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Written by James Montalbano
The Guild Cinema, as we know it today, began in April 1971 with a local owner and a serious bout of nostalgia. During the depths of the Vietnam War and on the eve of Watergate, the new owner put an end to the pornographic movies that had screened there for five years.
A local newspaper advertisement trumpeted a double bill of “Flash Gordon” and “Buck Rogers” (both misspelled) and this quaint message: “Due to the lack of interest in today – Yesterday is being brought back!!” Thus launched the Guild Art Theatre.
Bert Manzari had recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, with help from the GI Bill based on his stint in the New Mexico Air National Guard. He was looking to apply his business studies to a struggling operation that needed to be turned around. In early 1971, the Guild was such an operation.
Manzari had no experience in running a cinema or dealing with film distribution. “I was a fan, but hardly a connoisseur of film,” he recalled recently.
Through years of diligence, he would rescue the Guild Cinema from the “raincoat crowd” and set it on a course to be the acclaimed art-house it is today.
Guild Cinema in August 2022. Photographer: David Simpson.
THE ORIGINAL GUILD
Back in February 1966, the owners of the Roxy Theater took over the site of the Chinese Village restaurant at 3405 Central Avenue Northeast and figured they would give foreign and independent art films a go. The Guild debuted on February 16, 1966, with the Greek film “The Red Lanterns.”
The owners’ patience with a tough market did not last long. Since the Roxy was doing well with what were known at the times as “nudies,” they quickly turned the Guild into a sister operation. Within months, the titles were daring: “Wild Gals of the Naked West”; “The Girls on F Street”; “Devil in Velvet”; “Yvonne from 6 to 9.” Some weeks the local newspaper ads would try to pique curiosity with this warning: “This film is of such an adult nature that we cannot even publish the title.”
So began the height – or the depths – of the era of the pornographic theater is Albuquerque. The Mini Vue opened two blocks away in the building that is now Two Fools Tavern. The Guild would open for business at 2 p.m. and run late into the night. The clientele, as Manzari recalls it, was known as the raincoat crowd.
The owners at the time, not known as cineastes, to say the least, ran the operation for five years. In early 1971, they decided to lease out the space and eventually sell it. Manzari’s company Movie Inc. stepped in with an eye toward going legit.
Ad for the Guild's grand opening in 1966.
Image courtesy of Cinema Treasures.
DON PANCHO'S: THE EARLY YEARS
The history of the Guild is entwined with that of Don Pancho’s, another single-screen cinema, across from UNM. Launched in 1961, the 280-seat Don Pancho’s — opened by UNM grads Don Dunham and Frank Scheer — would be in business for about 28 years, the latter half of that as the sister cinema to the Guild.
Don Pancho’s circa 1983, courtesy of American Classic Images
Dunham and Scheer immediately made a bid for respectability through foreign films. They debuted with the Scottish farce “Mating Time,” but in 1962 they sold the operation to the Art Theater Guild, a national chain of about 30 theaters. By late 1963, Don Pancho’s started inching toward adult fare — films like Jayne Mansfield’s “Promises, Promises.”
In the late ‘60s, compared with the Guild’s regular schedule of raunch, Don Pancho’s at least strived for some level of respectability. In 1969, it had a 12-week hit with erotic Swedish art film “I Am Curious Yellow,” which caused a sensation amid mixed reviews. In 1974, it screened the mainstream sensation “Deep Throat.” At other times, it offered revivals and third-run nostalgia from the 1930s and ’40s. It was that slate of revivals which caught the eye of Bert Manzari when he re-launched the Guild in 1971.
THE GUILD: EARLY YEARS
Manzari – entering the business with zero experience – figured he would start out with some of the titles from yesteryear that had been featured at Don Pancho’s, including classics from Greta Garbo, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and Laurel & Hardy.
“I had never seen a Humphrey Bogart film,” he recalled. “I didn’t know how distribution worked. I went to Los Angeles and met with a booking agent.”
This was a time before cable television or VCRs. Only KGGM (now KRQE) Channel 13 was known to show old movies on TV.
