Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Baby critic in the making: media was always the message
40 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 around $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. As a freshly-minted UCSC grad, I packed up my BA, and went to work nights 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), before the corporation lost interest in Santa Cruz and let its theaters crumble into ruin.
Fledgling critic ca. 1976

The flip side 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. (Like a brilliant French New Wave retrospective that my roommate, Jan, and I drank in like fine wine every Saturday afternoon for weeks.)

The family-owned Capitola Theater, and Cinema Soquel, showed less-than-brand-new double features. (Although, in a couple of years, Cinema Soquel switched to X-rated films in a desperate, but doomed attempt to stay solvent.) The Skyview Drive-In was still showing movies, but Gary Culver had not yet opened Scotts Valley Cinema, and the Cinema 9 was not yet even a gleam in the developer's eye.

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, Sunday Bloody Sunday with Persona, 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.
Early GT promo (ca 1977) for its new full-time critic
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, or RKO musicals, or Japanese samurai movies together.

Jan and I went out to the movies with my brother, Steve, almost every night. And 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 in April, 1975, by Jay Shore. By then, I was working at Bookshop Santa Cruz, in the textbook room managed by Steve, and my nights were free. When GT film reviewer Christian Kallen advertised for an assistant, I hauled out my old (manual) college typewriter, hammered out a one-page review of some dreadful B-movie we'd recently seen at the drive-in, and mailed it in. Two weeks later, Christian called me up to tell me seven people had responded to his column, but I was the only one who'd actually written something. It must have worked; I became Christian's official stringer

I love to write, and I love movies, but the rest was strictly on-the-job training. When Christian left town, about a year later, I inherited the job.
In the lobby of the "old" Nick, ca 2004

One of the greatest perks of that job was the fabled Nickelodeon press screening. In big cities, films are screened early for the press, 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.

For years, Thursday afternoon press screenings at the Nick became the place for the SC film elite to meet. It was like a private club for local scribes, where we all got to hang out together, whatever rivalries might have been going on between our papers.

I had known Buz Bezore slightly at UCSC, but the Nick lobby is where I first met Christina Waters, Tom Maderos, and Michael Gant, all of whom wrote about film sometime or other in the various incarnations of the Santa Cruz Express/Independent/Taste/Metro/Weekly. Bruce Bratton was a regular, as were Rick Chatenever and, later, Wallace Baine, from the Sentinel. I'm pretty sure I met Morton Marcus for the first time at the Nick, and probably Geoff Dunn, when he was making his first local history documentaries. UC professor and film historian Vivian Sobchak attended the screenings for years, and, more recently, Dennis Morton and David Anthony from the KUSP Film Gang.
My first GT review! Monty Python & the Holy Grail. October 23, 1975
In one sense, 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 those Nick screenings. 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 quant 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 all that stuff. All that really matters is the transformative magic of the movies.


  1. What a trip down Memory Lane! (She was the Lane Sister who never made it in the movies.)

  2. ...the other two being Abbe Lane, and, of course, Penny Lane...