Looking west while standing on the northwest corner of 3rd Street and Central Avenue in downtown Albuquerque I sometimes recall an image from 40 years ago when as a young guy just out of the Navy, I observed a surreal scene of colliding cultures awash in a swirl of vibrant colors. The image is vivid: bright red feathers attached at the ends of black and white eagle feathers which bob up and down as if floating atop a wave in an ocean’s epic tidal dance. The elegant eagle feathers are attached to a turquoise beaded headband with white ermine tassels that swing back and forth as the feathers bob up and down. This elegant headdress – or war bonnet – was worn by a local resident hired from a cast of thousands who yearned to be near the actor Anthony Quinn.
The local man portrayed an Indian Chief who was demanding that Quinn’s character – the indigenous mayor of a Southwestern U. S. city – acknowledge the sovereignty of his tribe. The Indian Chief was part of a crowd – with Mr. Quinn in the lead – moving en masse down Central Avenue on a quintessentially sunny New Mexico morning as a cameraman and assorted technical personnel responded to a director’s instructions. I had stumbled upon what I thought was a film shoot. I was close: it was a television shoot.
Rather than wearing traditional clothing our Indian Chief wore a business suit to offset the extraordinary headdress which bounced on his head as he pranced behind Quinn. The problem with this picture is the headdress: they are not traditionally worn by the dominant pueblo villagers who live in Central New Mexico or the Navajo people who live in the western regions of the state. Ceremonial headdresses are worn by Plains and Northwest Indian Tribes not those residing in a mythical city in the Southwest, one that looked surprisingly like Albuquerque, New Mexico. Then again, historical facts never prevented Hollywood from grossly misrepresenting native cultures. Indeed, the producers who cast Rock Hudson as the Chiricahua Apache warrior “Taza, Son of Chochise” know no shame! So, right or wrong, the guy wearing a headdress and chasing after Anthony Quinn could have been a legitimate cousin of Mangus Coloradas, though I doubt it.
I came upon this scene after a seven-hour drive from Phoenix on my way to Philadelphia, my home town. I was then concluding a three-month period of unwinding from a tour with the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, a four year commitment that had dramatically transformed my young soul. I spent those three months in Phoenix with my parents who had moved from Philadelphia so that my father might buy himself a few more years before emphysema took his difficult and at times, reckless life. With a small savings account I purchased a 1966 Mercury Comet. Although not necessarily built for the dry high desert landscape of Arizona and New Mexico, the Comet grudgingly made it across the exquisite mountains of north-central Arizona then east along the newly-minted Interstate 40 into New Mexico before finally arriving in the humid low lands of southeastern Pennsylvania. It sustained me as I re-settled in Philly before morphing into one of three VW Beetles that carried me through undergraduate and graduate school, back to my life as a working musician.
North Philadelphia is about as far away as one can get from Albuquerque unless of course one emerged from New York City, or the Jersey Shore. Among the few things I then knew about Albuquerque were the directions that Bugs Bunny used to deflect Elmer Fudd from his tail before Elmer crashed into yet another wall in the epic Warner Brothers cartoons. (Who can ever forget the great Mel Blanc’s impression of Bugs’ and Elmer’s voices when Mel pronounced “Albuquerque” with a Bronx-Brooklyn accent?) During my naval tour one of the guys in my unit was from Albuquerque so I gained some knowledge of the city’s history, although to be honest, I had other things on my mind during those difficult days. So when I came upon the city during my (almost) cross-country trip back in 1970 it was still a remote and somewhat exotic place.
My first impression of Albuquerque was on an early August night, just as the sun set behind the west mesas. As I drove east on I-40 the ambient lights of Albuquerque first appeared, like an eerie moonrise on an imagined alien landscape. As I crested the long hill that is now part of the western boundary of Rio Rancho there was a rest area, a pull-off so that drivers could safely take in the sight of a city rising out of the desert. After hours of nighttime driving accompanied only by California and Texas radio stations to keep me alert, I was somewhat humbled by the yellow-ish glow that spread beneath me.
