The Fountain Theatre

The History of the Fountain Theatre

The Fountain Theatre has entertained the residents of La Mesilla since 1905, when Albert Fountain Jr., son of Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain, bought the theater building.  The Fountain family has been associated with Mesilla since 1873, when Colonel Fountain moved to Mesilla with his wife Mariana and their five children.

The oldest part of the theater building is the front wall, from the 1870s. The building and the apartments to the south were built on the site of Confederate barracks. In 1914 or 1917, Albert Jr., son of the Colonel, began painting the murals, which show his father entering the Mesilla Valley. He completed them in 1924, and they were touched up in the 1950s.

The Colonel’s brother was Edward Jennings, the most prominent Shakespearean actor of the day, and in 1874 the Colonel founded the Mesilla Dramatic Association, rented a building on the northwest corner of the plaza, and renovated it with Albert Jr. This became the Mesilla Valley Opera House, featuring family theatricals and local talent. Albert Jr. created stage designs and painted sets with his father.

After buying the building in 1905, Albert Fountain Jr. began producing plays, vaudeville, light opera, and lantern slide shows. In 1912, he modified the building for films and changed the name to “Fountain of Pleasure.” Albert and his wife and daughters supplied live music for the films. Films were intertitled in English, but the audience was Spanish-speaking, so Albert translated the cards into Spanish. According to some patrons who attended as children, Albert Jr. invariably added his own comments, opinions, or jokes. His son Henry ran the projector. There was no projection booth or permanent screen. The projector was not reliable, either, so the Fountain musical accompanist at the time would play and sing when the machine broke down.

The Fountain of Pleasure operated this way until 1929, when the building was sold to Vicente Guerra, who decided to show “talkies.” He wired the theater and installed projection and sound equipment. He also installed the first permanent screen and seats.

However, in 1938 Guerra was forced to relinquish the building in foreclosure. The bank sold the building to the highest bidder, Albert Fountain III. The building has been in the family since 1939. Albert Fountain III screened only Spanish-language movies, presenting a play from time to time. The Fountain family presented motion pictures and live performances through the golden age of American talkies, until 1951. In 1951–1963, the building was used for storage or left vacant.

In 1963 or 1964, Arthur Fountain acquired the building from Albert Fountain III and lent it to the Las Cruces Community Theatre (LCCT). The LCCT remodeled the women’s room and built a new stage. The Theatre reopened in 1964 and presented live performances until 1977, when the LCCT moved to the downtown mall in Las Cruces.

In 1977, Artie Fountain borrowed the building from his father Arthur and began to show movies and sometimes allowed the NMSU Theater Arts Department to stage plays. In 1989, he stopped these activities and rented the building to the Mesilla Valley Film Society (MVFS). The MVFS began to screen American independent, foreign, and alternative film in the building.

Because of inappropriate renovations and maintenance in the 1930s–1960s, the building structure and the murals need repair. The MVFS is working with Cornerstones, an organization that mobilizes community resources to preserve buildings of historic significance.  After the MVFS purchases the Fountain Theatre, they will begin fundraising for the long-term restoration of the theater.

Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain

Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain was born on Staten Island, New York, on October 23, 1838, to Solomon Jennings and Catherine de la Fontaine. He was trained as an attorney and elected to the Texas senate and the New Mexico legislature.  In 1873, he moved, from El Paso to Mesilla, with his wife Mariana Peréz Fountain and their five children. He served in California and Arizona during the Civil War and later as a militia officer in the war with the Apaches. In Mesilla, he worked as assistant district attorney and probate judge as well as a newspaper editor, founding, in 1877, the Mesilla Valley Independent and the Spanish edition El Independiente del Valle de la Mesilla.

Photos

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Fountain Theatre, ca. 1930’s
[photo courtesy Rio Grande Historical Collections]

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Fountain Theatre, ca. 1930’s; Rives Studio Collection
[photo courtesy Rio Grande Historical Collections]

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Fountain family home, ca. 1930’s; Rives Studio Collection
[photo courtesy Rio Grande Historical Collections]

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Inside the Fountain Theatre, 2006
[photo courtesy Bob Peticolas]

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