Abbey Theatre to change hands
Longtime local hopes to keep independent cinema alive in Durango

Tom Bartels, current owner of the Abbey Theatre, and Paul Fidanque toast to Fidanque's impending ownership of the
downtown independent cinema. Bartels started the Abbey more than five years ago./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Durango’s independent cinema will be changing hands in the near future, but don’t panic. Every effort will be made to maintain the solid track record that current owner Tom Bartels set at the Abbey. Bartels, who is selling sells fresh on the heels of the Abbey’s five-year anniversary, will be handing over the projector to longtime Durangoan Paul Fidanque. Fidanque said, “I’m going to follow in Tom’s footsteps. We’re going to continue to show independent films as the Abbey’s foundation. We’ll try as best as we can to maintain the Abbey as the community’s alternative entertainment center.”

The Abbey Theatre, Durango’s single-screen, independent cinema, has been serving up alternative entertainment since Nov. 22, 1997, primarily in the form of what Bartels calls “off-beat niche films.” In the not-so-distant past, the Abbey was a venue for Irish-themed dinner theater. When Bartels bought the Abbey, dinner theatre had been long forgotten, and the theatre was being used as a pool hall with extremely high ceilings. At that time, he was fresh off several years of recording the sights and sounds of the Four Corners. The result became the multimedia presentation called “Spirit of the Southwest,” which has shown at the Abbey every summer day since. Bartels noted that when he started renovating the pool hall, Fidanque, an acquaintance of 16 years and one of his long-standing neighbors, was there to help with a crow-bar.

In hindsight, Bartels said that he has given a large chunk of his life to the Abbey, and it is now time to move on. He plans on helping with the transition and then continue creating CD-ROMs and DVDs.

“I’ve been working on this project for about seven years, and it’s taken most of my time to create a healthy community theatre that’s sustainable,” he said. “The key to the Abbey’s success was that the community embraced it.”

Bartels said that the sale of the cinema was in the back of his mind when Fidanque approached him. He added that Fidanque has his full confidence.

“He’s a perfect mix to be the new owner,” he said. “He’s followed the Abbey’s last five years and seen it grow and adapt to the community.”

As word of the impending sale has leaked out, Bartels said he’s gotten a lot of panicked phone calls asking, “What’s going to happen to our Abbey?”

His response is, “Paul is very aware of preserving the Abbey’s community ties.”

Fidanque has lived in Durango for 17 years and has been the owner of Wagon Wheel Liquors since 1990. Prior to that, he and his wife owned Cactus Candies, a women’s clothing store on Main Avenue. He recently transferred ownership of the liquor store to his son Gabe, and his daughter Sarah will be partnering with him on the Abbey Theatre project.

“It’ll be very similar to what Tom’s been doing,” Fidanque said. “The Abbey really represents a hub for community engagement, a meeting place. It’s responsive to the community’s interests, it’s accessible, and the community feels like it’s their own. I want to keep it accessible.”

Fidanque said that while the Abbey will remain a cinema, he also hopes to attract more live music. “We’re going to try to do a little more on the live music side on weekends,” he said. “If a band’s good enough we’ll bring it in. If it’s not, we’ll skip it. We’re not going to push it.”

Looking to the future, Fidanque said he plans to make the Abbey, “more of a blend of a cinema and a club with the weight on the cinema.”

To this end, he said he’s going to tune up the bar. “I don’t plan to get fancy,” he said. “But I do like Tequila.”

He also plans to build balcony seating and replace and reconfigure the existing seats to be more concert and cinema friendly.

Bartels said that the changes will only improve the theater and the community’s experience at the Abbey.

“The community will see nothing but benefits from the transition,” he said. “It’ll still be the same old Abbey but with some shiny, new parts.”

Bartels and Fidanque also stressed that all of the special events, including the Bluegrass Meltdown, the Durango Film Festival, the simulcast of the Snowdown Follies and the Spirit of the Southwest, will still have a home at the Abbey Theatre.

Looking back at the last five years, Bartels said that these events have provided him with some of the most gratification. However, the challenge of filling the theater has provided the biggest challenge, and reward. To that end, the Abbey has screened everything from Chinese, Indian, European and Nepalese films that you’d be lucky to catch in big city indie theaters to documentaries and Hollywood sleepers like “Memento” and “Requiem for a Dream.”

Calling it a chess game of sorts, Bartels, commented, “The Abbey has to be constantly reinvented for the next event. To bring in a program, promote it and see it work has been very gratifying. If you do it wrong, you know it right away. It’s been constantly putting those pieces together that was most rewarding.”

Fidanque said he and his daughter are looking forward to taking up this challenge. “We’re fired up,” he said. “It’s nice to have a project that keeps you up at night with excitement.”

The final transfer of ownership will take place March 15, and Bartels will stay on for another six months to help with the transition. With an eye to the past and future, he said, “I think what’s made the Abbey happen is this community embracing it. I invite the audience to support Paul in his new challenge. If the community supports the Abbey, it will only get better.”

In closing, Bartels added, “See you at the Abbey.”







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