Built in 1931, The Lensic is more than a theater to the people of Santa Fe. For most of the 20th century, The Lensic was a place for a first kiss in the balcony, a grand silver screen in the midst of the Depression, a vaudeville venue where the community could see the singers, actors, dancers, and comedians of the day. It was a place where magic happened.
By the late 1990s, however, the theater had fallen into disrepair. Despite one-of-a-kind architecture and seating for more than 800 people, The Lensic was in danger of becoming an empty house when in 1999 a vision for a world-class performing arts center was born. It was time for a new chapter in the venerated theater’s life.
Thanks to a group of dedicated individuals who saw the potential for the venue and the future benefit for Santa Fe, the renovation and refurbishing of the old theater began in 2000 with gifts from individuals, local businesses, the city, and foundations.
In April 2001, the Lensic Theater once again opened its doors to the people of Santa Fe, now as the nonprofit Lensic Performing Arts Center. It’s a place where magic still happens, more than 200 nights a year.
“I made all my money here and I wanted to give the people something to show my appreciation.” – Nathan Salmon, on building the Lensic Theater
Nathan Salmon, born Na’aman Soleiman in Biskinta, Syria, July 1866, arrived in New York at age twenty-one. For three years he traveled the roads of southern Colorado and the Southwest, selling goods from a wagon. While returning to Durango, he was stranded by a snowstorm in Santa Fe. Down to his last twenty-five cents, Salmon pawned his watch to wire a friend for a loan. With that help, he resumed business as a “cart peddler.”
Salmon prospered and soon, in 1884, bought a dry goods store on San Francisco Street. With a keen eye for land value, the enterprising Salmon bought property throughout Santa Fe and Albuquerque. In defiance of the unrelenting financial devastation of the Great Depression, Salmon, along with his son-in-law, E. John Greer, announced on March 27, 1930, plans for a “Spanish-style” theater which would contain the latest projection and sound equipment—and would offer live performances and “talkies” to Santa Fe’s 11,000 residents.
The project moved swiftly. Architects convened in April, blueprints were ready by July, and ground was broken on September 26, 1930. That same day, Salmon offered a $25 prize for an appropriate name for the new theater—preferably Spanish, or one incorporating the initials of his grandchildren. The winning combination came from Mrs. P. J. Smithwick, whose acronym “Lensic” not only combined the desired initials (for Lila, Elias John, Nathan, Sara, Mary Irene, and Charles,) but also suggested the “lens” of a movie projector and the scenic splendor of the theater’s interior.
By the end of November, a specially inscribed marble cornerstone had arrived. It read: “Dedicated to the People of Santa Fe by Nathan Salmon and E. John Greer.” It still remains at the base of the wall near The Lensic’s entry.
On June 24, 1931, the Lensic Theater celebrated its grand opening. Soon the Lensic became a hub of Santa Fe social life. Movies proved to be the great tonic of the Depression years and the war years that followed. The marquee changed four times a week—three shows daily, with ticket prices from 25 cents to 75 cents.
Through the 1950s the Lensic thrived. However, as the city grew, other entertainment options became available. The technical requirements of modern performance continued to surpass those offered by the old Lensic. In the 1990s, while managed by United Artists, the theater stopped hosting live events, and in 1999 it closed its doors altogether.
Bill and Nancy Zeckendorf, members of a distinguished real estate family in New York, moved to Santa Fe in the 1980s and were among the first to understand the potential of the Lensic as a performing arts center. Determined to provide the city with such a venue, they returned to Salmon’s vision of a dramatic showplace.
Working with eight Santa Fe performing arts groups, the city government, individuals, and business leaders, they raised $9 million from the community, recruited a respected board of directors, and incorporated the theater as a nonprofit.
The new Lensic Performing Arts Center was designed to expand the possibilities of the venue for all uses. It would be a catalyst for the growth of Santa Fe’s existing companies and the emergence of new artists, art forms, and audiences for generations to come.
In December 2000, The Lensic was recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as an official project of Save America’s Treasures. In April 2011, The Lensic Performing Arts Center celebrated its 10th anniversary and the Lensic Theater celebrated its 80th year.
There is still much to celebrate. The Lensic is now home to more than 200 events each year, including original presentations (the Lensic Presents series), community sponsorships, education and outreach events, and a host of other concerts and events featuring acts from close to home and around the world.
At the core of this broad cultural spectrum is The Lensic’s dedication to the local performing arts community and the people of Santa Fe.
For a more detailed version of our story, download The History of The Lensic.