Durango In the Movies / At the Movies
By Carolyn Bowra | Summer/Fall 2021
At one time, so many movies were filmed in the San Juan Basin that it became known as the “Hollywood of the Rockies.” However, Durango was not just in the movies; residents went to the movies. Durango’s film debut was the locally produced 1921 feature Small Town Vamp. The Durango Evening Herald noted, “This comedy is the first attempt of Durango in the movie life, and the patrons of the theatre are awaiting the production with a great deal of anticipation.” The film was produced by J.W. Jarvis, proprietor of the Jarvis Garage. It starred local talent plus the finest horses in the area, featuring “good roping, good riding and peculiar situations.” The film was shown at the Gem Theatre, located at 1001 Main Ave. Other theater choices in the 1920s were the Rialto, at 1053 Main Ave., and the Isis Theatre, at 857 Main Ave., where admission was 25 cents for the 7:30 show and 10 cents for the 9 p.m. show.
When Hollywood discovered the stunning Western scenery of the San Juan Basin and the historic charm of the narrow-gauge railroad, it filmed dozens of movies in the area. The railroad took a starring role in Paramount Pictures’ Denver & Rio Grande, filmed during the summer of 1951. The most thrilling shot was the collision of two locomotives, under steam and with the aid of “a generous amount of dynamite.” D&RG engines 319 and 345 raced toward each other for a spectacular crash scene. Due to a miscalculation of the point of impact, the collision was not centered in the frame but it was still an impressive end for two locomotives destined for the scrap heap. The next summer, Basin Drive-In Theatre, at 22nd and Main Avenue, proudly showed the film, co-starring Edmond O’Brien and Sterling Hayden, with ads, noting that it was “Filmed in the Basin.” The drive-in had opened around 1950, and in 1956 was renamed the Knox Drive-In. Later, in 1958, it became the Bell Drive-In. The Rocket Drive-In’s arrival on the scene south of town, in 1957, gave residents even more places to view the latest movies from the comfort of their cars.
The Naked Spur, starring Jimmy Stewart and Janet Leigh, was filmed just north of Durango in 1952. In addition to Hollywood stars, the shoot drew political celebrities to Durango as well. Colorado Governor Daniel Thornton attended an event in June designating the San Juan Basin “Hollywood of the Rockies.” A model of a proposed obelisk monument was unveiled at Fassbinder Park. Durango’s award-winning American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps added to the festive air. It was hoped the event, which was filmed by newsreel crews, and the “Hollywood” designation would encourage more filming in the area. Unfortunately, the permanent monument was never constructed. The governor also visited the movie-set location, where he was not the only civic leader in attendance. Lead actor Jimmy Stewart had been named honorary mayor of Durango.
“His Honor” Jimmy Stewart was back in Durango in the fall of 1957, filming Night Passage with costar Audie Murphy and hundreds of local extras. The movie had its world premiere in Denver. A delegation of Durango residents was in attendance, and a Durango display decorated the lobby. The Kiva Theatre, at 813 Main Ave., a downtown movie destination since the 1930s, hosted screenings of the rushes (dailies) of each day’s action during the filming. The Kiva held the location premiere of Night Passage, with still photographs from the film arrayed throughout the lobby.
The 1960s found Durango in the spotlight again, when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, co-starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross, was filmed in the area. Locals spent the summer of 1968 working as extras or trying to catch a glimpse of the stars. Of course they packed the Kiva to see Butch and Sundance’s iconic leap into the Animas River from high atop the cliff at Baker’s Bridge north of Durango.
The Kiva was damaged in the devastating Main Avenue fire in August 1974. The Gaslight Theater arrived on the south end of Main Avenue in the late ’70s. In the ’80s the Kiva closed as a movie theater. Yet Hollywood cameras continued to roll in the Basin. Avalanche was filmed at the Lodge at Tamarron, today’s Glacier Club, in February and March of 1978. Locals responded to a call for extras in the movie starring Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow. The movie was initially not a commercial success but found fans when it was featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, streaming on Netflix. Once again, Durango residents could see local scenery on-screen in the latest movie venue—their own homes.