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A Landmark—And Record—That Shaped Albuquerque Music

by Charles Westmark

Let’s talk about the Sunshine Theater.

Now a music venue, it was originally a movie theater that also operated as a vaudeville theatre and office building. While shows were happening, other clients of the building would go up the stairs to the balcony and through a door on the side of the staircase. Under the balcony was a dentist’s office, illuminating light through the crack of the door. The dentist’s name was put on the door’s glass window in gold foil.

Sunshine opened on May 1, 1924. The 1,200-seat theater is the last building in New Mexico to have a hand operated elevator system with an attendant. It also originally had an orchestra pit that was closed off in 1951 when the theatre was remodeled for the addition of a Cinemascope screen. Sunshine’s former pipe organ now resides at the military institute in Roswell, and the speaker vents in the theater were sealed off during its fifties remodel.

Sunshine 1981

Of all the buildings designed by architect Henry C. Trost, Sunshine Theater is the only one in which the original blueprints to the building are missing, though the papers for the ‘50s remodel still exist.

No French drapes remain around the proscenium and the sandbags backstage are long gone, along with the original painted backdrops that were donated to UNM’s theatre department in the 1970’s. The original marquee isn’t standing, and city council wanted to demolish the building for a tennis court around the same time that the backdrops made their way to UNM. Oh, to snoop through the storage around the Rodey Theatre. However, Sunshine’s history is still evident when standing inside.

You may have also seen the insides of the building on screen. For fans of David Bowie, there is some indication that he filmed several scenes for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) inside of the Sunshine Theater building itself.

The film, which was shot in Albuquerque, Atresia, Fenton Lake, and White Sands, was mentioned in a Facebook group called “Albuquerque History of Change: Places That We Have Lost.” The group was active from 2012-2016 and hosted by a location scouting agent of 30 years for the film industry. A November 21, 2012 post reads, “Actually the Hotel in the movie was in Artesia NM it was tallest structure in that town and similar to the old Hilton. The interiors of building that Bowie's character was held in was the Old Sunshine Theater Building.” While New Mexican connections to David Bowie could be another article entirely, this is as good of a time as any to state that history can be made in the most exciting or banal-seeming places because those are the same locations in which we find talent.

The Sunshine’s main story with music beings sometime in the late eighties when the Mexican movies that sustained it were slowly fizzling out—though it doesn’t specifically start with the theatre being stripped down to become a concert venue. Inside the Sunshine building was a recording studio known as Her Majesty’s Secret Studio, operated by Stacy Parrish, which was active from 1990 to 1993.

The only album to definitively come out of Her Majesty’s Secret Studio was the Beat Fetish! album, Is It Time? (1992). How that album came to be is American ska history.

Prior to the third wave of ska music in America, 2 Tone Records had become quite famous among cult circles, namely in coastal cities where Landmark Theaters had gotten the licensing and 35mm reels to play Dance Craze. Dance Craze was played in theaters at the auditory volume of an actual concert. This resulted in people dancing in the aisles and up on the seats, causing theater owners to want to shelf all the remaining showings. But it was many Americans’ first exposure to the music of The Specials, The English Beat, Madness, The Selecter, Bad Manners, and more.

Bands like Fishbone started emerging in the coastal cities of America. For example, Mike “Bruce Lee” Park formed Skankin’ Pickle before settling into his role of running the reputable DIY punk label Asian Man Records. (Not for nothing, when I first met Mike and told him I was from New Mexico, the first thing he did was ask me if I knew Alex De Vore, an author for the Santa Fe Reporter.) As ska was exploding, a few random bands within the heart of America followed the coasts.

Albuquerque, New Mexico had Beat Fetish!. Beat Fetish! drew many influences and sounded just as new wave and surfy as it did ska. They could have been just as influenced by Fun Boy Three as they were The Specials. The moderately chorus-y but certainly reverb-soaked guitar and energetic drums are so dance driven that the intention of the music is clear.

As Beat Fetish dissolved, the members combined with a local reggae band called Cool Runnin’s. They recorded their cassette Runnin’ Commentary live at the El Rey Theater, a mere five blocks from the Sunshine. These two bands wound up forming a new band called Giant Steps.

Giant Steps were a ska band that got big not only within the city but also managed to be a band on the X-Games tour (the extreme sports version of the Olympics that celebrated skateboarding while Tony Hawk’s games became a sensation) and were featured in a movie soundtrack in the 2000’s. It is not often a local band can sell out a reunion show decades later, but it has happened every single time for Giant Steps. Their two albums Technicolor (1996) and Feel the Thunder (1998) are among the soundtrack of my time going to shows in high school, even if I only ever saw the reunions that friends talked about for months before they even happened.

My aunt told me about seeing George Thorogood and the Destroyers on their first tour at the Kimo Theater years before the Sunshine Theater was playing music. Just like Dance Craze, it caused a shitstorm in the aisles. People lost their shit during the saxophone solos of the Destroyers and were dancing on seats and hanging from everything they could in what was surely the most anarchy the Kimo Theater could have ever seen. Or was it?

When researching the history on cinema in Albuquerque, I came across the blog of a man who is even more detail oriented than me. I found RJ Buffalo’s blog on the Sunshine, but also his blogs on Albuquerque cinema in general. One article in particular pays tribute to a theatre troupe that wound up making New Mexico it’s home after migrating here from New Zealand: Red Mole. This history is an article for another time, but for the Kimo it's another notch of blissful chaos.

Who is to say that anarchy is always chaotic—if we remove the shroud of fear we hold around it, maybe anarchy is just free.

The Sunshine Theater is now not only a venue—it’s also home to the Moonlight Lounge, which throws intimate, powerful, and successful weekly shows. Sunshine has also been home to at least two record shops and a ticket box office. I have been told that part of the basement used to be a nightclub called Hell and it’s super creepy. It has survived while the surrounding theaters have been torn down for the capitalistic gains of a parking lot, or how the grounds of the State Theater are now a pizza shop—we may never have buildings like these for movies, stage acting, or music ever again. It’s sad to see the concrete crumbling on the front of the Sunshine building, and the new concrete that is acting as a band-aid to keep it from getting worse. However, it’s amazing to think that this building has housed art and the spirit of human creation for 98 years. Within its walls lays the shape of Albuquerque music to come.

Empty marquee during COVID (June 2020). Thankful shows are now back.

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