The Historic Cavern Theatre Rehabilitation Project is a community effort to rehabilitate one of Carlsbad’s most beloved downtown buildings. The City of Carlsbad and numerous volunteers are working closely together on this remarkable project and it is one of Carlsbad MainStreet’s targeted projects to promote economic development in the downtown area.
A Lasting Legacy
The Cavern Theatre was built in 1951 in downtown Carlsbad at 210 North Canyon Street, just one block north of the Eddy County courthouse square and in the heart of the downtown commercial district. It was constructed at the height of the post-World War II baby boom as the premier movie theatre in the city of Carlsbad. Architects designed the theatre in the International Style, a form of modernism that featured minimal ornamentation and streamlined forms. Features such as generous auditorium size, a multi-colored neon marquee, a large balcony and painted murals of local landmarks made it a beautiful feature of Carlsbad’s downtown. The theatre stopped showing movies regularly in 1979. It has been occasionally used for musical performances and other events over the past few decades but has largely been vacant
Our Restoration Project
In February 2014, members of Carlsbad’s Light and Rogers families generously donated the theater to the City of Carlsbad. Many Carlsbad residents fondly recall the Theatre as the place where they saw their first movie or even where they went on their first date, and there is substantial interest in restoring the building.
Bob Light enthusiastically supported the idea of turning the historic building into a multi-purpose performing arts center. To that end, Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway appointed a task force to transform the theatre into a fully functional performing arts center. The enlarged stage will be used by visiting performers, local musicians and community theatre troops, while classroom space can be devoted to media arts classes and other activities supported by the Carlsbad Municipal Schools and NMSU-C. Film festivals will be scheduled in the state-of-the-art film facility.
Our Task Force
Retired Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park Superintendent Ken Britt is the chair of the Cavern Theatre Task Force. Members are Elaine Mead, Karla Hamel, Patsy Jackson-Christopher, Ron Hyden, Stella Davis, Susan Campbell, Truth LaClair, Doc West, Kyle Marksteiner, Larry Mitchell, Janell Whitlock and Wren Stroud.
Our mission is to “explore funding sources to rehabilitate the Cavern Theatre as a performing arts center to complement the Carlsbad MainStreet District, the Carlsbad Historic District, and the Carlsbad Arts & Cultural District. The Committee will act in an advisory capacity in developing theatre design, in considering planned use, and in recommending historic rehabilitation guidelines, as well as making recommendations on a management business plan.”
“The Cavern Theatre will serve as a multi-service community-oriented performing arts center with state-of-the-art sound and technical capabilities to enhance the quality of life and provide economic revitalization of the downtown area in a mid-size venue.”
Cavern Theatre Update (May 26, 2020)
By Valeria Quezada
ECHS City Hall Intern
The Cavern Theatre is moving a few steps closer to being the beautiful downtown venue many residents have dreamed of for years.
The Theatre was built in 1951 by the Bartlett family and inspired many fond memories for residents. It was there that many people went to see their first movie, go on their first dates, and take their family out. After years of being used as a theatre and to host special events, the Cavern Theatre was determined a historical resource in 2008. During 2015, Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway appointed a task force to turn the theatre into a performing arts center. This rehabilitation will create a beautiful downtown venue for local community performers, musicians, local community productions, and for visiting performers. This is includes art, music, and cultural activities for the community. The renovation of the Cavern Theatre will create a space for future generations to enjoy just as much as previous generations.
Currently the Cavern Theatre is undergoing the renovation process. This renovation process will provide an economic revitalization of the downtown area and provide a beautiful venue for Carlsbad. Renovation is financed through the lodger’s tax fund and may include private donations in the future.
“The remodeling is in phase two of the process at the moment,” said Ken Britt, Director of Community Development. “The new modern roof is being added as well as the installation of HVC units on the roof and minor demolition. A significant amount of progress has been made and we are near completion of Phase 2, the virus has had little if no effect on the progress of the phase.”
