The Nickelodeon is owned and operated by Santa Cruz resident Jim Schwenterley. The Nick is a business, but over the years it's become a Santa Cruz institution as well. Jim feels honored to be the caretaker of such an important part of the Santa Cruz scene.
In February 2002 Nickelodeon Theatres added the operation of the Del Mar Theatre at 1124 Pacific Avenue to its ongoing business at 210 Lincoln Avenue in Santa Cruz. We are very excited to be part of saving this historic Santa Cruz landmark and look forward to using these additional screens to bring even more quality film to our community.
Beginnings Of The Nickelodeon By Bill Raney - founder
How do you know where things begin? Before something happens there is always something leading up to it. Then something that led up to that. Where did we all begin, really? I think the Nickelodeon began in Afghanistan. My first wife, JoAnne Walker Raney, ran an art theatre, The Movie, in San Francisco's North Beach district during the early 1960s. In 1965 when we got married, JoAnne introduced me to show biz. I never knew you could have so much fun making a living. JoAnne had employed a film buyer, Chan Carpenter, who confided to me one day that he wished he had the money to build an art theatre in Santa Cruz. A new University of California campus was being built there, he said. JoAnne and I were not interested. With The Movie we already had more problems than we could handle. In 1967 we sold The Movie and flew to Europe, where we bought a Volkswagen bus. Along with our ten month-old baby, Eric Xerxes, and our two-year-old miniature dachshund, Tarzan, we struck out to drive around the world. One day in Eastern Turkey, not far from the Iranian border, while looking at a map, we discovered we were exactly half way around the globe from San Francisco. A few days later, an unsettling thought began to gnaw on us: somehow we were now heading towards home, not away from it. Whatever "home" meant. We weren't sure. The Vietnam War was near its peak. We had talked about never returning to the U.S. Yet suddenly there it was, the USA, getting closer and closer--the "real world," intruding. The long drive East through Iran and what was then known as West Pakistan kept adding to this growing sense of unease.
Somewhere in Afghanistan the geometry of relentless eastward motion conspired with Protestant notions of guilt, and together they began robbing us of our carefree, fantasy lifestyle. I think we both realized we were having too much fun for it to last. "You can't be a beatnik forever," I said self-righteously. "Why not?" JoAnne countered. "Because you can't raise a kid in the back of a mini-van!" That was the bottom line. What were we going to do with our lives after such a marvelous adventure, anyway? Heavy stuff! Somewhere in the conversation Chan's words about Santa Cruz came back to me. JoAnne and I talked about the Santa Cruz idea. And talked some more, mile after mile. She said Santa Cruz sounded like a good place to raise kids. I said it sounded like a good place for a theatre! Thus it was that somewhere near the end of the earth a plan for a theatre. A year or two previously, JoAnne had introduced me to Philip Chamberlin. Phil had been a professor at UCSC that first year, when the students were living in trailers. He said there was little to do on campus, entertainment-wise. He had started a film society at the Rio Theatre--one showing a week. People ate it up, he said. Santa Cruz was just waiting for us! Pretty soon the three of us were hot on the trail of a new art theatre. The trail led to Dick and Casey Daniel who had worked with Phil at the Magic Lantern Theatre in Goleta when Phil had been a professor at UC Santa Barbara. Pretty soon Phil had his wife, Pat, on board, too, and on October 1, 1968, the Nickelodeon Corporation was formed by the three couples. The Nickelodeon was in business! On paper. Thanks to a big loan arranged by Don Falconer at County Bank, we were able to buy two adjacent lots at 210 and 214 Lincoln Street. On the lot where the Nickelodeon lobby stands today was the aging Lincoln Bakery--which we unceremoniously ran a bulldozer through. On the other lot, where the patio is today, was an old Victorian house where we lived during construction and during the early years of the Nickelodeon.
