LAS VEGAS, N.M. — Judy Gonzales and Kathy Ortiz first pulled into the Fort Union Drive-In back in the early 1990s — and then made a habit of it.
These days, they head to the outdoor movie theater with Ortiz’s grandson, Seth Gomez.
On a recent Friday night, the three of them curled up in lawn chairs in front of their car, with blankets spread over their knees, and watched young couples and parents line up at the concessions window.
Kids kicked soccer balls and scrambled onto cars as everyone waited for the first movie to light up the big screen. The feature was Jumanji: The Next Level.
“It feels almost the same as always,” Gomez said.
Even during a pandemic.
But the outing was safe, Gonzales noted: A drive-in comes with built-in social distancing.
The only significant exceptions from years past: The models of vehicles parked in the dirt lot certainly had changed, and so had the sound system. Decades ago, before the audio came into each car by radio, the women said, there were speakers at each parking spot.
The Fort Union Drive-In in Las Vegas is the only drive-in movie theater remaining in New Mexico. It capitalizes on nostalgia, and audiences — locals and visitors alike — love this, manager and co-owner Jake Cordova said.
The drive-in has seen more tourists in its crowd every year.
This year could be different though.
The governor’s newest public health order requiring out-of-state tourists to quarantine for 14 days after arrival could mean fewer visitors venture to the drive-in.
Fort Union, which held its inaugural screening in 1951, is a decades-old tradition. This season, Cordova was more eager than ever to open for business after a weekslong delay due to pandemic-related restrictions. He wanted to offer cooped-up residents some entertainment as indoor theaters and concert venues remained closed and would be, it seemed, for the foreseeable future. He had hoped to open the drive-in May 15 with a double feature of Trolls World Tour and Dolittle.
But Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham halted the plan, saying he didn’t have permission from the state.
Cordova persisted and finally was given the green light on the first weekend in June.
While drive-in theaters have dwindled across the nation — only a few hundred are in operation — the pandemic has sparked a new trend of outdoor theaters popping up in parking lots, where audiences can view films from their vehicles or outside at a safe distance from others.
One such pop-up theater opened in Edgewood in June.
The relative ease with which these pop-ups have opened is a little unfair to established theaters, Cordova said, adding, “It hasn’t been easy to stay afloat.”
In a normal year, he would show a new movie every weekend. But COVID-19 has ensured this is no normal year. Among other challenges, Cordova said, “Movie companies aren’t filming.” He has been stretching the same showings over two weekends.
Step back in time
Fort Union is part of New Mexico’s long history of drive-in theaters, with outdoor screenings appearing in the state more than a decade and a half before Richard Hollingshead coined the term “drive-in movie theater” and opened the first official one in 1933 in Camden, N.J.
In 1915, Theater de Guadalupe opened in Las Cruces with space for about 40 vehicles. Though it closed the following year, the theater inspired years of experimental outdoor movie showings in nearby Texas.
Cordova said locals and visitors at the Fort Union Drive-In appreciate the step back in time.
They even demand it.
He recalled announcing plans to knock down the old building that houses the concession stand and kitchen, as well as the projector room and bathroom. He wanted to rebuild with a more modern spin.
Patrons said no.
Cordova complied. Instead, he will use corrugated metal to make the building look “even more like a ’50s diner than it already does,” he said. “I want people to experience the same kind of fun and enjoyment their grandparents did.”
There’s no vintage film projector. But when Cordova presses “play” on his computer, the magic still happens at Fort Union.
A family affair
Jake Cordova and his grandfather, Felipe Cordova, bought the business together in 2014 to rescue it from closure.
Jake had just graduated from Las Vegas Robertson High School and had been doing security work for the drive-in. But the business had run into trouble: To continue operating, it needed a new digital projector, costing tens of thousands of dollars, and the owner wasn’t able to invest.
The Cordova duo stepped up, with Felipe funding the equipment and Jake agreeing to serve as general manager. They have worked together to keep the business running ever since.
“We get along real well,” Jake Cordova said of his grandfather. “Pretty much everything we’ve done in business, we’ve done together.”
“It seemed like a good venture,” his grandfather added, “and we were encouraged by many locals who didn’t want to see the drive-in close.”
Surprisingly, neither Cordova is a serious movie lover. They just wanted to keep the theater alive for their community.
Jake Cordova said they made some changes.
They raised the ticket price from $12 per car to $20 per car and began showing family-oriented movies almost exclusively.
“It kept out a lot of people who just showed up to mess around,” Jake Cordova said, and it helped draw more families and folks from out of town.
The dirt parking lot, which can accommodate 250 to 300 cars, is often packed.
Luckily, the Cordovas have help with the venture. They have 10 or so employees, and nearly all of them are family members.
Jake Cordova’s mother, June Martinez, coordinates concessions sales while her parents, Larry and Henrietta Martinez, make food in the back.
“He started young, June Martinez said of her son, “so we all wanted to help.
“But now he can’t get rid of us,” she added. “This is a fun job.”
The Las Vegas community has shown its gratitude to the family by showing up on weekend nights.
“People are very appreciative that we’ve been able to open, and we’ve gotten a lot of support,” June Martinez said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
Patrons agree there is something wonderful about Fort Union.
Gonzales said watching a movie at the drive-in is “something safe to do” during the pandemic. But it’s more than that: “This place is special because we were raised with it.”
Gomez hasn’t been enjoying the theater for nearly as long as Gonzales and his grandmother, but the boy agreed they have a personal connection with the drive-in.
“It’s part of us,” he said.