The first time I came to Popejoy Hall after moving here in 1980, I couldn’t find it.
This was before Johnson Gym muscled in on the space between the two buildings, before the bookstore bookended us on the south side, before the Cornell Parking Structure rose up next door, before the Architecture building blocked one’s view of Popejoy from Central. The first time I went to Popejoy Hall, I drove right past it. I was looking for a more imposing, maybe more colorful, building. I wanted to find something more — I don't know — theatrical.
Once inside, I was impressed by its size and technical capacity, its adaptability, its acoustics, its sheer size. In those days, the hall sat just over 2,200 people. Even with its muted tones of mustard (think Grey Poupon), browns and grays (exposed aggregate concrete) and its spare design, the scale of the hall was imposing. As I explored the theater more, I was impressed that a lot of the expense of building it had gone into its technical capacity.
Popejoy was built in 1966 for just over $10 million. The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York opened the same year at a cost of over $37 million. New Mexico had gotten a lot for its money.
Over the years, I watched as the theater changed and grew. One of the most interesting additions to Popejoy in the 1980s was the sound pod, as it was called. It clung to the front of the balcony like a barnacle to a pier.
I remember the first time I entered the pod. I was directing a show for Albuquerque Civic Light Opera Association (ACLOA, now Musical Theatre Southwest). I sidled past the seats in the front row of the mezzanine, climbed over the rail and dropped down into it. The whole pod shook as I landed, and I didn’t weigh much in those days, I swear. To get back out, I had to step on a metal chair and hoist myself up over the rail. No one had built an entry to it.
The renovation of 1995-96 significantly changed the hall’s interior. Mustard, brown and gray gave way to red and cherry wood. The sound pod was scraped off the front of the balcony.
The renovation of Popejoy Hall, thirty years after it had opened, cost as much as the original construction. Again, all the money was spent inside the shell of the building.
The next renovation for Popejoy — and there will be one, you can be certain — will have to increase the depth of the stage. What had been an impressive stage in the 1960s when it was built, and even in the 1980s when I first saw it, has now become a very tight fit for some of the massive touring shows on the road today.
That means Popejoy’s shell will be cracked. Once it is, I hope the architect will find a way to give Popejoy a visual presence on the outside that it’s never had. Popejoy Hall should reflect externally what it is at its core: the center for the performing arts in New Mexico.
Terry S. Davis
Photo: Popejoy Hall and the UNM Center for the Arts as seen from the Cornell Parking Structure