was all the rage at the time.
The theater was commissioned by Oreste and Maria Bachechi, successful entrepreneurs who immigrated to the US from Italy in 1884. The Bachechis didn’t want to build just any old theater. They dreamed of creating something spectacular, a palatial building that would evoke the fantasy realm of the movies and celebrate the variety of cultures that called the Southwest home.
They hired famous Los Angeles architect Carl Boller who traveled through New Mexico’s pueblos for months before finalizing his design. The Bachechis loved Boller’s plans and work on the new building began in 1926.
The residents of Albuquerque stood in awe as they watched the building take shape. This is how a handout available at the theater office describes the original décor:
"The interior included plaster ceiling beams to mimic actual wood vigas, colorful Indian symbols, air vents disguised as hanging Navajo rugs, Native American death canoe chandeliers, wrought iron bird railings, shields and buffalo skulls with glowing red eyes."
There was more. A German émigré and artist named Carl von Hassler painted a series of beautiful murals in the lobby and the upstairs mezzanine depicting the Seven Cities of Gold, also known as the Seven Cities of Cibola. It was rumors of the vast riches hidden in these legendary cities that lured Conquistador Francisco Coronado into the territory that became New Mexico.
The use of Native American symbolism, themes and colors was not limited to the building’s interior spaces. The exterior was extravagantly adorned with shields of New Mexico’s Pueblos and geometric motifs in brilliant colors that glowed like neon in the intense desert sun.
The theater’s elaborate opening night festivities were held on September 19, 1927. An overflow crowd marveled at the wonderful building and watched singers and dancers from local pueblos perform what one newspaper described as “mystic rites never before seen on the stage.”
September 19 was also the night the theater’s official name was revealed. Pablo Abeita, Governor of Isleta Pueblo, won a $50 grand prize for suggesting the name KiMo, a word he made up by combining two other words of the Tewa dialect. It means King of its Kind.
Over the years countless vaudeville acts and celebrities from Gloria Swanson to Harvey, The Beer Drinking Bull appeared at the KiMo. When a live show wasn’t playing, Albuquerque’s movie fans settled into the comfortable seats to munch on buttery popcorn and enjoy musicals, war pictures, westerns, newsreels and cartoons.
The KiMo’s audiences along with its fortunes began to decline in the 1960s. By the mid-1970s it was showing low-budget adult films to a handful of scruffy patrons. In 1977 it was scheduled for demolition. It seemed the final curtain was about to fall, a sad ending to a once vibrant theater’s career. But in a real life plot twist worthy of Cecil B. DeMille, the cavalry in the form of the City of Albuquerque saved the day by buying the rundown old building.
In a roundabout way the earlier destruction of two iconic downtown hotels may have saved the KiMo. The Alvarado and Franciscan, both beautiful and historically significant downtown landmarks, were razed early in the 1970s despite public outcry. Burquenos, who almost 50 years after the hotels’ destruction still mourn their loss, whole-heartedly supported the city’s intervention on behalf of the theater.
Thanks to careful preservation and restoration efforts the KiMo is once again drawing crowds. On the National Register of Historic Places, it is a venue for concerts, lectures, live theater and the screening of classic movies. Due to its architectural and historic importance it is also an attraction in its own right and well worth a visit.
The décor is staggering in its intensity, complexity and quirkiness. Some visitors are put off by the buffalo skulls. Rest assured the skulls we see today are plaster replicas. The originals disintegrated and were removed decades ago.
Another point of contention relates to the swastikas that appear throughout the building. The swastika is an ancient symbol that had positive connotations for many cultures including the Navajo. It’s important to remember the swastikas in the KiMo date from the mid-1920s before the symbol was forever linked with Hitler and the Third Reich.
Like many other theaters around the world, the KiMo is haunted. But unlike other venues, the ghost is not a scorned Victorian actress, disgruntled Hamlet understudy or overly loyal employee who refuses to leave his post. The KiMo’s ghost is a small boy. His name is Bobby Darnall.
Bobby, along with one thousand other people, came to the KiMo on the afternoon of Thursday, August 2, 1951 to watch comedians Abbott and Costello in Comin’ Round the Mountain. He and two of his friends were sitting in the balcony watching a short documentary called They Fly with the Fleet when the sudden piercing wail of a siren, part of the film, frightened the boy. He jumped up, ran out of the auditorium and careened down the stairs. Just as he reached the lobby, a boiler beneath the staircase exploded. Although several people were seriously injured, Bobby Darnall was the only fatality. He was six years old.
Reports of supernatural activity in the KiMo did not surface until almost 25 years later. In 1974 all sorts of problems began plaguing live stage shows. Lightbulbs exploded, props and costumes disappeared then reappeared in odd places and actors forgot their lines at critical moments. Cleaning crews began seeing a little boy crouching on the stairs or flitting through the shadows backstage.
The mysterious incidents were soon linked to Bobby Darnell and it wasn't long before box office staff found a way to calm his restless spirit. After uneaten pieces of pastry disappeared from the office several times, they suspected Bobby might be the culprit. They were right. As long as a few doughnuts were left in conspicuous spots, things remained quiet and the shows went off without a hitch.
Unfortunately the doughnuts attracted more than a little ghost with a sweet tooth. A steady stream of cockroaches and ants made their way from the back alley to feast on the offerings. So the doughnuts were replaced by a non-edible shrine located in an alcove backstage. To this day wise actors leave a small toy or personal memento at Bobby’s shrine prior to going on stage at the KiMo. Better safe than sorry.
Plan Your Visit
The KiMo Theater
Celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2017, the KiMo is located at 423 Central Avenue SW on the corner of Central and Fifth in downtown Albuquerque. The phone number is 505-768-3522. Visit their website for information on upcoming shows, movies and other events as well as ticket information. You can find out about theater tours here.
The two buildings pictured at the beginning of this article can also be visited.
The Special Collections Branch of the Albuquerque Public Library
This beautifully preserved 1925 Pueblo style structure has an amazing open main room that has been appeared in the TV show Better Call Saul as a law firm lobby. The library is located at 423 Central Avenue NE, 505-848-1376. Visit their website here. (The KiMo and the library have the same street number on Central, but the theater is downtown and the library is further east. Note the SW and NE qualifiers in their adresses.)
The Route 66 Diner
Located at 1405 Central Avenue NE this former Phillips 66 gas station was built in 1946. It was converted into a diner in 1987. The building burned in 1995 and was rebuilt 1996 maintaining as much as posible of the Streamline Moderne style. Take a look at their menu and find out more about this nostalgic Route 66 eatery here.