By Elizabeth deMare
Submitted to the Optic
Las Vegas all but reeks of stories. You can hear the whispers of the lives of its forebearers rustling, all but forgotten, among its historic buildings.
Traveling merchants from far and wide, covered in the dust of the Santa Fe Trail which nurtured them, lurk in the stones of the buildings on Bridge Street.
Pioneering settlers, home from the fields their work made green, murmur like unanswered prayers in the quiet strength of its adobes. Transplanted ladies from the east in bustles and hoop skirts flit among the widows walks and cornices of Victorian homes. Soldiers, bandits and women of ill repute flirt and flounce in the old saloons on Railroad Avenue.
If Las Vegas’ architecture could speak, what tales would it tell? With his installation, Almas de la Plaza, local artist Robert Drummond brings his enthusiasm, his intelligence, his immigrant’s joy in Las Vegas and his 12 years of international experience as a site-specific video artist to answering that question.
For five weeks, beginning on July 21 and running through August, the spirits of some of the town’s most colorful ghosts will tell their tales in the turn-of-the-century windows of the Crockett building, best known to locals as the Murphy building, after the pharmacy that occupied its main floor for the better part of the past 100 years, located at Sixth and Douglas.
Evening visitors to downtown will have the opportunity to meet some new people. Or rather, some very old people including Ida Ilfeld, Teddy Roosevelt, Eugenio Romero, Doc Holliday, Las Gorras Blancas, Stephen W. Kearney, Fabiola C de Baca, “El Hermitano” Giovanni Maria D’Agostino, The Harvey Girls, Felix Martinez and, of course, Billy the Kid. Projected into alternating windows from inside the building and given voice by loud- speakers, each character takes the “stage” for about seven minutes, before falling silent, to be replaced by another character in another window.
Conceived by Drummond and brought to life in the fall of 2008 by his NMHU Media Arts class and the local community, this is Almas’ second time christening one of Las Vegas’ significant historic renovations. The first was in that winter of 2008 when Plaza Hotel proprietor Wid Slick invited Almas to shine from the second story of his newly remodeled Ilfeld addition to the Plaza Hotel. And now, with the Community 1st Bank just opening its stately new offices, they’ve invited Drummond’s Almas in as well. In Las Vegas anyway, the first thing one does when one is moving forward is to invite in the spirits of the past.
“A lot of local history lies just under the surface of dust at the CCHP or at Donnelly or the City Museum. It’s not always readily accessible to people here. The history’s going to jump out at them,” says Drummond. “We’re meeting the characters, at least our version of them, behind our history. I think another thing that dawned on me is the kind of social responsibility that this brings on. We really needed to strive to represent characters across different sectors of society.”
Charles Ulibarri, one of the NMHU students and the portrayer of Billy the Kid in Almas describes the experience: “We all had to do research on our own characters. And we worked together to make sure that things got shot and things got done.”
“My favorite part about doing this,” says Rachel Montoya, another student, “was seeing how excited people in the community were to re-enact what went on here years and years ago. They would come in and look at the characters and say ‘I want to be that person, I remember seeing or hearing about them.’”
“The idea was to get a range of characters,” says Drummond. “Everyone knows Billy the Kid and the whole bit. But we really wanted to push the students into finding characters from across the board — important females and merchants and families. I love Las Vegas. From the first minute I came up here in 2002 I was intrigued; ‘what is this place about?’ I started just randomly dragging friends up here from Santa Fe and I would say ‘Look at the magic; don’t you see it?’”
Keith Tucker, the president of Community 1st Bank, is delighted with the connection to Las Vegas history that the new offices have. “We’re excited to have Almas be a part of Catch the Kid and part of the grand opening of this new old building that we’re in. The underlying current of the historical aspects of Las Vegas shows in our commitment to redo a key historic building for Las Vegas and Northeastern New Mexico. People may or may not be aware, even if you’ve grown up here your entire life. We were the biggest town in the area — bigger than Santa Fe.”
Almas de la Plaza, can be viewed in the east windows of the Murphy building on the corner of Sixth and Douglas, evenings at dusk through the end of August.