Go ahead. Make as much noise as you want.
When you’re parked in a railyard on the outskirts of the warehouse district, there’s no reason to keep it down. The neighborhood around First Street and Lomas is home to a family of storage units, light industrial complexes, a few banks and a legal office. By 5 p.m. each day, the place is as still as a cemetery--save for the rattle and hum of an occasional Santa Fe freight car.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your amplifiers.
“The Cell was born out of its surroundings,” says Cell Theatre proprietor Dennis Gromelski. “I don’t know if we could have done it elsewhere.”
Yes, this urban sanctuary would make for one hell of a punk rock club, but Gromelski is talking about a bona fide theater space--with velvet curtains and everything. There’s no booze, definitely no smoking and the carefully maintained sheen of the place is more appropriate for Death of a Salesman than a Dead Milkmen concert. It has a foyer, for crying out loud.
Still, Gromelski gets a discernable sparkle in his eye when he lays into the figures. The Cell hosts 90 nights of theater performances produced by the Fusion Theatre Company, he says. Fifteen more evenings are reserved for special events like school dances and private parties. What’s left is about 170 nights of live music performances. That’s a concert almost every other night.
“I get seven to eight e-mails every day from people looking to book shows here,” Gromelski says, flashing a great big smile. Those musicians hail from New Mexico and other parts of the country, and play everything from the harpsichord to death metal. Gromelski says the theater can accommodate so much peripheral music because of good old-fashioned grassroots networking and a little hi-tech know-how. “MySpace has become a penultimate tool for musicians,” he says. Thanks to websites like www.myspace.com and www.byofl.org, the Cell has become a hub for all-ages music in the Southwest with virtually no advertising.
Think of the Cell as a sort of community center for music. The concerts aren’t the financial driving force behind the space, which Gromelski says keeps pressure at a minimum. Several young musicians work and volunteer at the theater, learning the ropes of event production through hands-on experience with sound and light design, promotion and other aspects of the trade. “It makes a good experience for all involved,” Gromelski says. Local performers Dear Oceana do an incredible job of promoting their Cell shows through a street team armed with original artwork. And when 17-year-old Hendrik isn’t behind Dear Oceana’s keyboards, you’ll probably find him behind the sound board at a Cell show. If you want to get involved, just ask. “We absolutely welcome all inquiries,” Gromelski says. His own son--a 14-year-old classical guitar student at Albuquerque Academy--took a job there one summer to save up enough cash to buy a new bass guitar.
This isn’t the first time 700 First Street NW has been a haven for local music. The building’s last legal tenant was the Wild West Music Co., a music equipment store and makeshift hangout for musicians from 1983-1988. The Cell even has a copy of a Wild West Music Co. phone directory ad on file (which touted itself as the “home of the free kazoo”). In a way, there’s a great confluence in those two businesses occupying the same space. Both have fostered safe, creative environments for young musicians in an otherwise barren part of town. And the way Gromelski sees it, Albuquerque is still very much a part of the Wild West. “It’s insane and creative and Western here,” he says. “It’s still up to you to make your own reality with local resources and your own creativity. I don’t know if I’d change that for anything.” That, at the very least, is worth making some noise about.