The Rio Grande Theatre opened on July 29, 1926. The theatre was designed in an Italian Renaissance Style by El Paso architect Otto H. Thorman. Thorman has been described as one of the most successful architects of the Southwest, and one of the most prominent architects in El Paso. In addition to designing Italian Renaissance and Georgian style buildings, he was best known for his Pueblo and Spanish design styles. Some of his most notable works include Woman’s Club of El Paso, Kern Place School, Ysleta Woman’s Club, and Red Mill Courts.
The theatre’s sound was provided by a piano which was replaced by a Wurlitzer organ in 1928. In 1929 the theatre was equipped with sound projection equipment that would allow it to screen “talkies” – motion pictures with synchronized sound. The first talkie screened in Las Cruces was The Flying Fool, shown at the Rio Grande Theatre on October 20, 1929. Throughout the years that the Rio Grande operated as a movie theatre, it underwent several renovations and upgrades in order to maintain its reputation as the premier movie theater in the City.
In 1929 the Rio Grande was purchased by Fox West Coast Theatres (later named Fox Inter-Mountain), a corporation that owned more than 1,100 movie theaters and was the largest theater chain in the country at that time. Being owned by Fox West Coast Theatres allowed the Rio Grande access to newly released movies and helped make it possible for the theatre to host the World Premiere of two movies. The first was Billy the Kid, directed by King Vidor, which premiered October 12, 1930. Prior to the premiere, members of the State College Marching Band gave a free public concert before the screening, and many special guests, including several of Pat Garrett’s children, were in attendance. The second premiere, screened in 1941, was also titled Billy the Kid and was directed by David Miller. Celebrations were held for the premier, though they were more subdued than those held in 1930. The opening week was proclaimed Billy the Kid days and the Chamber of commerce passed out bumper stickers and offered a prize for the best decorated store window.
In 1982, Allen Theaters purchased all the working theatres in Las Cruces, including the Rio Grande. By the late 1990s, the theatre was falling into disrepair and not as profitable as the new, multiscreen theaters with stadium seating and digital projection. The Rio Grande Theatre closed on May 22, 1998. Following its closure, a seven-year, $2.2 million-dollar restoration project began and the theatre reopened September 16, 2005. The theatre was managed by the Doña Ana arts council until July of 2017, and presented a variety of entertainment.
Today, the Rio Grande Theatre remains the cornerstone of Downtown Las Cruces. Managed by the City of Las Cruces, the Theatre acts as the cultural center for the heart of the City. Whether it be to view a tango performance, a Metallica-inspired Mariachi Band or live theater, attending any event at the historic Rio Grande theatre will continue to be a memorable experience for locals and tourists for years to come.