“I had a crazy idea that people would be interested in watching old movies,” Manzari said. “The owners of the Guild sold me half the theater.”
In September he turned to a revival of “Citizen Kane.” But by the end of the year, he had a sense that the oldies had only so much appeal.
At the end of 1971, the Guild tweaked the format and turned to more recent revivals, mostly from the late 1960s. The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” played on Christmas Day, and it would become a regular in the rotation in the coming years. In January 1972, the schedule featured Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” along with “Magic Christian,” “Medium Cool,” and a title that would be forever stamped on the cinema’s history.
“King of Hearts” was a French/Italian farce about a town in France during World War I. It starred Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold. It was not a hit at the box office on its release in 1966, and critics were cool to it. But it became one of the first cult hits of the modern era.
“King of Hearts” would have three runs at the Guild in 1971 and five more in 1972. In an up-and-down industry, it’s good to have a go-to title to reliably fill the seats.
“Whenever things would get slow, we would show ‘Harold and Maude’ or ‘King of Hearts’ … and we’d be back in the black.”
“Harold and Maude” – which still gets revived by the Guild to this day – also bombed on its initial release, in 1971. Hal Ashby’s dark comedy debuted at the Guild in January 1973 and ran five more times that year, capping off that year’s run with a Christmas Day screening.
Other titles during that era included Woody Allen’s “Bananas”; another cult film, “Putney Swope”; “Five Easy Pieces”; and the underground hit “The Groove Tube.” The latter film, a satire of television and the counter-culture of the day starring young comedians Richard Belzer and Chevy Chase, was a milestone for the Guild. Manzari recalls that he had to battle a big chain — Commonwealth Theaters of Dallas — for the rights to show “The Groove Tube.” Commonwealth owned many of the mainstream cinemas in Albuquerque at the time. The Guild fought for first-run rights, and won. “That was huge,” Manzari recalled.
It was around this time that Don Pancho’s started mirroring the Guild and rotating some of the same films. Some of its titles in 1974 included “The Harder They Come,” “El Topo,” and “The Paper Chase” (a three-week run). Soon, the two entities would merge.
The owner of Don Pancho’s, the Art Theater Guild of America, with its chain of revival theaters across America, had developed into a bit of a rival for the Guild. Fresh off his victory over Commonwealth Theaters, Manzari’s Movie Inc., made the move and bought Don Pancho’s from the Art Theater Guild in March 1975.
The Guild and Don Pancho’s soon ran in tandem, sharing titles, such as the Mick Jagger vehicle “Performance” and midnight screenings of John Waters’ early cult hit, “Pink Flamingoes.” In 1976, Don Pancho’s launched a four-week run of “King of Hearts.” By 1978 it became the longtime home of midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
By this point, the Guild had led the way in turning the tide from the porn films of the late ‘60s to what was now a revival revival. UNM students started their own cinema in January 1975, with titles that __
Original theatrical release poster for Harold and Maude (1971)
THE BOX IT CAME IN
The Guild Cinema sits at 3405 Central Avenue Northwest, one of several adjoining properties at Tulane that have been owned for decades by the Zito family. The patriarch of the family arrived in Albuquerque from Italy in the early 1900s, starting out in a boarding house on south Third Street. The family would eventually own hotels, bars and grocery stores.
The family eventually expanded to the Northeast Heights and Nob Hill. There are now three businesses at 3401, 3403 and 3405 Central. But back in the 1950s, the properties were dominated by a Chinese restaurant. After some subdividing, the Guild Cinema sprang to life in 1966. Several generations of the Zito family have looked after the properties, and the Guild has been a consistent tenant ever since its opening.
By the way, the Guild was close to not being called the Guild at all after 1971. New owner Bert Manzari wanted a break from the past and a fresh start, and so he considered a new name. But the cost of changing the big neon sign out front was just too prohibitive at the time. So the name stayed. What was Manzari’s light-bulb moment for a new name? The Edison.
