Tucked into an old stucco wall on Calle de Guadalupe just off the Plaza in Mesilla, NM, is the facade of the Fountain Theater , probably the oldest movie theater in New Mexico. Early records are hazy, but since about 1913 when vaudeville acts shared the stage, the Fountain has been showing movies. These days the Mesilla Valley Film Society rents the theater from the Fountain family of Las Cruces. In an old-fashioned setting that is so retro it’s becoming fashionable again, cutting-edge cinema winds down the century.
By the time the Academy Awards rolled around this year, the Fountain had already locked in "Life is Beautiful," "Gods and Monsters" and other indie hits that the big movie houses only discovered after best-picture nominations. Board of Directors member Carol McCall, who schedules the films, is particularly proud of opening "Affliction" before any other theater in NM. She saw it listed in a Sundance Film Festival catalog last year and got on the phone to LionsGate, the distributor. "I called until he wanted to get rid of me," Carol laughs. She had a head start on a film that eventually won an Oscar for James Coburn. "They wanted to open it in Albuquerque and Santa Fe first," Carol says of LionsGate, "but they honored their commitment to us. They are one of my favorite distributors."
A night at the movies, Fountain style, takes place in a café setting with murals on the wall, tables and chairs, and the scent of hot popcorn doused with real melted butter. Ann Savino, a volunteer who drives over from El Paso twice a month to don a striped apron, pour wine and serve home-style snacks, says she her duties are great fun. "There’s just something nice about it, being with these people."
The concession sales pay the rent, and ticket sales at the box office - a table and chair inside the door - pay for the films. Memberships are available for $40 a year, tax-deductible, which gets you a discounted ticket price and an invitation to the annual Academy Awards night party, plus the fun of being part of the Fountain family. Three paid workers help with projection, office management and coordinating the concession stand. The rest is all volunteers, including a changing cast who serve as the board of directors. Every effort is made to cooperate with Mesilla historians. Even hanging a basket of schedules outside the door has to be okayed by the town.
The audience tends to group itself into patterns, with seniors favoring the Sunday matinee and college students from NMSU flocking in on Wednesday nights. Others come to hear their own language spoken, like a couple from the Netherlands who came to a Dutch film and an elderly Chinese couple who never miss a Chinese feature, according to Chuck Rose, a volunteer who works the projector on Sundays while his wife Betty makes coffee at the concession stand. "They say it reminds them of home," he notes. Bringing in more Mexican films is one of Carol McCall’s goals. "It’s easier to book French films than Mexican films," she sighs. In spite of distribution problems, more films from across the border are on the agenda.
More movie-goers from the local community are on the agenda, too. "I talked to a guy who grew up here," Carol recalls. "He told me he hadn’t been here since he was a kid and saw ‘King Kong.’" That guy was in the theater for a book-signing session with Max Evans, author of the book that was the basis for "Lonely Are the Brave," a Kirk Douglas movie filmed in New Mexico. This summer a program of modern classics like Terence Malick’s "Badlands" will be shown twice on Saturdays, in addition to the regular schedule. Coming up are replacements for the creaky folding seats in the front rows, which will come from another movie house in town, and a new sound system. Already the air-conditioning has been upgraded. The theater is old, but the thinking is new.
Movies at the Fountain only stay a week. Carol makes no apologies for this. "If we only show them a week, we can show more movies." To her and the rest of the Fountain folks, that’s what it’s all about - show more movies. The theater was in the red and seemed to be sinking a year ago, with competition from multi-plexes and home rentals, but something happened. Being part of a real audience in a real theater still draws a crowd; membership last year was the highest ever. Says Carol, "The word is out - it’s just really gratifying." Whether it’s the scent of that real butter on the popcorn or a shared passion for movies, it’s happening at the Fountain Theater.