Dark Magic

FILM-151640 years on the movie beat in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz in 1975 was heaven for a fledgling film buff. The movies were great: Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather Part II, Nashville. Admission was $2.50 for a double bill. Those were the days! Much has changed in the world since then—especially the movie scene and the moviegoing experience here in Santa Cruz.

My affair with both began in the summer of 1974—a freshly minted UCSC grad, selling tickets and popcorn at the U. A. Cinemas (now the Riverfront). It was the streamlined “flagship” of the United Artist chain of theaters in town (which at that time included the Del Mar, the Rio, 41st Avenue Playhouse, and Aptos Cinema), before the corporation lost interest in Santa Cruz and let its theaters crumble into ruin.

The flipside of this corporate mentality were independently owned mom-and-pop movie houses. The Nickelodeon, operated by Bill and Nancy Raney (one screen, with a vintage nickelodeon movie machine roped off in the lobby), was a popular venue for foreign films, maverick indies, and festival programming. The family-owned Capitola Theater, and Cinema Soquel, showed not-so-brand-new double features. The Skyview Drive-In was still showing movies, but neither Scotts Valley Cinema nor the Cinema 9 were yet in existence.

In January 1975, Rene Fuentes-Chao opened the Sash Mill Cinema, with 25-cent popcorn and double bills like A Streetcar Named Desire with Last Tango In Paris, or Chinatown with Touch Of Evil. It had poor insulation, no ventilation, and a corrugated metal roof that guaranteed patrons would freeze in the winter and roast in the summer; raindrops sounded like Taiko drumming. We loved it. Its program of vintage and recent films changed three times a week, and they published a poster-sized schedule every quarter, which everyone I knew had taped to their refrigerator.   

The Sash Mill and the Nick catered to Santa Cruz’s new identity as a university town. Programming was inspired and offbeat, prices were relatively low, and the sense of community was enormous—especially among students (and recent students) discovering David Lynch, RKO musicals, or Japanese samurai movies together. I wrote obsessively about everything I saw in my journal, long before anybody ever paid me to do it.

Enter Good Times, a 12-page entertainment weekly started by Jay Shore in April 1975. By then, I had a day job and my nights were free, so when GT film reviewer Christian Kallen advertised for an assistant, I plunged in. I love to write, and I love movies; the rest was on-the-job training. When Christian left town, I inherited the job.

One of its greatest perks was the fabled Nickelodeon press screening. Films are screened early for the press in cities, so writers can meet their deadlines and get a review out on opening day. The Raneys embraced this idea for a small, movie-loving town like ours. Their eclectic films needed attention right away; if a movie didn’t get reviewed that first week and draw a house, it probably wouldn’t last a second week.

Thursday afternoon press screenings at the Nick became a private club for local scribes, where we all got to hang out, whatever rivalries might have been going on between our papers: Buz Bezore, Christina Waters, Tom Maderos, Michael Gant, and Bruce Bratton from the Santa Cruz Independent/Express/Taste/Metro/Weekly. Rick Chatenever and, later, Wallace Baine, from the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Morton Marcus, Geoff Dunn, and UCSC professor and film historian Vivian Sobchack, Dennis Morton and David Anthony from KUSP.

We knew we were all on the same team—the collective treasure hunt to discover great movies and spread the word. We saw the sublime, the ridiculous, and everything in between at the Nick, and since we rarely agreed on which was which, debates were spirited as we filed back out into the (always unexpected) daylight.

Sadly, those press screenings are no more, much like film itself. Movies are projected digitally; vintage film reels are preserved as objets d’art suspended from the ceiling in the lobby of the Nick, relics as quaint as that old nickelodeon machine once was. Today, movies assault you in 3D, seats rock or recline, theaters call themselves “cafe lounges.” But it was never about that stuff. All that really matters is the transformative magic of the movies.

PHOTO: A late-night screening in 1987 at the Nick, the indie theater that has left an indelible mark on Santa Cruz culture.

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