Developers look forward to moving into phase three of the project soon.
“Phase three is going to be directed towards adding HVAC ducting to the building, as well as sewer line repairs and an ADA restroom. This phase currently is out for bid,” Britt explained.
It is truly exciting to see the Cavern Theatre being rehabilitated and the huge amount of progress that has been made in the last couple of months despite the COVID-19 outbreak. Especially since the Cavern Theatre is a huge part of Carlsbad’s history. Hopefully it will continue to make history during future generations and the new-comers in our growing community.
The members of the Cavern Theatre Committee would like to offer their condolences to the Light and Rogers families for the loss of philanthropist and legislator Bob Light. Mr. Light passed away on Oct. 26, 2015. He was an exceptional supporter of this community and our restoration effort. “You will be missed dearly, Mr. Light, and thank you so much for everything you did for all of us.”
The Fireballs Score a Direct Hit!
George Tomsco of the Fireballs and the Johnny Mulhair backup band performed in Carlsbad in November 2015 as part of a benefit concert and dinner to raise funds to complete the Cavern Theatre rehabilitation project. Natives of Raton, New Mexico, The Fireballs can be recognized from hits such as “Sugar Shack” and “Bottle of Wine.” The benefit concert not only raised funds for the Cavern Theatre rehabilitation project but was also a part of the New Mexico Association of Museums Annual Conference held at Carlsbad’s Pecos River Village Conference Center.
Cavern Theatre Project Update January 2016
The asbestos abatement is complete. City crews have removed the old carpet exposing the original chevron-pattern mosaic tile in the lobby. They are in the process of a general cleanup. City electricians have inspected existing wiring and the decision has been made to totally rewire the building and bring the electrical system up to modern code during Phase 1. Durham Mackay Architects are nearing completion of the plans, which include a Phase 1 and 2 installations of basic infrastructure that will allow the building to be occupied prior to the total rehabilitation. This will permit limited programming to begin to give the public access, enabling visitors to envision the desired result of a fully functional performing arts center.
Cavern Theatre Project Update September 2017
The City received $250,000 capital outlay money from the State for electrical updates and $173,000 from Lodgers Tax for marquee restoration. As Durham Mackay Architects closed their doors, the City contracted with Mitchell & Cruse Architecture to continue the design of the property. The City and architects have established contact with the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division and are working to ensure that much of the 1951 aesthetic is preserved.
The city-owned Cavern Theatre rehabilitation project is gaining momentum and partnerships are being formed. Carlsbad MainStreet and Creative Carlsbad are supporters and are assisting in promoting and planning the project. New Mexico State University-Carlsbad (NMSU-C) and Carlsbad Municipal Schools (CMS) will be utilizing the completed facility to conduct educational courses, performances, and shows. NMSU-C plans to add two courses to its digital media program directly related to the Cavern Theatre Performing Arts Center. These courses will focus on creating and maintaining digital gallery exhibitions and curating and implementing film festivals. CMS plans to use the theatre to conduct courses in the performing arts.
The center will host live plays and concerts geared to attract tourists who are visiting the area. In addition, the center will take advantage of modern technology to stream in live plays, concerts, and other cultural events from locations across the country and around the world.
A plan was established calling for the project to be completed in three major phases:
- Phase 1: Asbestos removal and cleanup – complete
- Phase 2: Electrical upgrades of the building and restoration of the neon sign.
- Phase 3: Complete the rehabilitation: build a full-sized stage and install state-of-the-art technical equipment. Open a fully functional performing arts center
Phase 2 will begin soon using state capital outlay funding and lodgers tax. The City of Carlsbad is applying for a grant through the Economic Development Administration to begin Phase 3.
The City of Carlsbad plans to complete the whole project and open the Center in late 2019, assuming receipt of the grant monies in September 2017, successful fundraising to fill the gap and careful scheduling of continual work.