Berkeley architect John Elphick was hired to design a movie house for us. We explained to John that what we wanted was basically simple: an innovative theatre design that was both a "work of art" and "state of the art." Cutting edge. The latest in motion picture design. A twin theatre. What a concept! But it would have to be cheap, because we didn't have much money to spend. John drew us up some plans for a big auditorium, to be called the Odeon (music hall, in French), and for a little auditorium next door, the Nickelodeon. Back in the real world again we soon discovered we might be just able to afford that little auditorium, provided we cut out most of the fancy stuff. Who needs all that junk, anyway? The Nickelodeon was never quite the theatre of our dreams, but by the time it opened I had come to love it. Maybe someday we would be able to put up that Odeon.
With the help of designer Roy Rydell and contractor Ed Cacace, we slowly got our little theatre up. Near the end of construction JoAnne and I hired our first employee, Christopher Jones, General Factotum. Jack of all trades, trouble-shooter, operations manager, good and loyal friend, Chris still holds down the fort today. The Nickelodeon Theatre opened for business on July 1, 1969 showing a Swedish art film about a draft dodger and his girlfriend running around in the woods in the nude, in slow motion--plus City of Gold, a Canadian documentary about the Yukon gold rush, a personal favorite of mine.
We soon learned to be wary of those, "personal favorites." Our programming expertise, such as it was, had been learned in San Francisco and Santa Barbara. We found that many of the films that were popular in other cities did not "draw" in Santa Cruz. People were somehow different here. Gritty, hard-nosed, realistic movies typically played to near-empty houses. Santa Cruz seemed to march to its own drummer. It liked far-out comedies. And films about the arts. Musicians, dancers, actors, painters: Santa Cruz ate it up! Best of all, we discovered, were films about crazies. I can't begin to count the times ("back by popular demand," of course) we played King of Hearts and Harold and Maude, often on a double-bill and more often than not to packed houses. Finally we had it figured: insanity was where it's at in Santa Cruz!
Besides foreign films, that first year we played a lot of "underground films," as we called them, independently made "experimental films." Independent filmmakers didn't give a damn about the Motion Picture Production Code. They liked being shocking. So did I. And there were those movies from France and Sweden, too. Everyone just knew those people were a bunch of libertines. Were it not for an "unhealthy regard for sex," and for a whole lot of "prurient interest," I doubt that any of the art theatres back then would have survived very long.
A few weeks after the Nickelodeon opened, JoAnne died of a cerebral aneurysm. That left me as sole operator. A few years later I bought out my partners. Not a lot of people remember JoAnne Walker Raney today. She never lived in Santa Cruz very long. But without her there never would have been a Nickelodeon.
In 1971 I remarried, and pretty soon Nancy Raney was hard at work at the Nickelodeon, first doing bookkeeping, and later on, as our kids grew older, developing a badly needed publicity/promotion/public relations system. Pretty soon we were acting like professionals! We managed to keep our head above water through the early seventies in spite of an onslaught of new multiplex theatre screens being built all over the place. When I had originally "analyzed" the Santa Cruz movie market, all I had really been concerned with was whether or not--with five existing screens (Rio, Del Mar, Soquel Cinema, Capitola, Skyview Drive-In)--there was room for one more. Soon there were fourteen screens. Then twenty-two. Then thirty- one. Where were all the movies supposed to come from, I wondered? Today there are twenty-nine screens.
About 1975 this guy from Cuba shows up. He says his name is Rene Fuentes-Chao and he's here to build an art theatre. I gradually learned to appreciate Rene, and by 1978, when he decided to move on, we were friends, and I was the person he approached to buy the Sash Mill Cinema when he decided to move away. The Nickelodeon operated the Sash Mill Cinema as a repertory house--and Rene's Sash Mill Café--from 1978 through 1994. At one time or another the Nickelodeon/Sash Mill employed all four of our children. By 1976, after seven years of operation it was time to start thinking about that Odeon next door. We sold the Victorian to Alan Goldman for $2,000 cash and carry, take it away. Alan did. Early one Sunday morning before most people were up, Nancy and I and the kids went rolling up Lincoln Street--looking cool--in the front bay window of a neat old two-story house. We turned left on Washington Street and continued on for another block and a half, before coming to rest on Alan's newly built foundation. Alan fixed it up really nice. The old Victorian is still there today at 616 Washington Street--unless Alan has taken it joy riding again. The Nickelodeon II opened in 1976. By then, with a proliferation of multi-screen theatres all over the country, the economics of the motion picture exhibition business had changed. Large auditoriums like our proposed Odeon were seldom built. We decided on another smaller auditorium, one that would leave room on the lot for a third auditorium when we could afford it.
