The Lensic Performing Arts Center
211 West San Francisco Street in Santa Fe, NM
Phone: 505.988.7050    Box Office: 505.988.1234
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The Distinctive Lensic Performing Arts Center

Total opera fan that I am, the time between summer seasons of the Santa Fe Opera seems particularly long right about now. That’s why the live HD simlucasts from the Metropolitan Opera are so welcome. Santa Fe screenings are held on the appointed Saturdays at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, so I headed there last Saturday for my opera fix, in this case La Fanciulla del West by Puccini, whose La Boheme comes back to Santa Fe this summer. As we settled into our seats for a few hours of glorious music, I was struck yet again at the glories of this landmark theatre and all the wonderful things it has made possible in Santa Fe.

A versatile performing arts center located right off the Santa Fe Plaza, the Lensic originated as a movie and vaudeville theater, with a 69-year run before closing, a passing that was deeply mourned by Santa Fesinos for whom memories of a movie and dinner downtown live on in their minds as the perfect date.  The Lensic was built by Nathan Salmon, an immigrant from Syria, who chose to make Santa Fe his home in the late 1800’s, after being stranded here by a snowstorm. An enterprising individual with an immigrant’s belief in the real value of property, Mr. Salmon bought land parcels throughout the Santa Fe and Albuquerque area. In 1930, despite the devastating pressures of the Great Depression, Mr. Salmon and his son-in-law, E. John Greer, made plans to build what they called a ‘Spanish style’ theater, with up-to-date projection and sound equipment  that could offer both live performances and the new ‘talking’ pictures to the then-11,000 residents of Santa Fe.

A ‘Spanish Style’ Theater for Santa Fe

The Salmon-Greer partnership broke ground for the theatre in September 1930, and its uniquely memorable name originated when Mr. Salmon sponsored a competition, including a $25 prize, to name the new theater, using either a Spanish title or an amalgam of his grandchildren’s initials. Mrs. P.J. Smithwick claimed the prize (a tidy sum in Depression years) by creating an acronym using the required initials (for Lila, Elias John, Nathan, Sara, Mary Irene and Charles), while at the same time cleverly implying the “lens” of a movie projector. Built swiftly, the Lensic Theater had its grand opening in June of 1931 and soon became the center of Santa Fe social life, since movies served as a respite from the sorrows of the Depression and the war years that ensued.

As Santa Fe grew, the Lensic thrived. Over the years, other options for entertainment in Santa Fe became available, and the Lensic’s technical facilities began to lag behind the demands of modern performance. As this mismatch of requirements expanded, the theater stopped hosting live events and by 1999, it had closed its doors altogether. Fortunately for Santa Fe, the next act was about to begin!

London Assurance Simulcast in HD

Bill and Nancy Zeckendorf, recognized as real estate royalty in New York City, arrived in Santa Fe in the 1980s and quickly grasped the Lensic’s potential as a performing arts showcase. Determined to save this classic venue, they pursued Mr. Salmon’s original vision of a dramatic showplace for the city, a destination historically imbued with talent galore. Working with a panoply of performing arts groups, city officials, interested individuals and committed business leaders, they recruited a hard-working board of directors (including the Inn’s owner, Joe Schepps), incorporated the theater as a nonprofit, and embarked on a twelve month rehabilitation. Funded through a $9M capital campaign raised by a coterie of Santa Fe’s movers and shakers, the Lensic rose again like the mythical phoenix and was unveiled as a non-profit performing arts venue in April 2001. To the delight of locals and visitors alike, the thoughtful and restrained renovation restored the theater’s decoratively stylized architecture, and improvements to the technical capabilities made it possible to bring an eclectic variety of performances to the City Different. Thanks to the dedication and insight of all involved, the 821-seat theater has become an integral part of the city’s reputation as a mecca for the arts.  An ideal example of how community collaboration and commitment can create a whole greater than the sum of the parts, the Lensic is now a vibrant cultural resource for the city of Santa Fe, as well as the state and surrounding region. As its mission statement says, “The nonprofit Lensic Performing Arts Center enriches lives by bringing diverse art and people together in the historic Lensic Theater, a cornerstone of downtown Santa Fe since 1931.” How true!

Perfomers of All Sizes

What can one see at the Lensic? Well, just about anything! From the HD simulcasts of the Met to traveling circuses, from chamber ensembles to Native American roots music, Polish folk dancers to classical ballet, bluesmen to children’s mariachi groups, writers’ readings to memorable big-screen classics (yes, you CAN still see a movie at the theater!), the Lensic welcomes all who have something to share with the arts-loving denizens of the City Different.  The Lensic was recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as an official project of Save America’s Treasures in 2000. And 2011 is indeed a gala year, with the Lensic Performing Arts Center celebrating its 10th anniversary, and the original Lensic Theater turning 80 in April 2011.

The Whole World is Welcome at the Lensic

When our guests come to the Front Desk at any time of year to ask what there is to do in Santa Fe, it is always a pleasure to respond by saying, “Let’s see what’s at the Lensic!”

All images are courtesy of the Lensic, and all rights are reserved.