Loma Theater to close after more than 75 years

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Today marks another closure of the Loma, Socorro’s only movie theater.

Unfortunately, it may well be its last demise.

Karen Bailey-Bowman — El Defensor Cheiftain: John Armijo threads 33 mm film into the Loma Theater’s original 1950s era projector. Armijo and his family, including sister-in-law Bessie Moya, have managed the theater for almost 50 years. They and the Loma will be retired from service — perhaps permanently — when the theater closes today.

After five years of trying to make a go of it, owner Todd Bloomhuff of Bloomhuff Theaters has called it quits. The Nevada-based theater operator is unwilling to invest the $40,000 needed to convert the circa-1950s 35 mm projector to a modern digital system, according to his landlord, First State Bank’s Holm Bursum, III.

For some time, the number of movie titles available in 35 mm film has been declining, and Bloomhuff said that on March 1, his source for these films had stopped distributing them altogether, according to Bursum.

“You can’t get 35 mm film anymore. Everybody told us a year ago,” Bursum said. “He held out to the bitter end.”

Recently, even manager Bessie Moya had no idea which movie they would be able to get for the week until it showed up on Thursday, making advertising the theater’s second-run flicks impossible.

Bloomhuff could not be reached for comment.

The original Loma Theater opened in 1937 in the building now occupied by Gamble’s Tru-Value Hardware Store. The theater burned in 1956, and then relocated to its present location in the old Price-Lowenstein Mercantile building next to First State Bank in 1958 when The National Guard Armory located there moved to new digs on Highway 60. Owner Les Dollison leased the former armory site, remodeling it extensively for use as a theater. In 1959, Tony Jaramillo took the reins as manager, a post he and his family would hold until 1974.

In 1972, First State Bank bought the building from the state of New Mexico, and remodeled the Loma again ten years later, reducing the number of seats to reflect a trend of declining attendance resulting from the arrival of movies on tape and cable TV.

In 1988, the Loma closed briefly after the death of Dollison, but Leah and Jonathan Kahn took over, soldiering on until 1992, when they sold it to the Trans-Lux Corporation. Trans-Lux sold the theater to the investment firm Marwit Capital in 2008, which chose to close the theater. Bloomhuff bought the theater and re-opened it as the New Loma Stadium Theater in 2009 after First State Bank had completely refurbished it, replacing the screen and installing reclining seats set on a sloped floor.

Bursum knew the bank would not be able to recoup its investment, but he couldn’t bear the idea of Socorro without a first-rate movie house.

“We spent quite a bit of money on re-decorating,” Bursum said. “It’s really not a money maker for us to own the theater. Having a theater is an important part of the community. It’s in the same category as having a local newspaper and radio station.”

Bursum said he has been searching for someone to keep the Loma alive, but so far there have been no takers, even though he is willing to loan the money needed to convert to digital, or even rent the building just on weekends.

First State Bank Executive Assistant Cindy Lam said she talked to the Socorro Chamber of Commerce, but no one in the business community was willing to take on the project.

“It’s so much a part of Socorro history,” she said. “But it’s going to take some people with a love of community.”

Bursum hasn’t given up hope yet, though.

“We would talk to any group that’s interested,” he said. “We own the building and all the equipment in it. We are interested in Socorro’s not losing its only movie theater.”

In the old days, the Loma was much more than just a place to watch a movie. It was a community gathering place for the town’s youth.

Long-time Socorro resident Gina dello Russo remembers crazy contests in the 1960s. Then, the Jaramillos held indoor foot races during the popular weekend matinees nearly every kid in town attended.

“I do remember the races at intermission,” she said. “It was like the running of the bulls. They’d say go and all the kids would run down the aisle and across the front of the stage and back up the other aisle. Whoever made it there first got a free popcorn — it was always the bigger kids, of course. It was always funny to watch. It was chaos.”

Lorraine’s Hair Salon owner, Lorraine Montoya, whose business shares the building with the Loma, said she remembers the theater opening up for prom night — presumably to keep Socorro’s youth off the streets, safely ensconced in a darkened room.

“On prom night, we would come to the movies,” the 1978 Socorro High School grad said.

Long-time projectionist John Armijo said his fondest memories were the Christmas treat nights, when the Jaramillos sponsored free movie nights, and every child in town got to see a movie and get a free goody bag.

“The chamber used to furnish the bags for the kids with apples, oranges and candy,” he said.

Armijo and his sister-in-law Bessie Moya have worked at the theater since the 1960s — running the projector, managing the concession stand and selling tickets.

Armijo said the original carbon-arc lighting made showing movies in the old days a challenge.

“You had to make sure it was centered on the gauge,” he said.

The high-powered light would generate a lot of heat, sometimes causing literal melt downs.

“The arc was 80 to 100 amps,” he said. “Sometimes, it would melt the copper where the splices were.”

Then the hot carbon stick would break, plunging the theater into darkness. Other times, the film would break when nail polish holding old splices together melted. Then, of course, every 15 minutes, he would have to switch from one projector to another before the film ran out on the reel. If he didn’t get things right, the audience let him know.

“You used to hear screams and stomping in the theater,” he said. “Then you’d make another mistake. Then they’d really start stomping.”

Now, modern upgrades to the 35 mm projector eliminate a lot of mistakes. Bright electric lamps have replaced the old carbon sticks, and a large canister now spins on a machine next to the projector, eliminating the need to constantly switch reels.

Despite the tension, it was more fun back in the old days, Armijo said. He liked the full houses and the family-friendly movies.

But even with the upgrades, it takes a practiced hand to thread the film over and around several spindles. Armijo can do it in about five minutes. Nowadays, he waits to thread the projector until someone actually shows up to see a movie. Many times, even on Wednesday Tech Student Night, no one arrives.

One of the few remaining New Mexico theaters showing 35 mm films darkens forever tonight, and there will be no need for John Armijo’s expertise. The Loma will share the fate of nearly 20 percent of all theaters in North America closing because of the cost of digital conversion, according to Michael Hurley of IndieWire.com.

Tonight’s the last picture show in Socorro.

See you there.

Editor’s Note: Historian Paul Harden contributed to this article.