Thursday, April 12, 2012

Stories Amazing and Wonderful and Some of Them Are True

One of the Seven Cities of Cibola as painted by Carl Von Hassler in the KiMo Theatre.

Last night we attended a New Mexico Centennial event at the KiMo Theatre in Albuquerque.

It was called "Doña Tules: Gambling Queen of Santa Fe." It was a delight.

The KiMo is a legendary Albuquerque showplace, a unique Pueblo Deco movie and live performance theatre built in 1927 and purchased by the city in 1977. After a long and arduous process, the KiMo was handsomely restored and reopened to the public in 1999. Despite the fact that I've been by the KiMo numerous times, last night was the first time I was actually inside the theatre, and given all the hub and bub of the event, I didn't have much time to explore and enjoy what's been done to it. From what I saw of it, anyway, it really is a fine place, and like so much else in Abq (aka "'Burque") it's warm and inviting and quirky.

Pueblo Deco is not exactly a well-known style for movie palaces -- and for good reason. Pueblos are not exactly palaces, and the style of the pueblo doesn't adapt well to the "palatial" concept. To see it adapted to a pretty standard 1920's (small) movie theater template is remarkable. Some of it works. Other aspects, not so much. But that's OK because what doesn't work so well is still charming, and it is the charm of the KiMo that captivates.

The KiMo today is the home-place for certain types of performances and special movies in Albuquerque much as the Lensic is in Santa Fe. That means it's not really a commercial venue, though commercial films and shows do appear. But then you also get something like this:


And last night the KiMo was the home-place for "Doña Tules: Gambling Queen of Santa Fe." I had heard of this character, of course, but only in passing, as one of the many historical characters of New Mexico, though perhaps she is the most prominent woman in New Mexico's long history. In a strange sense, her story reminds me somewhat of that of La Malinche who served as intermediary, translator and lover to Cortez in his conquest of the Aztecs.

La Malinche is maligned in many quarters to this day, for her service to Cortez was a chief factor in the destruction of the Aztec empire and the conquest of Mexico -- which led to the enslavement and death of many millions of indigenous people of the Americas. Of course to the Spanish, she's a hero, practically a saint. It all depends on your point of view, doesn't it?

Doña Tules has a somewhat less polarizing reputation, at least so far as I know, and that's not saying much at this point. There is so much I don't know about New Mexico history! And I often think that's probably for the best. For very often what you think you know is simply wrong. And the stories you're told are probably fabrications, pious frauds, or joyful deceptions.

The point about the story of Tules's life as presented last night on stage at the KiMo and in much of the literature about her is that she was a key player -- perhaps the key player -- in the "bloodless" conquest of New Mexico during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. For it was through her agency and with considerable contributions of her money (gained through gambling hall and reputed bordello operation in Santa Fe) that the Mexican governor of Nuevo Mexico, Manuel Armijo, was convinced not to oppose the American military invasion of New Mexico and withdrew to Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1846 with his 75 dragoons rather than fight General Kearney and his 1,700 well-armed troops. Doña Tules it was, supposedly, who raised the American flag over the Plaza in Santa Fe proclaiming her delight in the American conquest.


How much of the story is true, I don't know. Nor, I think, does anyone. Needless to say, the American conquest was not without incident by any means, and a revolt in Taos in 1847 was brutally put down with much cruelty, bloodshed and destruction among the locals. The Americans were victorious in that odd way of Victory in New Mexico. Meanwhile Taos seems to have recovered smartly.

As for Doña Tules, her reputation is maligned and celebrated in turn. She is buried "under the floor" of the Basilica Cathedral of St. Francis in Santa Fe, formerly the site of "La Parroquia", but I'm not sure of the exact location as I haven't been inside Bishop Lamy's Cathedral and probably wouldn't know where to look if I had been. She was a great benefactor to the Church, and she is said to be the last person actually buried there, but seems to me that the Archbishop Lamy was buried in the Cathedral when he died in 1888. ("La Parroquia" was an adobe church built on the site of the present stone Cathedral some time after the Pueblo Revolt. The Cathedral was built around it, and when the exterior of St. Francis Cathedral was complete, La Parroquia was dismantled and carried out the front door brick by brick, viga by viga, bultos, retablos and all. One, called "La Conquistadora" has a shrine unto herself in the Cathedral. She was brought to Santa Fe in 1624, miraculously survived the Pueblo Revolt and was taken along with the Spanish refugees to El Paso, and ultimately returned in triumph with the de Vargas reconquista expedition. Well, that's the story anyway.)

Maybe Doña Tules was the last person buried inside La Parroquia.

She was maligned in her own time, and she was celebrated last night in song and story. Many kudos to VanAnn Moore as La Doña and to Andre Garcia-Nuthman whose piano and vocal accompaniment and occasional solo performances were outstanding. Some of their performance was based on scenes in the musical pageant-play, "Doña Tules: Gambling Queen of Hearts," (alternate titles, "Viva Santa Fé!" and "New Mexico, the epic musical of Doña Tules, Queen of Hearts") which is the kind of thing that gets done in this country to celebrate the multi-hundredth anniversary of some geopolitical event. In New Mexico, that's the 400th Anniversary of Santa Fé's founding (thought to be in 1609 or maybe 1610), the 300th Anniversary of the founding of Albuquerque (recorded in 1706), and the 100th Anniversary of New Mexico statehood -- which as every school-child knows was in 1912, the same year as the sinking of the Titanic.

Did I learn anything last night? Oh, sure. First, that there are endless stories to tell and re-tell in New Mexico, and there is no definitive version of any of them; second, that VanAnn Moore and Andre Garcia-Nuthman are having the time of their lives creating characters from New Mexico history and presenting them to audiences all over the state, the country and abroad. I learned that there are many false stories about Doña Tules and perhaps only a few true ones. The beauty of her character is that she can be presented as either a victim or victor much as New Mexico and its people can be. I learned that the KiMo has been nicely restored and renovated, that it is quirky and welcoming, and that not every technical aspect works perfectly all the time (and I won't belabor the point; there were snafus.)

And I learned that I've been away from the theater too long...

¡Viva Nuevo Mexico!

KiMo documentary from Colores


  1. When I saw this post, I reached for my bookshelf and pulled down Movie Palaces: Survivors of an Elegant Era, by Ave Pildas. There were some detail pictures of the KiMo because the book was published in 1980 and the KiMo was in a sad state of disrepair at that time. The book covers 14 Movie Palaces and has some spectacular photographs. I thought the video was good, as those types of videos go, but I wonder about the reality behind the gloss. The late 1920s and the 1930s were tough times - where is the balance? Maybe we aren't supposed to dwell on the harsh reality - maybe its better to get lost in the magic of Movie Palaces.

  2. I hadn't seen the inside of the KiMo before this event, though I've been in many other movie palaces. This place is not like most of them at all, and from what I can tell, it served as a community center as much as a movie (and vaudeville) site all through the '30's.

    It still does.

    It reminds me most of some small neighborhood theaters from the era, though it is dolled up with some pretty spectacular art -- the murals are wonderful, and the decor is... well, unique!

    But it's not very big -- neither was Albuquerque when it was built -- and there was lots more than "just a movie theater" at the KiMo back in the day. It was a civic/community destination. It's location on Central (aka Route 66) meant that it was also potentially a destination for everyone who passed through town.

    During the Dust Bowl, that was a lot of people...