She never actually made a film, but Nancy Raney was the undisputed godmother of the Santa Cruz movie community. When she took her final bow last week, surrounded by her loved ones, it was truly the end of an era.
As co-owner of the Nickelodeon Theatre with her husband, Bill Raney, who opened it in 1969, Nancy was the theater’s one-woman publicity department. As soon as a movie was booked, Nancy was on the phone to get the word out, not only to us ink-stained wretches of the press, but also to anyone else in town she could think of who might be remotely interested in the film, or its subject—schools, service groups, foreign language societies, politicians, surfers, artists, musicians, you name it.
She was also a tireless cheerleader for arts and culture in Santa Cruz. She attended, promoted, or otherwise supported such local institutions as Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Symphony, Pacific Rim Film Festival and Santa Cruz Public Libraries, among others. An avid reader, she loved to organize cross-promotions with Bookshop Santa Cruz or Capitola Book Café anytime a movie came out with a literary pedigree.
I remember being worried about a potential conflict of interest: heaven forbid I should let myself get too chummy with the proprietors of a local movie house. Ha! I found I couldn’t maintain a sense of aloof, professional decorum for very long with Nancy. She was way too much fun.
But perhaps Nancy’s most indelible influence on our arts scene—besides her buoyant personality—were the advance press screenings she organized at the Nick so local scribes could get their reviews in print the same week a movie opened. I was only a lowly stringer at Good Times in 1976 when Nancy first invited me to a screening. She greeted us in the lobby and ushered us into the auditorium, exuding her usual warmth and good humor. She had my life story out of me in no time (granted, at age 22, my story was pretty short). It’s not that she pried, exactly, but she was always so interested in other people, and we all found her interest irresistible.
As I inherited the job of full-time film critic, Nick screenings became a weekly event in my life. At first, I remember being worried about a potential conflict of interest: heaven forbid I should let myself get too chummy with the proprietors of a local movie house. Ha! I found I couldn’t maintain a sense of aloof, professional decorum for very long with Nancy. She was way too much fun.
It was never held against me when I wrote a negative review—and I wrote plenty. Nobody laughed about the stinkers more uproariously than Nancy. When I once revealed to her that I kept a mini-bag of M&Ms in my purse to keep me awake if a movie dragged, she gave me a family-sized jar of M&Ms for Christmas.
We both loved British history, Charles Dickens and period books and movies of every stripe. And Nancy was fascinated by nuns, as only a Midwestern girl with a good Nordic Protestant upbringing can be. She had migrated out West in the first place to attend Stanford, which she also loved, and she kept in touch with a close-knit sisterhood of fellow Stanfordians for the rest of her life.
When I married Art Boy (yes, Nancy was one of the few people in town I knew even longer than I’ve known him), he and I started hanging out with Nancy and Bill regularly at the Raneys’ mountaintop retreat above Happy Valley, enjoying Nancy’s great dinners, telling stories, and always laughing like crazy. Our friendship continued on after they sold the Nick to Jim Schwenterley.
When we started hosting Oscar Night parties for local film folk, Nancy and Bill were at the top of the A-list. (Nancy always in a fetching negligee, since our guests were given the option of dressing up or wearing jammies.) And pretty soon, Nancy and I were taking field trips together that had nothing to do with movies—the Stanford Shopping Center; the Barbie Museum in Palo Alto (she knew about my weird fetish for dressing up my vintage childhood Barbies as the Best Actress nominees for those Oscar parties).
A trip we once took to the city turned into Nancy’s Swanky Public Restroom Tour of San Francisco. Upscale department stores, uber-plush restaurants and hotels, she knew them all. Then there was the time that Nancy, the instigator—in cahoots with Stacey Vreeken, one of my favorite ex-Good Times editors—sprung a surprise 50th birthday party on me, featuring just about everybody I knew in town.
When I took my first halting steps into fiction writing, Nancy was there to cheer me on. She read all of my unpublished novels in manuscript form (talk about a trooper), and when I finally got one into print, she made sure her book club read it.
Nancy was no mean hand at writing, herself. A veteran traveler, she and Bill favored remote destinations—Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories; Papua New Guinea; African safaris—and she wrote some fine travel pieces for the alternate alt-weekly. (In a photo in the Raneys’ hallway from one of her last trips, Nancy is beaming down from the back of a camel.)
To my undying admiration, she once journeyed along the Trans-Siberian Railway (by herself) to St. Petersburg to visit the Hermitage Museum. For years, I was helping her edit her memoir of this astonishing event, but her life was always so full, I don’t know if she ever had time to finish it.
It’s hard to imagine Santa Cruz without Nancy Raney. I loved her pretty much from the minute I met her in the lobby of the Nick, and that never changed. We were as close as family—closer than most—but now it helps to imagine her perched on that camel, off on her next adventure.
There will be an open house in memory of Nancy Raney from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Nickelodeon on Saturday, June 4.