A Little History & A Little Love Story
The Girl of the Golden West made its American debut at the Metropolitan Opera on December 10, 1910. Giacomo Puccini, the famous opera's composer, attended this performance and made a commitment to one day visit the Wild West. In 1913 it was rumored that Puccini was on the train, finally travelling to the West, to view the living landscape of which he had composed his opera. Iole Bachechi, a young Italian girl from Albuquerque, was thrilled to learn that she could see this famous celebrity from Lucca, Italy, the Tuscan hometown of her mother Maria Bachechi. There was definitely a Puccini on that train that stopped in Albuquerque, but it wasn't Giacomo - it was his cousin, Luigi. Luigi, a young journalist living in New York (and also from Lucca) was passing through Albuquerque, saw Iole, and fell in love. They were married in 1914.
Eventually Mr. Puccini bought the PassTime Theater in Albuquerque. In 1922, Mr. Puccini, who was very much enjoying his success in movie exhibition, bought the Gem Theater in Durango, which he eventually sold. He then purchased a second theater in Durango, and in 1924, moved to Gallup, New Mexico to open The Rex Theater.
In 1929, shortly after his in-laws, Oreste and Maria Bachechi built the Kimo Theater, Luigi built the original Puccini Building, which is now known as Puccini's Golden West Saloon. Constructed by Lembke Construction, the building was originally a grocery store, and later became a paint store, a lamp store, and ultimately, a saloon.
In 1941, the architect, Joseph B. Burwinkle, combined the storefront with the construction of the El Rey Theater. As a tribute to the military, Luigi Puccini dedicated the building, as well as the military murals on its walls, to armed forces and Kirtland Air Force Base. During its early years the El Rey Theater was a popular movie theater, and also featured "The Hangar" restaurant, as well as several popular bars. This became known as the new "Puccini Building". Encompassing both the Theater and Saloon, it is a registered Historic Building, and the only example of Mediterranean architecture in a large theater in the State of New Mexico.
After Luigi and Iole's deaths, the building was acquired by the family estate and had fallen into a state of disrepair due to the various tenants who had operated the building.
In 1981, Virginia Puccini Doyle, daughter of Luigi and Iole, and her sister Adelina Puccini Timofeyew undertook the task of turning the building into a viable commercial enterprise. Virginia had years of bar and nightclub management experience on the East Coast, and undertook the arduous task of refurbishing the theater and lamp store into a nightclub and saloon. The original Puccini Building, then a lamp store, was renamed the "Golden West Saloon", in honor of the opera that had united their mother and father.
In 1981, Albuquerque's Downtown was not the popular area it is now. Virginia always said that "you could shoot a canon and you wouldn't hit anyone". However, lots of elbow grease, hard work, and dedication created the best and most eclectic entertainment palace in Albuquerque. The best musical entertainment in the United States, including such legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Lyle Lovett, Arlo Guthrie, Bo Diddley, and hundreds of other famous names, made their way down Route 66 to play at the nationally recognized El Rey Theater. The El Rey became the place that every young person went to and every musician went back to, leaving fond memories with everyone who entered. During this time, Virginia and Adelina repaired, restored and refurbished. The marquee went through an extensive restoration by Absolutely Neon, and in 1989, lit up the West end of Downtown Albuquerque. The neon sign has been featured on album covers, in books, and in countless periodicals due to its brilliance and uniqueness.
In 1991, the business was leased, and over the course of the next 10 years housed a variety of tenants, who ultimately brought the beautiful building into disrepair once again. In 2002, Luigi Puccini's granddaughter, Kathy Timofeyew Zimmer, left Los Angeles to try and make the El Rey Theater a viable, community gathering place.
Phase I of the restoration included many repairs to the building, as well as the restoration of the marquee, which had fallen into disrepair. Thanks to a matching federal grant program by the National Park Service Route 66 Preservation Program to restore neon signs along Route 66, the El Rey Theater was awarded a grant, which was administered by the Route 66 Association. The completion of this sign restoration marks the end of Phase I of the revitalization of the Puccini Building. The Downtown Action Team graciously contributed to the completion of this sign, which enabled its anchor venue to once again thrive. The sign was restored by RAM Sign Company. On January 30, 2004, The Honorable Mayor Martin Chavez is dedicating the sign.
The Historic El Rey Theater and Puccini's Golden West Saloon is becoming a new incarnation of its former self, and serves as a community space, a reception area to celebrate weddings or other special events, or to see a multitude of performers and types of performance.