Saving the Luna: New Mexico Theater Goes Digital

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The 1916 Mission Theater in Clayton, New Mexico, now known as the Luna Theater, has been transformed into an advanced digital cinema through a unique partnership supported by the State of New Mexico’s Economic Development Department.  A remarkable collaboration of local citizens and leaders, the Clayton MainStreet program, and state government have pulled off a minor miracle in preserving the vintage theater over the past five years.

The Historic Movie Theaters Initiative of New Mexico is a passion of Jon Barela, Cabinet Secretary for Economic Development. “Not only are these theaters major economic anchors in our Main Street districts, they are in our rural communities often the centers of family, civic, and community life,” says Barela. The department’s efforts “are to keep these theaters from going dark by assisting their conversion to digital media. In so doing we assist in maintaining the economic vitality of the district that spills over to the other businesses downtown.” Barela has plans to assist more of New Mexico’s theaters in the next couple of years.

A tiny prairie town of 3,200 determined residents on the northeastern state line, Clayton welcomes many Texas snowbirds during the winter as they travel to the New Mexico and Colorado mountains for skiing and alpine fun. Long before, Santa Fe Trail wagon caravans rumbled westward near here, and the vast buffalo plains surrounding Clayton have nurtured great herds of cattle. The stately stone Eklund Hotel was built more than 100 years ago across Main Street from the Luna Theater, and together the two landmarks have provided Clayton’s hospitality for generations.

The Luna Theater operates today as one of New Mexico’s oldest movie houses, and the state’s best preserved from the silent movie era. Prosperous merchant and rancher Morris Herzstein built the theater and the adjacent business block in 1916 after a disastrous fire wiped out his headquarters mercantile store. Built with a unique fusion of classical and Mission-style architectural elements, the Luna’s façades survive intact. The generous recessed entry foyer boasts an ornamental ceiling laced in gold paint.

The original Mission Theater and adjacent Dudley Building have housed many businesses over the years, including the “Dust Bowl” cafe in the corner storefront and a basement ballroom that hosted big bands and country crooners in the 1940s and ‘50s. Some downtowners remember roller skating in the generous basement hall.

Magical Moments

Before the Great Depression, the Mission Theater flourished and provided the magic of movies in Clayton, including memorable Christmas matinee shows offered free to children during which Santa Claus would appear and give small presents to the crowd. Hard times in the 1930s led to the creation of a remarkable cooperative booking and management company called Gibraltar Enterprises, composed of about 35 small town theaters in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Utah.

Gibraltar owner T.F. Murphy bought the Mission Theater in 1935. He installed a new sound system, heating, leather seats, and a neon marquee bearing a winking moon, and renamed the cinema complex the Luna Theater. In 2009 Town and Clayton MainStreet restored the iconic marquee, which remains one of New Mexico’s most beloved street signs.

Murphy also upgraded the auditorium with art deco light fixtures which still glow in soft red and blue auras. The grand 1935 reopening featured Shirley Temple’s The Little Colonel, and many were turned away from the sellout shows. Local girls competed for free movie passes by writing essays about the theater.

The Luna enjoyed a long and successful run under Gibraltar management until it was finally sold to Roy Dean and Nancy Leighton in 1984. Roy Dean took a job at the Luna as a film projectionist to help make ends meet for their ranching business, but soon the theater’s mystique wooed the couple, and they opened for business on January 1, 1984 with the hit film, Ghostbusters.

“We had 14 straight sellouts with Ghostbusters, and we thought we were going to be able to restore everything in the Luna,” Nancy Leighton chuckles, “but of course that didn’t happen.”

The couple gave the Luna their blood, sweat, tears, money and a whole lot more for nearly 30 years, offering Hollywood’s finest on weekends, but they struggled with a leaky roof and outdated heating system, the bane of many rural movie houses.

Teamwork Triumphs

The community of Clayton meanwhile was struggling against the growing tides of the declining cattle business, kids moving to bigger cities, global economics, and the challenges of surviving on the hardscrabble prairies of America’s heartland. By 2006, Clayton joined the New Mexico MainStreet program and created a volunteer-driven program to revitalize the downtown business district. In less than a decade, the group has completed a streetscape improvement project on Walnut Street and revived the Luna Theater as its crowning achievements.

The Town of Clayton became a development partner in the Luna Theater project in 2009 by purchasing the theater from the Leightons with the assistance of a New Mexico MainStreet capital outlay grant.

“We really were skeptical about what we were getting into with the Luna,” says Clayton’s Mayor Jack Chosvick, “but everyone involved has worked together as a team to make it a big success. It’s been a blessing for our town.”

Once the town acquired the Luna Theater complex, the community responded with thousands of hours of volunteer support. National Honor Society students from the high school worked the concessions stand for free. The Geo Group, which operates a lower security adult detention facility near Clayton, donated many inmate work crews to clean floors and realign auditorium seating to modern comfort standards. Tons of trash was removed from the basements. Union County donated a used, but still effective, boiler to the theater from its courthouse.

The Thrill of 3D

The State of New Mexico also provided additional capital outlay funding for essential upgrades. The final $100,000 state grant for the digital equipment and sound surround system was completed in May. In total, the state has contributed $630,000 to the Luna Theater project, and now the theater boasts a projection system second to none.

In the former “Dust Bowl” cafe storefront on the corner, Art Griñe operates a classic barber shop. Art worked as a projectionist at Albuquerque’s Regal 24 cinema center and decided to move his family back to their hometown about 10 years ago. When the digital conversion project first was mentioned last year, he researched equipment and companies to determine the best fit for the Luna.

In May, Sonic Equipment Company of Iola, Kansas, installed the Luna’s system, which includes 3D capability and 7.1 sound surround (with sound effects from speakers mounted at the rear auditorium). Several community residents were trained in digital projection, computer server operation, and internet delivery and monitoring.

Enjoying a 3D movie in the Luna is a bit surreal but also thrilling. The adventure begins by winking back at the friendly winking moon on the marquee, entering the theater through the classical foyer, buying some popcorn at the concession stand, and entering the cool, dark auditorium. Adjust the glasses that will transport you to a galaxy far, far, away, and the picture appears with such clarity and depth that you forget you are in an old nickelodeon theater on the New Mexico prairie.