Cover Stories

Searching for Alternatives

cov3 MichaelGantA look back at the fiercely competitive world of Santa Cruz weeklies

Just out of UCSC, clutching a highly practical degree in medieval history, I went looking for work and found it at the long-lost and lamented Santa’s Village near Scotts Valley, where I toiled one summer at the puppet theater. I pulled strings to get the job, because I knew the franchise operator, and I pulled strings on the job, making a musty ostrich marionette cavort across the stage to the desultory delight of small children.

My next employment move was into the offices of Sundaz!, the local alternative weekly newspaper. On reflection, I think puppetry would have been a more lucrative career choice. But then I would have had nothing to offer about the exceptional longevity of the Good Times, which has survived 40 years in one of the great hotbeds of alternative journalism and emerged as the last independent weekly left standing.

The roll call is almost Biblical. The Free Spaghetti Dinner, a freeform id eruption, begat Sundaz! (also Sundaze at times), which begat the Independent, which begat the Phoenix, which begat the Santa Cruz Weekly, which sort of begat the Express, which begat the Sun and Taste, which didn’t exactly begat (but we’ve got a rhythm going) Santa Cruz Magazine and Inside Santa Cruz, which begat Metro Santa Cruz, which became Santa Cruz Weekly, which hybridized with Good Times.

And the list is neither exhaustive nor perfectly chronological, but does give a good idea of how many people, in the words of Charles Foster Kane, thought it would be fun to run a newspaper. When I started at Sundaze!, in 1973, alt-journalism wasn’t a job (withholding? medical insurance? Surely, you jest!), it was a calling, an embrace of the muse and a taste for amusement.

We didn’t have word counts back then, because the IBM Selectric typewriter on which copy was entered on a narrow roll of adding machine paper didn’t have a word-count tool, and we weren’t about to do the math ourselves. Articles sprawled to fill the space available (about 12 or 16 pages an issue, but the font and leading were suitable for head-of-a-pin engraving). And we still had room for a poetry page, short stories, weird unsigned satirical pieces and miscellaneous japes (“Subscribe to Sundaz! and win a tank! Offer void where prohibited by Geneva Convention.” Who knew that 40-plus years later, the Santa Cruz Police Department would finally take delivery on its winning entry?)

When we weren’t writing, we idled away our time peering through the smudgy second-story windows at Pacific and Church, checking out the action on the patio at the old Cooper House, where Don McCaslin and Warmth held court; razzing passersby; and making fake calls to the phone booth by Leask’s department store.

Those were salad days indeed. Rents, even adjusted for inflation, were ridiculously low; printing was cheap, and paper was cheaper. If it wasn’t exactly an Edenic era, it was at least prelapsarian, because the fall came just two years later, on April 3, 1975, when Jay Shore started a new weekly called Good Times. The name alone felt like an affront designed to lure advertisers rather than to challenge and enlighten readers. Shore’s reputation as a difficult boss prone to outbursts didn’t help; I never worked at Good Times, but I heard enough tales of woe to accept them at face value. Ever after, a motley crew of writers, reporters, columnists, artists and activists beat itself to a bloody (as in red ink) pulp trying to compete with Good Times and its upbeat product—the one newspaper devoted entirely to the entertainment, recreation and crafts scene.

Jay Shore rapidly became our bête noire, a name taken in extreme vain. Moby Dick and Captain Ahab were BFFs compared to Good Times and us. The things we said, the dark thoughts we harbored—they do us no credit in retrospect, but after more than 10 years of failed publications, the task of taking on Good Times seemed positively Sisyphean.

When Shore sold Good Times to a New Zealand publishing company in 1988, some of the air went out of the local newspaper war. It wasn’t personal anymore. In the mid-1990s, Metro Santa Cruz/Santa Cruz Weekly (which I edited for a time) proved a worthy competitor to Good Times; it was a near miracle that a town the size of Santa Cruz could support two robust free weekly papers, but it wasn’t a model that could last indefinitely. In 2014, Dan Pulcrano came up with a better idea, bought Good Times and combined it with the Santa Cruz Weekly. The Hatfields and the McCoys had intermarried at last. Forty years later, Good Times has at last merged with the whole tradition of Santa Cruz alternative journalism. That is surely cause for celebration. If only the Oak Room were still open for a round of drinks.  

Top photo caption: Michael S. Gant was a fixture in Santa Cruz’s alternative press scene. 


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