It's a strange scene, "like something you'd see in a movie," Kathy Zimmer says.
Blackened rubble slopes up and over where the lip of the stage used to be. No roof means tilting your head up and confronting open blue sky, brutal sun lighting the place in a way the glory days of the dim Golden West never knew. The wooden floors are fine. An untouched blue can of linseed oil sits atop a blackened circular bar table. A rag soaked in that oil was blamed for the fire.
Zimmer owns Puccini's Golden West Saloon and El Rey Theater with her mother. She's taking a group of reporters, cameramen and Mayor Martin Chavez' reps through the charred remains of one of her buildings. It's Thursday, March 6, one week since the fire. Twisted tin ceiling tiles lay heaped on the floor. Melted musicians' promo pictures and browned CDs peak out of the debris.
Zimmer and Mayor Chavez give a press conference in front of El Rey.
"This is a Downtown that's being renovated and restored and revitalized," Zimmer says at the event. Chavez says nobody knows yet what will go into the Golden West's space but that the city would partner with Zimmer "to get those decisions made." The Golden West was not just architecture, Chavez adds, it was an important part of "new Albuquerque."
After the fire on Thursday, Feb. 28, Zimmer turned El Rey into a not-for-profit corporation, sending the documents to Santa Fe and achieving that status on Monday, March 3. This will allow her to schedule noncommercial events, acts with artistic or educational value that aren’t necessarily big moneymakers, she says.
El Rey will need to have its electrical and gas permitted again before it can reopen. So will the Launchpad, the adjacent bar and music venue owned by Joe Anderson. Chavez says he's extending every courtesy to Zimmer to make sure all the permits flow quickly. Anderson says he's been extended no such courtesy, though Chavez' Clean Team has offered assistance by volunteering a cleaning crew. "El Rey is going to be back up and running long before Launchpad will," Anderson says.
He also says it's been a constant struggle to remind the city and media that neighboring businesses need help and are losing revenue, too. "It's like, Wait-wait-wait, what about us? We're not the guys who improperly stored chemical-covered rags. This is your liability. That's what's frustrating."
Anderson says the integrity of his business is collapsing because he's unable to help booking agents. "They're frustrated with us. They don't understand. They say, Building next door burnt down? Too bad. When are you going to open? Why can't you pay my band?"
The Launchpad, which passed a fire inspection the week before the Golden West's fire, won't have power and gas back until next week. Anderson's been in his venue every day since the Fire Department allowed him back inside, cleaning and trying to get things going again. The west wall collapsed into the Launchpad, and now there's about six feet of wall missing, he says. Smoke and water damage is stinking up the place. The light and sound systems were soaked.
He poured a half-gallon of water out of each monitor, a brand-new speaker system he bought with his own money because the business couldn't afford it. All the phone lines and cables ran along the wall shared between the Launchpad and Golden West. They melted in the fire. Launchpad's two big space heaters were also destroyed. "Every day we're not back open, I get more angry," he says.
Zimmer's been calling for the community to back her up, to donate cash to funds set up at the Bank of Albuquerque. She estimates it would take less than $500,000—but somewhere in that neighborhood—if she chooses to rebuild the Golden West. El Rey could be operational as early as March 20, but only if permitting goes easily and enough community volunteers come to pitch in with cleaning soot from the walls, Zimmer says.
She won't speak to whether she has insurance, or how much money she's received through the Bank of Albuquerque or from a benefit concert cellist Matt Haimovitz put on Sunday, March 9. "I want to know what the community wants, and I want to know how much they're willing to be invested in it," Zimmer says, "how much they're willing to be personally invested in it. Not just monetarily but emotionally. People need to show their interest. Otherwise it just becomes a building." She says though she doesn't yet know what she will do with the Golden West space, there is no chance she would sell it. Zimmer says the donated funds are not necessarily for rebuilding the saloon. "It's for everything involved with the disaster. It's like a disaster relief fund."
But why call for donations if insurance will cover part or all of the damage?
"Well, when you have insurance, depending on how poor you are, you have big deductibles. Insurance is not what it's cracked up to be, believe me," Zimmer says.
Anderson says he's been paying big fees for business insurance for years. On top of that, his landlord also had insurance on the Launchpad building. His employees should be receiving partial checks when those payments begin coming in. "Everyone seems to think we're totally covered and we're going to be fine." Plans are in the works for Launchpad to build its own west wall so any construction in the Golden West lot won't interfere with Launchpad's business.
Though bands have expressed interest in helping the Launchpad out, Anderson says he's not looking for financial support. He just wants people to buy tickets to the shows he's moving to other venues, he says. If other businesses have temporary work for his employees, he adds, that might help fill some of the financial gaps they're facing until Launchpad resumes holding shows, hopefully, at the latest, on May 1. "Just buy an extra beer next time you're here," he says. "And make sure you come back."