For lack of funds, the rest is history.
included “Sullivan’s Travels” and “The Wild Bunch.” UNM’s Rodey Theater began showing rare films. The Mini Vue, which had ridden the Guild’s porn coattails in the ‘60s, brought events full circle in 1975 by rebranding as The Encore and turning to the same formula that had re-launched the Guild — 1930s and 1940s revival films.
THE GUILD'S EXPANSION IN THE 1970S AND '80S
The Guild went dark for a while in late 1977. (It signed off with “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000.” It reopened with “La Cage Aux Folles.”) As the cinema reopened, Movie Inc. teamed up with what was then a growing chain of single-screen independent art houses in cities such as Dallas, Austin, New Orleans, St. Louis and Memphis. These cinemas shared the Guild’s business model and would fall under the umbrella of Landmark Theaters, a company that formed in 1974 and still shows indie and art films across the country to this day. Like the Guild, many of these venues were rehabilitated porn theaters. “We would go in and firehose them out,” Manzari recalled. “Do what we could do to clean these things out.”
The Guild was humming along as the Eighties dawned, no longer worried about falling off the brink into bankruptcy during a given month. The seats filled for the 1980 release “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” “It was such a big hit, we went off calendar,” Manzari said, and it ran for months. “We rode the wave of foreign films, the New Wave — French, German, Australian — and first-run art films.”
In early 1982, Landmark bought Movie Inc. and hired Manzari and his partner, Paul Richardson. They still continued to operate the Guild and Don Pancho’s. While the latter was enjoying solid runs with titles like “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and the Guild with “The Coca-Cola Kid,” Manzari’s company finally was looking to sell the two cinemas and focus exclusively on his rising career with Landmark Theaters.
An attempt to sell the Guild and Don Pancho’s to the owner of Santa Fe’s Jean Cocteau Theater fell through in September 1986. The next spring, though, they were sold to Bill Neal Inc. of Dallas. But that ownership run lasted less than a year.
In January 1988, the Albuquerque newspapers reported on the abrupt closing of Guild and Don Pancho’s. The new owners were losing money. As part of the deal, ownership reverted to Manzari and Richardson. They stepped back in and arranged a new sale, this time to an experienced cinema entrepreneur.
Guild Cinema in April 1980. Photographer unknown. Click to expand!
CHANGE OF OWNERS IN THE '80S
Joe Esposito was the owner of the New Loft Theater in Tucson, Arizona, which had opened its doors in 1972. He had had experience booking cinemas dating back to his college days in New Haven, Conn., in the early 1960s. Esposito had more recently been plugged in with the Landmark crowd of the 1980s, from whom he bought the Loft in 1983. He then expanded his empire five years later by buying the Guild and Don Pancho’s in April 1988. He christened the new operation with a revival of “The Funeral,” Japanese director Juzo Itami’s predecessor to the highly successful “Tampopo” (1985). The Guild got a fresh look with new neon along the front windows. Esposito relied on the loyal staff that he had inherited.
The Guild sailed along, churning out more hits, including the popular titles of 1988, Pedro Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and “Babette’s Feast” from Gabriel Axel. Esposito teamed with a French restaurant in Albuquerque to replicate the country dishes from “Babette’s Feast” as a marketing opportunity.
But Don Pancho’s was running out of time. It battled protests and picketing from the religious community during the 1988 run of Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Esposito struggled to wring revenue out of two screens that echoed each other, especially with continued competition from the Lobo Theater nearby and the small art houses at UNM. He preferred the neighborhood feel of Nob Hill over the UNM area.
Don Pancho’s closed in May 1989. The Albuquerque Journal reported that the final show was “We the Living,” which may have been the 1942 Italian film, based on an Ayn Rand novel and set during the Russian Revolution. Esposito recalls working with Bert Manzari on liquidating most of the equipment (likely bound for other art-house cinemas in the Landmark chain), while a couple of “hippie girls in a Volkswagen” picked through the remainders.
Don Pancho’s would be turned into a music club, The Atomic. In recent years, the venue in the Pig & Calf building has housed restaurants.
Albuquerque now had one commercial single-screen art-house cinema.
Don Pancho's and Guild Cinema printed program, July–October 1984. Click to expand!
