The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

The day Portales burned

Fire claimed the Tower Theater 40 years ago.


March 11, 2018

File photo

Portales' Tower Theater was destroyed by fire in 1978.

PORTALES — Tower Theater owners Alvie and Frances Smith were house shopping outside Portales when Alvie first noticed the smoke bellowing from the downtown area.

"He said he had a real funny feeling," Daughter Kay Manis remembers.

"He said, 'Maybe I better go downtown and make sure the theater's OK.'"

The theater was not OK.

Downtown Portales was not OK.

Forty years ago this week, on March 10, 1978, Portales burned.

The fire started just after 1 p.m. in a sweet potato warehouse northwest of the downtown square. Potato crates burned quickly. And then 40-50 mph winds fanned the flames.

Within minutes, fire had enveloped the Tower, the Print Shop, Mickey Barnett's law office and other buildings near the square.

Fire departments around the region responded, but it took nearly four hours to contain the blazes.

The Tower Theater — with its 700-seat auditorium and balcony that had provided community entertainment for three decades — was already destroyed by the time the Smiths could arrive.

The Smiths had been operating the theater since 1964.

Alvie, who died in 1992, was mostly worried about the keepsakes he had stored in his office, his daughter said.

"He had a lot of personal things ... plus all these great posters that he was collecting and keeping. The main thing is he had personal pictures of the kids and his family, and they (firefighters) wouldn't let him go up," she said.

— — —

Gary Watkins was a Portales firefighter in 1978.

He responded to the initial report that the sweet potato shed was on fire.

Within 30 minutes, the rest of the block was burning.

Watkins said his only thought was, "How much of this town is gonna burn before we can get it under control?"

"They closed down the post office, which was just across the street (from the theater). City Hall was where it's at now, they closed it down. The courthouse, they had taken all the prisoners out and closed that building down. We even had spot fires all the way out on the (Air Force) base highway, little grass fires popping up," he said.

No serious injuries were reported during the fire, but at one point Watkins said he was in an alley a half block from the theater, pumping water into a fire truck.

A firefighter named Marsh Maddox entered the burning theater with a fire hose. Then the roof collapsed.

"We were pulling the fire hose back out, hoping that he would come with it, hoping that he had realized that part of the roof had fell in. We came out with an empty nozzle and no firefighter," Watkins said.

"We run around to the front, and he had made it through the whole building, took his air pack off, and threw it through the glass doors, and came out there. You talk about a relief."

By 5 p.m. the winds had begun to calm, allowing both firefighters and residents who had volunteered a chance to rest.

"We had citizens from all over town coming in, 'What can we do to help?' We had citizens with one firefighter on a nozzle squirting water. We had all the restaurants that came down, bringing food to feed all the firefighters from all the county departments and everything," Watkins said. "It's pretty amazing how the citizens of Portales, when something like that happens, jumped in and helped out."

— — —

Leroy Thomas was working in his business, the Print Shop, behind the Tower Theater, when the fire broke out. He was soon chopping holes in his building's roof to fit fire hoses inside, his son Don Thomas said.

The Print Shop was insulated with peanut hulls, a highly flammable substance, and the north walls of the business eventually had to be pushed in by bulldozers to stop the fire.

"If it wouldn't have stopped at ours, it was headed toward the post office and what is now (Roosevelt County Electric Co-op)," Don Thomas said.

Aside from all the equipment lost to the flames, several priceless keepsakes were also consumed.

"In there, we had some (old records) and an old (record player) that was just vintage. It was just immaculate, and it was all lost. We lost all of my trophies from when I was a kid growing up playing peewee league football and stuff like that," Don Thomas said.

The Print Shop was destroyed. The Thomas' relocated to Third Street, where the business is today.

Leroy Thomas declined to talk about the fire, passing questions to his son."I think one of the things (Leroy Thomas) would tell us too was how the community came together. It was stunning. People loaned us buildings. They said, 'Here, you can work out of this building for however long you need to,' and the building that we're in now was loaned to us by Don Davis," Don Thomas said.

Don Thomas was in sixth grade at the time, and while he didn't witness the fire, he recalled an exchange the day before that left him feeling guilty for years.

"I was at the Print Shop, where we always seemed to be, and I was whining in the back by the back door, saying, 'Come on, Mom. Let's go home. I'm sick of this place. I don't want to be here anymore,'" he said.

"Then the next day it burned down, and I felt for years like it was my fault, like I wished the fire on it."

— — —

Sharon Davis, who was at home, received a call from her father George Calton, owner of Calton Furniture, warning her that the town was burning.

Then he climbed to the roof of the furniture store to check the fire's progress.

"He came back down and called me and said, 'You better come and look at the town if you ever want to see it again, because it's going,'" Sharon Davis said.

As she drove 20 minutes into town with her children in tow, Davis prepared to say goodbye to Portales.

"I can remember we walked down to the square from the furniture store, and there were hoses scattered across the road everywhere, and you could see the cinders just blowing up in the air. I think they were wetting down the post office, because they wanted to be sure the post office didn't burn," she said.

— — —

An article in the March 15, 1978, issue of the Albuquerque Journal reported the fire "destroyed or damaged" six buildings. Fire officials at the time estimated the total damage to be $2 million to $3 million, according to the article.

All of this, due to an electrical short.

Watkins said a short at the sweet potato warehouse caused the fire, the sparks from which were blown into the Tower's air conditioning ducts.

Today, the Tower Loft apartment building is located on the site of the theater.

There are no obvious signs of the fire, only the memories passed on by generations before.

Commonwealth Theaters, the owners of the Tower Theater, went to work repairing the damages shortly after the fire. The Tower Twin theater opened Nov. 16, 1978.

The night of the grand opening, a "Hollywood affair" ensued, according to Manis.

"They had all the dignitaries in town, and they served champagne, and the women wore long dresses, and it was really an affair," she said.

The Smiths enjoyed seeing a new theater come back so quickly, Manis said, but the result could never duplicate the building they had spent so much of their lives in.

"Just look at it: How would you feel if something you loved so much was destroyed, and then a substitute for it is rebuilt, and it's not near as satisfactory," she said. "It wasn't near the thing as the big theater was. Sure, it was nice and new, but it wasn't a classic."

The effects of the Tower Theater's destruction rippled through Manis' family.

"Daddy never could talk about it without tearing up. It hurt my mom, too. It was bad for all of us," she said.


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