The Nickelodeon needs upgrades before it can reopen regardless of COVID-19.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Wallace Baine

WALLACE BAINE: The Nickelodeon is a local treasure trapped in limbo

Wallace Baine says he hopes he’s not writing the obituary of the beloved Nickelodeon, but it’s clear the movie house isn’t going to reopen anytime soon. At least, he notes, Landmark, which owns the theater, also owns the land it sits on.

The Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz used to be a movie house. Today, it’s a time capsule.

Peek into the windows of the long-closed theater and you can get a sense of what life was like way back in the early months of 2020. Interior signage directs moviegoers to the screening rooms for “Parasite,” the South Korean export that was just then reaping the rewards for winning the Best Picture Oscar, as well as now half-forgotten films “The Traitor” and “The Assistant.”

Inside that building, Donald Trump has been impeached only once, the 49ers are a Super Bowl team, and no one can pick Anthony Fauci out of a police lineup.

Wallace

The Nick is in limbo, and has been ever since it closed in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. November and December are, of course, big months for movies, particularly the arthouse cinema that has been the bread and butter (or buttered popcorn) for the Nick for decades.

And yet, this little jewel box movie theater in downtown Santa Cruz remains closed, and will remain closed for the foreseeable future. If it’s not open now, when traditionally audiences are in the mood for exactly the kind of thing the Nick sells, then it’s certainly not likely to open anytime soon.

In the winter of 2020, the Nickelodeon had also just passed its 50th birthday. And in that time, it became a beloved cultural touchstone for movie buffs from all over Santa Cruz County. For most of that time, it was under local ownership. In 2015, the Nick and its big-sister movie house, the Del Mar, were sold to Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatres, a chain that runs arthouse cinemas in big cities across the country.

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Last week, I spoke to Paul Serwitz, Landmark’s president and chief operating officer. My question to him was simple (and I’m paraphrasing): “Dude, ’sup with the Nick?”

His response (again, paraphrasing): ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

To be fair, Serwitz reiterated — we had also chatted about six months ago — that Landmark was being super careful with opening its theaters, that the neighboring Del Mar had opened only in September, and, for market reasons and pandemic reasons, it just made sense to keep the Nickelodeon closed for now.

But just a few weeks ago, Landmark permanently closed another classic old movie house that had been shuttered since March 2020, the California Theatre in Berkeley. So you can see how a Nick fan might get a spike in anxiety, fearing that the old Nick might soon be closed for good to become a Subway.

The car may be on blocks in the garage, but at least the repo man is not coming for it.

However, the difference between the California and the Nick is probably good news for locals. In Berkeley, Landmark only leased the building itself. When the property owner decided not to renew that lease, Landmark had no recourse.

In Santa Cruz, Landmark owns the Nickelodeon building outright. The company could sit on it indefinitely without worries of being evicted. The car might be on blocks in the garage, but at least the repo man is not coming for it.

In one way, I’m surprised Serwitz gave me the time that he did. The Nickelodeon is the secondary theater in Landmark’s smallest market. Of Landmark’s 45 or so theaters, including some historic old theaters in Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, New York and San Francisco, the Nick is a small kayak among a lot of bigger boats.

If the Nickelodeon is an afterthought in a giant conglomerate — Landmark itself is part of the larger Cohen Media Group — it’s easy to forget it’s still seen as a treasure here on the ground in Santa Cruz.

For more than 25 years, as the Sentinel’s in-house film critic, I would visit the Nick every week, on a Thursday morning, for a local press screening of what was to open the following week. Like so many others in Santa Cruz, I had some of the most intense peak emotional experiences of my life, albeit vicariously, in the seats at the Nick.

And I had many amazing and memorable conversations in the courtyard just outside the Nick with some of my brilliant fellow critics. I can’t count the times I stumbled out of the Nickelodeon convinced I had just witnessed something spectacular or learned something valuable about the art of being human. How many locals felt something similar, many times over, stretching back over 50 years?

The Nickelodeon building itself has its own stories to tell. I remember visiting with the theater’s original owner, Bill Raney, who opened the Nick in the summer of 1969 with the Swedish film “Elvira Madigan.”

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Bill gestured to a spot in the hallway and told me that this was about where his wife, JoAnne, had collapsed and died of a brain aneurysm just a few weeks after the theater’s opening (the Nick then was a single-screen theater and where Bill and I were standing, among the other screens, was at the time the Raneys’ home).

At the time, UC Santa Cruz was still a new thing in town, and the Nickelodeon played a crucial role in transitioning Santa Cruz from a sleepy (read: boring) retirement community to a vibrant, sometimes bizarre, artistically and intellectually curious college town, a kind of Berkeley-by-the-beach.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but the Nick endured, bought out the competing Sash Mill Cinemas and even later developed a partnership with the grand old Del Mar.

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Inside the walls of the old Nick is a not-insignificant measure of Santa Cruz’s cultural identity. This place means something in this town, especially given that so many other touchstones of Santa Cruz, from Logos to Caffe Pergolesi, have been lost.

Maybe Landmark’s strategy makes the best sense for the Nick, and maybe one day it will reopen just as before. Or maybe, it will remain captive to a volatile post-pandemic movie market and be subject only to corporate decisions made hundreds of miles from Santa Cruz. (Landmark said there are no plans to sell off the Nick, nor is there any timetable for its reopening.)

Wide shot of the Del Mar marquee in downtown Santa Cruz
The Del Mar.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Whatever its future, it’s painful to see the sweet little theater closed and suspended in time like a dead animal in a jar of formaldehyde. Godspeed to the Del Mar as it negotiates a way out of the pandemic, and the best thing that Nick fans can do is to buy tickets at the Del Mar and prove that there is still a vital market here.

But we still need the Nickelodeon to come back to us. We’re told she’s not dead, only in a medically induced coma. All we can do now is to hope the doctor knows what he’s doing.