Despite competition from cable television premium channels and the booming market of home video (still via analog cassette tapes), the Guild continued its strong run into the Nineties. The Guild had found its niche and had burnished its reputation as a go-to place for domestic and foreign indie movies. Crowds queued up for “The Crying Game” in 1993 and “Like Water for Chocolate” a little later that year. Esposito recalled each movie running for months on end. He negotiated a new five-year lease with the Zito sisters who owned the Guild building.
Those last two titles were notable, because they were releases from Miramax during that film company’s indie heyday in the early 1990s. (It was bought by Disney in 1993.) Esposito recalled Miramax, run by the notorious Weinstein brothers, as flexing cut-throat distribution practices, regularly threatening to cut off the Guild from its production line of indie darlings – the Guild’s bread and butter at the time – in order to squeeze better deals for itself.
Lorena Turner fondly recalls the mid-’90s heyday of that era of films. She had walked in off the street and got hired at the Guild in 1994, having had some experience at a movie theater in Boston and having fallen in with the Field & Frame crowd of film and photography enthusiasts across from the Guild.
She recalled big hits from 1994 like the basketball documentary “Hoop Dreams” and the lesbian drama “Go Fish,” which packed the Guild. When Peter Greenaway, who had packed theaters with “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” a few years earlier, released “The Pillowbook” in 1996, Turner, by now the manager, braced for big crowds. “No one came,” she recalled.
Turner, a photographer by trade and now a professor of visual communications at California Polytechnic State University, referred to the Guild as “a gift to me, a gift to the community.” That time in the ’90s served as “part of the backdrop of our lives. It felt – not important, but significant. Pure.”
Late in her tenure, Turner would hire Keif Henley, who would eventually buy the Guild and who runs it to this day.
In the post-Don Pancho’s era, the Guild thrived by catering to an audience beyond the traditional college-student base that supported other venues, like the Loft in Tucson. “The Guild’s base was always much more of an erudite audience,” Esposito recalled.
He enjoyed his visits to Nob Hill and with the Zito sisters. He loved the food at Scalo’s and the Double Rainbow (later the Flying Star). “Everything about that area just gives me good feelings about that time,” Esposito recalled.
But after 10 years, Esposito, now juggling a busy law practice in Tucson, was ready to hand off operations. In 1998, he screened a Dutch film, “The Dress,” and sold the Guild. He wanted the operation to remain local. This time, the Guild’s ownership would be a team effort.
A TIME OF TRANSITION
Spouses Joe Alcorn and Sylvia Wittels became the principal operators of the Guild in 1998. They were part of an investor group that also included Bob Lynn and Janet Braziel (a lawyer), as well as Howard and Janice Gogel (she had experience running small businesses and drafted policies and procedures for the Guild staff).
The team hit the ground running, extending the runs of such indie darlings as “Buffalo ’66” and “Gods and Monsters” in 1998 and “The Buena Vista Social Club” in 1999. They were not afraid to challenge the clientele and indulge their own love of obscure art films. Alcorn recalls screening “Kestrel’s Eye,” a wordless avian documentary from Sweden with impeccable cinematography, which came to the United States in 2000. (It made no money for the Guild, but the point was made.) “Children of Heaven,” from Iran in 1999, was a surprise hit, earning an extended run.
Alcorn and Wittels, much like Manzari in 1971, were serious fans of film, but knew nothing about the film distribution and projection business. They had spent the ’90s raising two boys and had only limited time to patronize the Guild. When they heard that the Guild was going to be sold, they had a keen interest in keeping things local. Wittels left a message on the cinema’s answering machine expressing interest in buying the Guild and vowing to keep the staff intact.
The new Guild owners dove into the business. They would post promotional fliers on the UNM campus and up and down Central Avenue.
While the Guild had been humming along as a popular spot for alternative films, the building itself, long owned by the Zito family, and the theater’s equipment were in serious need of updating. Alcorn recalls picking through a cluttered basement and finding the remnants of equipment from the old Chinese restaurant. It was time for a bit of a face-lift.