After a few minutes of rest I put the Comet into gear and headed into the city, exiting at what is now the Central Avenue exit, putting me on a road lighted on both sides by elaborate neon signs depicting iconic cowboys twirling lassos, bucking horses or the profile of a stoic Indian chief (with headdress), all advertising motels and restaurants. I decided to check into a motel that, oddly enough, could have been in Western Pennsylvania, not the Western United States.
The motel was actually a series of individual bungalows constructed with burnt sienna-colored bricks. Each unit was rectangular with rounded corners set off by designer glass blocks serving as windows. It was located about a mile or so west of the Rio Grande River. I have no recollection of its name. After registering I followed the suggestion of the motel’s owner and drove into Old Town. I ate my first New Mexico dinner at La Hacienda Restaurant. (Yeah, I remember: enchiladas…GREEN!) After eating I strolled around Old Town before heading back to the motel.
The next morning before heading out on I-40 I decided to drive back into town for breakfast. Of course I had no idea where to go so I headed for the “tall” buildings on Central Avenue, found a parking space right off of Central and began walking around. That’s when Mr. Quinn’s entourage appeared. As I approached Central from (I think) 2nd Street I heard what I thought was a demonstration of some sort. When I arrived at the corner of 2nd and Central and looked west toward the action, there he was: Anthony Quinn striding down old Route 66, chest out like Barabbas ready to duke it out with Torvald. The local residents who were hired to be players in the “demonstration” led the charge with a somewhat tame version of the old Flying Wedge with Quinn at the “V” section looking stern, menacing as only he could look, the Indian Chief hot on his tail. As the shoot led everyone into a make-shift store on Central the members of the Flying Wedge sort of petered out as the director yelled the ubiquitous “Cut!” I stood looking as the crew began organizing for the next shoot, wondering if I were still back in that weird motel in the middle of a dream with the full sunshine of New Mexico lighting the way. At that moment I decided to get out of town, to go back to where I thought I belonged: the mean – and often dark – streets of Philadelphia.
As I walked back to my car a strong wind from the east caused papers to swirl around my legs and dust to kick up into my face. I began to process the last couple of minutes: “What a weird place,” I thought. “I sort of like it here. Maybe I’ll come back again sometime soon.” I did. On subsequent trips from Philly to Phoenix to visit my parents I planned stop-overs in Albuquerque, always staying at a Route 66 motel on the west side of town. In 1985 I began a relationship with the woman I eventually married. Her parents conveniently decided to retire their business in Southern California and move to New Mexico, settling in Corrales, then – like now – something of a work-in-progress. For ten years we vacationed in New Mexico, visiting them in their home along the Bosque Trail In 2004 we moved to Albuquerque from Louisiana, where we had been living since 2001. My Philly life was officially behind me as I became an early 21st century version of a “Westerner.” I have never looked back. But I must admit I do look back when I’m walking past the intersection of 3rd and Central and wonder if that guy with the misplaced headdress chasing after our hero, the mayor, ever found the justice he sought. Or did he just become another extra in subsequent movies and TV shows that found Albuquerque as “weird” and likeable as I did.
Since moving to Albuquerque then Corrales my wife and I have made the three mile one hour walk from Carlisle Boulevard along Central Avenue to 7th Street to take in what one might call a true Albuquerque experience. And, of course, for me to relive what I now call my “Anthony Quinn moment.” It is especially dramatic when the sun begins to set. But do have a good pair of sunglasses when making this trip.
The Man and the City was a television series filmed in Albuquerque and ran on ABC Television from September, 1971 to January, 1972. It starred Anthony Quinn as Thomas Jefferson Alcala, the mayor of a city not identified but clearly Albuquerque. It flopped losing purchase to (can you believe it?) Mannix.