I think it was during the '70s that we had the most fun with the Nickelodeon. Nancy had developed a flair for promotion. One time we played Lena Wertmuller's Swept Away, a firey, Italian battle royale between the sexes, about a man and a woman stranded alone on a desert island. First Nancy went down to the harbor to find a cooperative sailor with a nice boat. Then we put ads in the paper announcing that if you put your name and telephone number in a box in the Nickelodeon lobby (after having bought a ticket to get in, of course), you might just be one of the two lucky people who would have their names drawn at the end of the engagement, in which case you would find yourself on a lovely yacht out on the ocean, sharing a bottle of fine wine with a stranger, eating a gourmet lunch prepared by Nancy, at the end of which--provided everything went right (or wrong, depending on how you look at it)--you just could find yourself truly "swept away," on a desert island. Cute! The film's distributor loved the stunt and gave us more films!
And then there was the time Mount St. Helens blew up. Suddenly volcanoes were the rage. I found some old volcano footage and some old documentaries about Vesuvius, Paracutin and Krakatoa.. Nancy called a total stranger up in Washington and asked him how he was doing. He said his house was covered with a foot or so of ash. Would he send us some, she asked? He sent us four gallon jugs.
We stayed up all night transferring the light grey stuff into little baggies to give away free with the price of admission. We would push the little bags across the counter to people at the box office, along with their ticket and change. Many would just look at the little bag of powder suspiciously, and leave it lying on the counter. Nancy contacted the elementary schools. One of the teachers had just had her class build a big papier mache volcano as a class project. So we offered to make the kids' creation the star of our volcano festival. We went out and found some dry ice. Pretty soon--voilà--there it was on our funky little stage, puffing its little heart out during intermissions. There's no business like show business.
Probably the most satisfying time of all for me was that time we were given the premiere of Ingmar Bergman's new film of Mozart's The Magic Flute. It seemed like the ultimate Christmas movie for an "art house." The Nickelodeon was closed in the daytime, so Nancy got on the phone again to the elementary schools, and arranged for a number of private screenings. One day she came home all excited, telling me she had managed to get a Magic Flute Nickelodeon flyer taped on the back of every elementary school child in the county on their way from school. That's promotion!
The Nickelodeon II was a hit, and in 1981 it was time to haul out those plans for what was supposed to be the conclusion of the Nickelodeon tri-plex. Looking at the plans carefully, I saw a way of getting two auditoriums into the space that had been allotted for one. I thought itty-bity screening rooms were cool. People in the trade watch movies in them all the time. I thought I'd be letting the public in on a good thing. But, as it turned out, the Nickelodeon IV was probably not my finest hour. Now people who don't like it know who to blame.
In 1978 when we took over the Sash Mill Cinema, Rene told me I should be sure and hang on to one of his employees, who, he told me, was a man of exceptional talent. Unlike my itty-bitty theatre idea, hiring Jim Schwenterley was perhaps the best decision I ever made. Jim is a fanatical movie buff, as well as a good judge of what the Santa Cruz public wants to see. Jim was soon learning to program the Sash Mill Cinema. He was better at it than I was, and he quickly picked up the tricks of the trade associated with buying films from film distributors.
In 1992 I sold the theatre business to Jim--and retired. Since then Jim has operated the Nickelodeon in the manner that JoAnne and I had envisioned on that long drive East through Afghanistan so many years ago. In the year 2000 Chuck Volwiler became a partner in the business, and he proved himself to be a man of considerable talent, too. It was Chuck who spearheaded the acquisition of the Del Mar. I doubt that I would ever have had the patience or ability to guide the Nickelodeon through such a complex and Byzantine process as was acquiring and putting back together this grand old movie palace. This is not the end of the history of the Nickelodeon. It's probably just the beginning. I think the Nickelodeon has a long and glorious future ahead of it, one now being written by someone else.
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