The screen was fixed. Lighting was added. The walls were painted, and curtains (salvaged from a theater on Academy that had gone out of business) were hung. The carpet was replaced. The bathrooms were upgraded. A sewer vent was relocated away from the concession area.
The Alcorn-Wittels sons became fixtures at the ticket counter and concession stands.
A big challenge came in 2002, when Madstone Theaters, the proprietor of boutique cinemas in mid-sized cities like Salt Lake City, Utah, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, staked a claim to the Albuquerque market for domestic and foreign art/independent films. It opened a shiny new venue in the Northeast Heights. It had eight screens, all hungry for arty content. Alcorn said that Madstone came in determined to play hardball against the Guild.
The Madstone crew, he said, sent an implied message to the Guild: “We’re going to put you out of business.” Madstone, with its national resources, used its leverage with distributors to grab titles that previously would have landed in Nob Hill. “If you give titles to the Guild, we’ll freeze you out of all our national screens,” Alcorn recalls the challenge that was delivered to distributors by Madstone.
But Madstone would be felled by its own hubris. By June 2004, the Albuquerque venue on Academy was shuttered – along with most of the locations in the national chain, all a victim of overreach by the ownership.
By this point, the Guild had changed hands, to a pair of young film aficionados who shaped it into what it is today.
Guild Cinema storefront, circa 2011
THE NEW MILLENNIUM
Alcorn, Wittels and their fellow investors had felt that they had accomplished their mission by 2003, and they were ready to hand off the new and improved Guild Cinema. Their sons had aged out and were headed to college. It was time to sell. “We had preserved it and improved it,” Alcorn recalled, “and we didn’t want to lose it.”
Keif Henley had been the chief projectionist and a jack-of-all-trades at the Guild since the mid-’90s. He was a natural to take over. Two turns of events made that happen.
The Alcorn-Wittels group didn’t ask for the moon in the sale. As Henley recalls, “We basically were buying the equipment.” Among the recent improvements had been a state-of-the-art Dolby sound system that still roosts in the projection booth.
First, Henley was gifted with some seed money from his grandmother, who had recently inherited the money from a distant cousin. Second, he found a partner to buy into the business with him. Peter Conheim had been a kindred spirit over the years, his career in the San Francisco Bay Area mirroring Henley’s. Conheim, like Henley, played in a band (the culture provocateurs Negativland), and he a film projection ensemble, Wet Gate, in addition to curating and programming film series for the Pacific Film Archive in the 1990s.
Henley, in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal, described himself growing up as “some kind of dork-geek who really liked music; liked a lot of punk rock; liked weird movies; liked art that was different, surrealistic art, underground movies.” He went on to describe the genesis of his taste in film:
“I grew up in … just that middle-class, suburban Anywhere, USA, and I had a curiosity about stuff that was different. There was a show called ‘Night Flight’ on USA Network. This was like the late ’70s, early ’80s. It was a compilation kind of show where they’d (do) everything from weird music videos, to parts of movies, to interviewing cult film figures. And I saw ‘Un Chien Andalou’ by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, and the slicing of the eyeball, and it totally disrupted me like I had never been up to that point. It was like hearing a song that just put ripples through you.” His world soon opened up to current alternative filmmakers like John Waters, Jim Jarmusch (“Stranger Than Paradise”) and Stan Brakhage.
The opportunity to join Henley in running their own art-house cinema was “too good to be true,” Conheim recalled.
Conheim and Henley, like Guild owners who preceded them, had to ramp up quickly to learn the distribution side of the business, which is all about creating relationships with the powerful people who decided which films would play in which cinemas. “We had to prove ourselves to distributors,” Conheim said. “They had to decide to send a movie to us and not the downtown multiplexes.”
One early success was outré filmmaker Guy Maddin’s 2004 masterpiece “The Saddest Music in the World.” The Guild pushed for it, and it brought in crowds. Conheim said: “The distributors were, like, ‘Oh, you guys are serious.’ Yeah, we’re serious. It was a huge feather in our cap.”
Conheim’s run lasted about five years. Henley would eventually take on Don Sherry as a business partner in subsequent years.
