A brief history of how the Nickelodeon transformed Santa Cruz’s movie culture
Long before I ever became an official movie critic, I fell in love with the Nickelodeon.
Back in my student days up at UCSC, I saw most of my movies on campus, either at student-generated film series (Film Noir! Swashbucklers!), or at any one of the six individual college dining halls where double- or triple-bills seemed to be playing every night. But when my best friend Jan moved to town in 1974, and we rented our first little downtown apartment in Beach Flats, I had to find some other way to feed my insatiable movie habit.
That way was the Nick.
Original owners Bill Raney and JoAnne Walker Raney had operated an art house movie theater in San Francisco before they migrated down to open the Nick in 1969. The university was just getting started, so UCSC and the Nick sort of came of age together. The United Artists theater chain owned basically all of the other movie houses in town, showing a steady diet of Hollywood fare, but Bill had other ideas.
The original theater had only one screen (what’s now known as Nick 1). An old-fashioned nickelodeon machine sat roped off in a place of honor in the lobby. The snack counter was dominated by its vintage popcorn popper, and contained such marvels as a bag of Swedish mints (round chocolate mint balls coated in pastel candy), which quickly became my drug of choice. The price was, I believe, 45 cents.
As if the regular fare of new foreign-language films by Bergman, Wertmuller, Fellini, and Truffaut (always subtitled, never dubbed) and non-mainstream American independents were not blissful enough, there were afternoon programs like a 10-week series of classic French New Wave. Jan and I went to all of them. People ask me where I acquired my “background in film.” I say: “At the Nickelodeon.”
In 1975, I started reviewing movies professionally (i.e., in some place other than my journal) for Good Times. OK, it was a while before I actually got paid for it, but I knew I had arrived as a real critic the day that Nancy Raney, Bill’s second wife, invited me to my first press screening at the Nick.
It was 1976, and the movie was Francois Truffaut’s L’Histoire d’Adèle H (The Story of Adèle H), starring the beauteous Isabelle Adjani. I took along my posse—Jan and my brother Steve—and we got to watch an entire movie with only a couple more people in the audience. (I had no idea who they were at the time, and I was too shy to ask, but it was probably Dale Pollock from the Santa Cruz Sentinel and whoever was reviewing movies for City on a Hill that week.)
What an illicit thrill! A private screening in the middle of the day for a movie that wouldn’t be open for the public for another week—it was surreal. Little did I know that that would be my new reality for the next 38 years.
Nancy was the consummate hostess. When the Nick screened Pedro Almodóvar’s Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, where gazpacho figures prominently in the plot, Nancy served everybody cups of gazpacho in the lobby. When Bill and Nancy bought the three-year-old Sash Mill Cinema in 1978 from its owner, Rene Fuentes-Chao, Nancy was able to use the adjoining Sash Mill Cafe for “dos,” as she called them, wine-and-munchies receptions for the press to meet visiting filmmakers. For Les Blank’s doc Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, she even served up garlic popcorn.
But she really outdid herself in 1987, promoting the Danish film Babette’s Feast, in which a Frenchwoman prepares an extravagant meal for the dour inhabitants of a 19th century Danish village. Yup, you guessed it. In cahoots with Casablanca Restaurant, Nancy had Babette’s entire feast replicated for about a dozen members of the local film-reviewing press, whose ranks had swollen over the years.
The point of all this was to get people talking about the movies and the little-art-house-that-could that kept bringing the best of world cinema to our little burg. And, oh, how it worked! Bill and Nancy opened a second screen at the Nick in 1976, and added two more in 1981.
While the Nick spread the gospel of indie and art films to the public at large, the Nick screenings pretty much begat local movie culture. I met so many folks (and made so many friends) in the Nick lobby at screenings, I probably can’t remember them all. Local writer Morton Marcus came to Nick screenings regularly, and he was so famous that I was afraid to talk to him for years. I’d known Buz Bezore up at UCSC, but it was at Nick screenings that I got to know the other alt-journalists—Christina Waters, Michael S. Gant, Tom Maderos, Geoffrey Dunn—who would be staffing Buz’s string of alternative weeklies for years to come.
Bruce Bratton was writing his column for Good Times when I started at the paper, and was one of the most loyal screening attendees. UCSC film professor Vivian Sobchak was a regular, and, occasionally, her colleague Eli Hollander. I got to know all the various Sentinel film critics over the years—Dale Pollock, Rick Chatenever, Catherine Graham. And while I can’t recall the movie being screened, I vividly remember the day I met the “new kid” at the Sentinel in the Sash Mill Cafe, at one of Nancy’s do’s—Wallace Baine. He was there with his wife, Tina, and he had their infant daughter in a baby carrier over one arm.
Early in my tenure at GT, I went to a screening of one of Bill Raney’s favorite movies, the obscure, utterly impenetrable 1965 Polish epic, The Saragossa Manuscript. (He was bringing it back as a classic revival.) This time, there was only one other person in the theater, and as he and I staggered back out at last into the light of day, laughing and utterly flummoxed, we bonded over the fact that neither one of us had a clue what the movie was about. This was the first time I met Jim Schwenterley, who was then writing for the Cabrillo Log.
Soon, Jim was working for Rene Fuentes-Chao, programming the eclectic repertory double-bills at the Sash Mill. When Bill bought the Sash Mill in 1978, Jim became part of the Nickelodeon family. When Bill and Nancy were ready to retire in 1992, they sold the business to Jim. Who else loved movies as much as the Raneys, or was better suited to maintaining the Nickelodeon legacy?
Jim and his then-partner, Chuck Volwiler, were responsible for bringing the dilapidated Del Mar Theatre under the Nickelodeon umbrella, and restoring it to its art deco glory. Next came stewardship of Aptos Cinema—to the delight of Aptonians starved for film content in South County. More recently, Jim and partner Paul Gotlober undertook the massive project of switching the theaters over from film to digital.
Now, after 23 years of savvy, challenging and entertaining film programming, Jim and Paul are ready to step down. The Nick has been sold to Landmark Theaters. Yes, it’s a theater chain out of Los Angeles, but its theaters specialize in art-house and independent films.
The current plucky staff of Nick, Del Mar and Aptos are being retained to do what they do best: continue bringing the best movies out there to our community. Here’s looking at you, Nick. Let’s hope the fabled Nickelodeon legacy continues.