Don Pancho's Art Theatre

2108 Central Avenue SE,
Albuquerque, NM 87106

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Additional Info

Previously operated by: Art Theatre Guild of America, Inc., Movie, Inc.

Architects: Jr. Frank William Scheer

Functions: Café, Restaurant, Restaurant

Previous Names: Don Pancho's Arts Theater

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Don Pancho's Art Theatre former storefront in July 2019

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.

Contributed by Ranjit Sandhu

Recent comments (view all 6 comments)

rivest266 on February 8, 2023 at 5:27 pm

teaser grand opening ad posted.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 9, 2023 at 1:33 am

The Rocky Horror Wiki lists Don Pancho’s Art Theatre as the eighth known house to launch a weekly midnight showing of that now-classic movie. Don Pancho’s run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show began in March, 1977. Let’s do the time warp again.

rjbuffalo on February 10, 2023 at 4:29 pm

The March 1977 date cited by the Rocky Horror Wiki is a bit off. The Rocky Horror Picture Show had its Albuquerque premiere at The Guild on Friday, April 8, 1977, and it ran two weeks through Thursday, April 21, 1977, regular shows only, not midnights. The midnight showings began at Don Pancho’s on Fri/Sat, January 27/28, 1978, and continued every Friday and Saturday until the cinema was closed. Its last show there was Sat/Sun, January 16/17, 1988, a decade-long run. By that time, I had left the state and did not keep up with things. I understand that RHPS went to The Mall at the Wyoming shopping center for a while and that it then moved to the Lobo, but I never witnessed any of that and, by that time, I no longer cared.

My first viewing was Sat/Sun, April 15/16, 1978. The audience members were extremely rowdy, nearly all were dressed as various characters in the film, a few of them so perfectly that they were indistinguishable from the characters on screen. Everybody was puffing marijuana the whole time, and, because of the way the building was ventilated, I got the draft. That is how I learned that what our teachers taught us in school is false: second-hand marijuana smoke is not psychoactive at all, but it does stink like all get-out. Staffers suggested that I not lower the lights ahead of starting the movie. I took their advice and then I understood why they had made that suggestion. The instant the image hit the screen, there was a reflexive synchronized 238-person roar that could be heard in the next county.

David_Schneider on February 16, 2023 at 8:31 pm

rjbuffalo/Ranjit Sandhu,

Thank you for creating this listing.

While preparing to visit the Guild Cinema during a trip to New Mexico in July 2019, I saw the Don Pancho’s Art Theatre mentioned on the Guild’s Cinema Treasures page.

In January 2020 I attempted to write a description myself using what I could find on the internet but felt dissatisfied with how it was turning out, so I put it aside and life went on.

Yours is much better, detailed and based on firsthand experience.

I hope you create listings for other Albuquerque cinemas that are still missing from Cinema Treasures.

rjbuffalo on February 22, 2023 at 7:11 am

Hi David, thanks for the compliment. I hope more people pitch in with their memories not just of movies attended, but of the personnel, the businesses, the finances, and any peculiar happenings, and heaven knows there were a few! Yes, eventually I’ll write up some more cinemas. I know of 22 that are not yet on Cinema Treasures. I regret not having done all this research in the 1970’s when so many important people were still alive.

David_Schneider on March 1, 2023 at 8:31 pm

While researching the description I decided not to post as I mentioned in my February 16th, 2023 comment, I encountered Ranjit Sandhu’s/rjbuffalo’s voluminous informative website about Albuquerque cinemas. His first chapter on the Don Pancho’s includes a color photo at the top, while a black and white photo is in the upper right-hand corner of a collage of Albuquerque theaters in his second chapter.

Compare these to a photo of mine I have uploaded of the storefront as it was during my trip to New Mexico in July 2019 – the marquee is still there!

The description I never posted was to end with:

“In 2019 Iron Cafe, an Asian restaurant, became the latest business to occupy the theatre’s former space – but the rectangular sign that was the Don Pancho’s marquee still projects over the sidewalk.”

In April 2022 it is still viewable on Google Maps.

In addition, I appreciate Ranjit’s paragraphs on “The Demise of Cinema” about the sense of community small art cinemas could invoke in the 1960’s and 70’s that in today’s age of smartphones is mostly gone.

On Ranjit’s webpage there is also a list of and some descriptions for Albuquerque cinemas that are yet to have entries on Cinema Treasures.

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