Some titles and genres have become Guild staples during Henley’s ownership. He notes that Buddhist films always draw a crowd. Horror and zombie films can be reliable, especially during the days of Midnight Movie Madness. Foreign films based on best-selling novels, like “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” are solid bets. David Lynch and Guy Maddin have had their heydays at the Guild.
As Henley once told the Albuquerque Journal: “There are certain kinds of foreign films that resonate well with our audiences and potential audiences. I don’t expect to get everybody in Albuquerque to come to our movie theater. I don’t have that kind of ridiculous ambition. … If I could just get a little more, if we could just grow a little more, if we could get comfortable growth, I’d be happy with that.
“But I don’t expect everybody to come to this theater. With that said, we try to make ourselves accessible to the public – one phone __
Guild Cinema owner Keif Henley in 2014.
Former Guild Cinema co-owner Peter Conheim, circa 2010s.
Guild staff member Don Sherry in 2021.
call you’re talking to people (who make programming decisions). We try to provide a wide range and diversity of programming. I try to be grateful for everybody who pays money to see a movie here.”
Not all of the programming decisions came up roses, Conheim said. “One of the things I was obsessed with doing and I did eventually do, being in New Mexico, was a series on nuclear winter, fiction and nonfiction,” Conheim said. “It tanked.” But the Guild to this day continues to take chances on art titles and remains devoted to local filmmaking.
The Guild has formed a bond with the community over the decades, and Henley recognizes that. It isn’t easy to keep a single-screen art-house theater going in the digital age. He told the Journal about the phenomenon of “people coming out of the movie and sometimes they won’t say something about the movie, they’ll say things like ‘Are you guys doing OK? Because I don’t know what I’d do without you guys here.’ And that’s huge.”
Henley, still doing a lot of tasks himself and keeping a lean crew, won’t get rich off of his labor of love. “I don’t want to get pretentious and say I don’t think about money. I mean, it’s not like that. I’ve got to think about money. I’ve got to think about the bottom line, but I try not to obsess about it. … My hope is there’s more than just a monetary exchange going on here.”
The Guild – under its corporate name Pangaea Cinema LLC – is a part of New Mexico legal history. With the help of the New Mexico’s Civil Liberties Union, the Guild fought the City and State of New Mexico all the way to the state Supreme Court for the right to show a pornographic film in November 2007 as part of the retro Pornotopia weekend festival. Minutes before the first screening on Friday night, the City’s zoning officers sought to shut down the screening of the X-rated fare that had once been the Guild’s bread and butter decades ago.
Here was the lead sentence in the next day’s Albuquerque Tribune: Moviegoers waiting in the drizzle to see "Annie Sprinkle's Amazing World of Orgasms" at the Guild Cinema in Nob Hill were in for quite a shock: It looked like the city was shutting down this weekend's adults-only "Pornotopia" film festival.
The show would go on that night, but the Guild and its owner, Keif Henley, would be convicted and fine for operating as an “adult amusement establishment” by holding the annual Pornotopia festivities in conjunction with the sex shop Self Serve. The film that set the City’s inspectors over the edge was titled “Couch Surfers: Trans Men in Action.” The Guild fought the penalty and took it through the court system on a four-year odyssey.
The state Supreme Court took into consideration the occasional (at best once a year) screening of the adult fare and ruled that the Guild simply did not meet the definition of a typical nudie theater. The Court, finding no “negative secondary effect” of a weekend of porn on the neighborhood at large, reasoned: “The Guild is simply not an adult amusement establishment in the ordinary meaning of the term. If we were to stand on Central Avenue and ask pedestrians for directions to the nearest adult theater, it is unlikely that they would direct us to the Guild.”
The Guild Cinema, born and baptized in the world of pornography in the late ’60s, helped show how the culture had evolved over the years. The Supreme Court recognized that the sophisticated consumers of sexually explicit materials were a far cry from the raincoat crowd that dominated Central Avenue back in the day. In fact, the Nob Hill Business Association welcomed that weekend’s boom in business.
Pornotopia flyer (2007). Design by Jeff Drew.