Feb. 26: Fort Union Drive In, Las Vegas NM

It’s Day 57 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. The drive from Monte Vista CO took almost four hours over twisty two-lane mountain roads. At the end of my journey, I reached the Fort Union Drive In Movie Theatre in Las Vegas NM. It’s on the north edge of town, right on Highway 518.

In a June 2014 article, the Santa Fe New Mexican documented how the Fort Union almost closed because of the need to convert to digital projection. It highlighted its new general manager, then 18-year-old Jake Cordova, who had asked his grandfather to buy the projector and take over the theater. “Las Vegas doesn’t have many other forms of entertainment,” Felipe Cordova said. “You often wonder why they discontinue this kind of entertainment that brings the community together.”

So we know that it updated to digital projection in 2014, but when did the Fort Union first open? At Visit Las Vegas NM, they say it was 1958. Then again, the Vegas Drive-In, about the same size as today’s Fort Union, opened around 1949 and was still in the 1955-56 Theatre Catalog. Did it get renamed, or did the Fort Union replace it? I just don’t know.

The Fort Union typically operates from mid-May to September or so. I expected that I’d run into a stretch like this – I’ve only seen one movie all week.

Miles Today / Total:  182 / 7426 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 37

Nearby Restaurant: For a touch of history in this old railroad town, a great place to eat is The Landmark Grill at the Plaza Hotel. It was like stepping through a time warp to the late 19th century, except for the prices. I chose the somewhat reasonably priced blue corn enchiladas so I’d feel better about trying their bread pudding for dessert. The best I’ve ever had is still at the Golden Nugget in that other Las Vegas, but this one’s on the list.

Where I Virtually Stayed: A few days ago, I suggested that if the Super 8 is the best hotel in a town, that might mean it doesn’t have much competition. In Las Vegas, despite the historic, excellent Plaza Hotel, it’s the Super 8 that has the highest traveller rating on TripAdvisor. Because it really is that good, especially for the money. Evening soup and a decent breakfast are included, as is some of the friendliest service you’ll ever find.

Only in Las Vegas: Thirty minutes away from the Fort Union Drive-In is the Fort Union National Monument. Fort Union was built in 1851 near the convergence of the Cimarron and Mountain branches of the Santa Fe Trail. In 1879 a newly built railroad began to displace traffic on the trail, and in 1891 the Army abandoned the fort. Fort Union National Monument was established in 1956, so maybe that’s when and why they renamed the drive-in.

Next Stop: Corral Drive-In, Guymon OK.

Jan. 30: Fiesta Drive-In, Carlsbad NM

It’s Day 30 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey, and it’s the first where I return to a drive-in that I visited in real life. The Fiesta Drive-In in Carlsbad NM, a two and a half hour drive from Midland TX, has three screens, some wonderful neon, and a great setting.

According to CinemaTreasures, the Fiesta opened with a single screen in 1948. (It’s listed in my 1949 Theatre Catalog that way.) It closed in 1970, but was completely rebuilt in 1989 as a three screen drive-in. By 2010 the Fiesta had closed again, but it was reopened in 2012 and seems to be doing okay now.

In fact, the Fiesta was just ramping up, hiring help and finishing a satellite dish installation before the opening of the 2017 season this Friday. Just like my other visit, there was no movie for me to watch, but this time I missed it by four days instead of one.

Miles Today / Total:  147 / 3608 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 21

Nearby Restaurant: When it’s open, it’s hard to beat the Red Chimney Bar-B-Que. Pecan smoked marinated chicken. That’s just a great phrase, and it’s even better when it comes with barbeque beans and cold beer.

Where I Virtually Stayed: It’s the closest hotel to the national park, and it’s not far from the Fiesta, but I picked the Hampton Inn for a reliable stay with great service. Have you noticed that newer hotels have plenty of power outlets on the walls in the room?

Only in Carlsbad: Have you been to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, just south of town? You’ve probably heard of it. Especially growing up, I must have toured a dozen caves, but none were anywhere close to Carlsbad Caverns for size and history. Those other caves were formed by rainwater, but the Carlsbad Caverns were carved by sulfuric acid. Carlsbad isn’t very close to anywhere, but if you’re ever in the neighborhood, you really must visit!

Next Stop: Fiesta Drive In Theatre, El Paso TX.

Fort Union reopens with digital projector

Fort Union drive-in screen

photo by Birdie Jaworski

It’s so exciting to find some seriously good news about one of the drive-ins closest to our hearts. The Fort Union Drive-In in Las Vegas NM has reopened for the 2014 season with a new digital projector, which should ensure its continued existence for decades to come. This great news comes from the Santa Fe New Mexican, which wrote a story about the local benefactor who stepped forward to save the drive-in.

Even such great news comes with a tinge of sadness. This is the first I’d heard of the demise of the Kiva Theater in downtown Las Vegas. When I visited the Kiva in May 2013, it was a vibrant community hub showing the latest films. According to the New Mexican story, the Kiva closed last fall because it couldn’t raise the money to buy a digital projector.

But let’s look at the excitement of getting another drive-in on solid footing. New general manager Jake Cordova, 18, persuaded his grandfather “to help buy the projector and take over the drive-in,” according to the story. Cordova plans to add another night, Thursday, to the weekend lineup and to keep the Fort Union open into October each year. Thanks to everyone who’s keeping this piece of Americana alive for generations to come.