Movers & Shapers – The El Rio Theater

Ginger Harding El Rio Theater     El Rio Theater, Spvl

“PreServing popcorn, soda, candy and a movie on a single screen”

SPRINGERVILLE – In February 2014 Ginger and Allen Harding came to check on their house in Alpine. Allen noticed that Sam Madariaga, owner of El Rio Theater in Springerville, had died. Wondering what would now happen to the historic community theater, Allen inquired and discovered it was for sale. After meeting with Kirk Madariaga, Sam’s son, they set about to do their due diligence.

They knew 35 mm was soon to be obsolete, and an almost 100 year old building probably needed upgrades which an inspection would reveal.

They had made a plan years before to retire in Alpine, and they knew, active people they are, they would like to have a business there. They decided this would be that business.

With Allen committed to a contract with his employer, the decision was made for Ginger to be the on-site person. She would live in their retirement home in Alpine and they toggle between their two worlds until Allen retired.

“We wanted to rescue and resuscitate a really important fixture in the community,” said Ginger. “We love serving the community and the families who live here. Many of the adults have gone to this theater since they were little children, or worked here.”

Word spread quickly that someone was going to “save the theater.”

When Ginger first arrived on scene and was actively renovating the theater, she frequented True Value Hardware, often in her “grubbies,” not her normal attire. She introduced herself to owner Deanna Davis and explained she and her husband had purchased the theater and were renovating it. Showing gratitude that would be echoed by the community, in typical Springerville fashion, Deanna asked if she could give Ginger a hug. That hug had meaning. Deanna proves it weekly as she and a host of her employees spend Saturday nights at this theater.

“When we have a family movie, we do an extra show on Friday afternoon with special pricing, and then show it again on Monday,” said Ginger. “It feels good to see two or three generations of a family going out of the movie holding hands.”

“We decided to keep the prices the same as the previous owner,” $6 for adults, $5 for students, and we added military and first responders to this group. It is $3 for children. We also kept the concessions the same prices, Popcorn for $2, $3 and $4, sodas for $2 and $3, and candy for $3.

“The 1946 Manley popcorn machine, which had not been used for quite a while, is being rebuilt in Florida. We want to keep the historic feel, the nostalgia.”

With El Rio being the oldest theater in the State of Arizona, now 101 years old, the Hardings joined the League of Historic American Theaters.

While attending a conference of the group in Colorado, they found themselves in the minority with regard to ownership. Most historic theaters are now run by non-profits. When a question regarding community data base came up, Ginger realized she was that person and needed to add that to her role.

Though Ginger is the mainstay at El Rio for now, when Allen comes up, he loves to do the ticket booth. Though still working, he has played an active part in the remodeling.

Spending time alone in Alpine now, Ginger finds plenty to do. Choosing not to have TV in Alpine or at the theater, her love of reading fills some of that time. Ginger easily has six to eight books going at once.

She has also joined the chamber of commerce and the VFW Ladies’ Auxiliary Post 9897.

“Running a theater, you don’t get to participate in many community events,” said Ginger.

There are two holidays, however, she will not miss, the Fourth of July and Veteran’s Day Parades. With her own bright purple 1964 Chevy pickup, sporting glasspacks, she dons the car with movie stickers and is a regular entry.

Ginger belongs to the Alpine Community Church and on Sundays after church she heads to either the VFW or Trailriders Restaurant. Ordering her usual tacos and tea and prepares to enjoy some football. Not your average female football fan, Ginger knows the game, and doesn’t really care who is playing. She just wants to watch some football, even if it is only one quarter before she heads to open the theater.

Her younger brother played Pop Warner and she was his statistician. That is where she developed her love for the game.

Ginger and Allen are native Arizonans. They did not arbitrarily choose Alpine for retirement. They lived in Alpine over 20 years ago as on-site managers for Tal Wi Wi Lodge, owned by Allen’s parents. As managers they were 24/7, doing everything. When their first born was on the way, they transitioned back to the Valley for a lifestyle more conducive for family, but always knew they would return to Alpine.

Ginger graduated from Sunnyslope High School in Phoenix, went on to Business College and ASU. She was Political Science major, looking at law school, which is where she and Allen met. He was also a Poli-Sci major. Though they changed their minds about law school, they didn’t change their minds about each other. This November they will be married 28 years.

They have one son, Alexander, who currently works at Grand Canyon University, who, like his father has earned two degrees. Their daughter, Nicole, is a nurse who works with autistic children and adults.

Ginger has been successful in several fields. She ran a surgeon’s practice, worked as a paralegal for 20 years for government agencies including the attorney general and the Maricopa County legal defender. Since 2008 she has served as liaison for Phoenix Community Women. She was also a sales director for Mary Kay, and yes, she earned a car, but not the pink one. Added to that list now is theater owner and operator.

Ginger describes herself as a recovering feminist. Today she believes there is an order to things.

“We all have our jobs,” she said.

Ginger has no bucket list.

“I have been so blessed and have had so many crazy adventures,” she said. “I traveled with the city council to the USS Phoenix Nuclear Submarine for one its final voyages when it was docked in Florida. I have done glider planes, parasailed in Mexico with my baby brother.”

“Thanks to my hard working husband and his career, I have been to Sweden, Montreal, and Italy. On our 25th Wedding Anniversary, we went to London, and I spent a day in the British Library. We took a shuttle to Paris. I took French in high school and got to spend time with a French family. On one of my birthdays, my husband took me on a Route 66 trip where we stopped at all the little places along the way. My husband is a Renaissance man. His depth and breadth are unmeasurable.”

Not bad for a woman who in second grade was told by her teacher that she could be the first female President of the United States. She never forgot that.

Though her goal never to be the first female President, Ginger has obviously been first in many other things, and she is not done.

The 101 year old El Rio Theater in Springerville, purchased by two driven people who realize the value of history and community, not only want to continue that tradition, but add to it. They love the community and its people.

“People just drive through here on the way to somewhere else,” said Ginger. “They don’t know the people and what we have here in this community. I would like it be more of a destination to here, than through here.”

One thing Ginger would love, and it is not really for herself, but for posterity’s sake, is to locate photographs and information about El Rio. What little information they have found is on the website. Her deepest desire is for people who may have something to add will come and share it so it will be available for everyone as a part of El Rio’s history.

In a theater where people say John Wayne, a night owl by nature, sat and watched movies until the wee hours of the morning, there surely is more to tell. Since the walls cannot talk, perhaps some of the movie-goers will.

As caretakers of Arizona’s oldest movie theater, Ginger and Allen Harding have preserved memories for Round Valley and for Arizona. They have also made it possible for new memories to be made for generations to come.

Visa Credit Card founder and CEO Dee Hock said, “Success follows those adept at preserving the substance of the past by clothing it in the forms of the future.”

Thus it is with Ginger and Allen Harding, added now to the list of Apache and Navajo County “Movers & Shapers.”

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