By Richard McCord

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There is talk of a brand-new 14-screen, state-of-the-art movie multiplex on Santa Fe's burgeoning south side. The news brought this writer a rush of memories about the "bad old days" of film-going in this town. And lemme tell you: They were BAD.

When I arrived here in 1971, Santa Fe had just two indoor theaters, the Lensic and the El Paseo, practically next-door to each other downtown on San Francisco Street. On Cerrillos Road were two drive-ins, the Yucca and the Pueblo. In the Pen Road strip mall was an X-rated house. St. John's College had an art-film program on weekends. And that was just about it.

But the scarcity of screens was only the beginning of Santa Fe's film woes back then. Both downtown theaters and one drive-in were run by the small Commonwealth Theaters group, which treated this city like an unwanted, unloved stepchild.

Most movies that came here were B-grade clunkers that few people had ever heard of. The occasional major title that found its way to town usually arrived months or even a year or more after its national release-presumably because booking them then was cheaper. I filed reviews from newsmagazines and the Albuquerque papers, to remind me what such movies were about.

On the occasions when I did go to a movie here, I often wished I hadn't. the prints usually were scratchy, streaked and spliced, from being old and used. But the worst thing of all was Commonwealth's custom of stopping films in midstream-often in mid-sentence-at the end of a reel, to impose a false popcorn break on the audience. It was enough to ruin a movie.

Every house in the country had figured out by the 1930s how to synchronize reels to give an uninterrupted show. But commonwealth pretened it didn't have the technology to do that. At one film that jarred midway to a halt, an audience member, obviously a stranger to town, cried out: "I can't believe this!" Someone else replied: "Welcome to Santa Fe!"

The drive-ins also showed old film, and one of the theaters closed for winter. Fleeing to St. John's didn't help much, either. Although the films were well chosen, visibility was terrible in the flat-floored room, and the students would try to impress each other by making quips to the actors onscreen.

Believe it or not, I never checked out the X-rated place.

Some slight relief came when Commonwealth opened the two-screen Coronado Twin in the Cordova Road shopping center and shut down the El Paseo. But this little duplex was so flimsily constructed that sounds form one movie could be heard in the other hall, as could noise from the adjacent bowling alley. And these brand-new theaters kept up the false intermissions.

The local movie scene did not really begin to improve until a maverick independent named Ralph Lindell opened a two-screen house at De Vargas Mall in 1974. Bidding fiercely for first-run movies, and also booking innovative filmfests and classics requested by his audience, he finally brought Santa Fe into the modern movie era.

Facing competition, Commonwealth cleaned up its act as well, dropping the intermissions and updating its selection. And though Lindell eventually sold out to his rival, things never reverted to the bad old ways.

The rest of the 1970s and then the 1980s brought more improvements. The most significant was the opening of the Collective Fantasy (in the theater now named the Jean Cocteau) by a brave young group of idealists determined to give Santa Fe its first true art-film house. An array of foreigh-language and low-budget independent films, too small to be of interest to the big boys, added delicious richness to the local mix.

Today ours is a terrific movie town, with some two dozen screens, long-run current releases, art theaters, ambitious offbeat programs, and more. And soon, it seems, a new multiplex. But lemme tell you-we didn't always have it so good.

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