The box office at the former Cinema 9, once left for dead, opens as Santa Cruz Cinema Thursday evening.
The box office at the former Cinema 9, once left for dead, opens as Santa Cruz Cinema Thursday evening.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

Opening curtain of ‘normal’: Locals turn out as Santa Cruz Cinema welcomes public back to the movies

THE HERE & NOW: The unlikely revival of a downtown Santa Cruz movie house was greeted with a modest opening-night audience Thursday. But expectations are high that a return to big crowds is just around the corner.

If and when someone writes the history of the Santa Cruz Cinema, they had better spell Kasondra Zamora’s name right.

Twenty-six years ago, when she was just a girl, Kasondra stood across the street from the newly opened Santa Cruz Cinema 9 and watched the gorgeous vertically lettered neon-deco sign of the theater light up for the first time.

On Thursday evening, Kosandra and her mother Marci were present for another milestone in the life of what used to be called “The Nine.” They were the first customers of the newly revived movie house, quietly abandoned earlier this year by Regal Cinemas then purchased and opened in breathtaking speed by another movie theater company, this one based in the Bay Area.

Kasondra Zamora and her mother, Marci Gomez, get their tickets scanned on opening night at Santa Cruz Cinema.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

This was, of course, no ordinary movie-theater ownership transition. The Cinema 9, like most movie theaters around the world, had been closed for a solid year, except for a brief period last fall. With more and more people vaccinated and COVID-19 in retreat, Thursday’s opening night felt not only momentous, but historic. When Kosandra and Marci crossed the threshold of the theater with a yelp of excitement, no one said the words, but everyone was thinking it:

Normal starts now.

The last time before Thursday that Kasondra and her mom were inside a movie theater was December 2019. Before that, they were regular customers of the Regal. “As soon as I saw it was being opened by somebody else, I was like, ‘We’re buying tickets,’” said Kasondra, who was about to see Disney’s new animated adventure “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

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Twenty-six years ago, as a reporter for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, I too was on hand for the opening of The Nine. I had been to the theater countless times over the years, though, for the past several years, I had fallen out of the habit. When I rode the escalator up to the lobby with Kasondra and Marci, I was overcome by an odd sensation, somewhere between taking a blindfold off and revisiting your childhood bedroom. This was somehow utterly familiar, yet new, almost poignantly so.

The Santa Cruz Cinema, as it is now christened, is to be run and managed by a company that’s under the umbrella of Syufy Enterprises of San Rafael, which owns and manages many movie theaters, albeit of the drive-in variety, among other business ventures. But it’s the same company that at one time started and managed the Century Theater chain — yep, that’s the same Century Theaters that were domed, futuristic icons of the San Jose landscape for half a century.

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They plan to run it as a first-run movie theater with brand-name mainstream titles like “Godzilla Vs. King Kong (opening next week) and the occasional prestige movie like the coming-of-age “Boogie” (now playing). In other words, the new Cinema is looking to occupy the same place in the market and the minds of Santa Cruz County movie fans as Regal once did. To get there, the theater’s new owners brought in a battalion of people to clean, paint, and refurbish.

As it opens, the Santa Cruz Cinema is still under state-mandated pandemic restrictions, which means no more than 25 percent capacity for each of their nine screening rooms. But those restrictions won’t last long. Then, it’s going to be a marketing challenge to get people to come back to movie houses, especially given the great leap forward in streaming options at home.

But none of that meant much to the handful of locals who attended the first screening of the newly reinvigorated theater, which included a boy celebrating his eighth birthday and dressed as Harry Potter (He helpfully explained to me that his glasses were fake, that he could see just fine without them).

Chakra Aquarius, 8, and his parents enjoy opening night at Santa Cruz Cinema.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It feels nice to be back,” said Josh Westgate, settling into his seat next to his wife Arianna. “It looks like they’ve done a good facelift and really brought the place back to life.”

Soon after, the lights dimmed and the screen lit up with a preview of the new James Bond film starring Daniel Craig. The visuals were predictably bedazzling brain candy and the sound may have slightly rearranged my internal organs.

There’s that feeling again, deeply familiar but bracingly new at the same time.

The movies, in all their organ-rattling glory, are back. And normal can’t be far behind.

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Linda Patterson says she was excited to return to the movies Thursday, including because of the popcorn.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Santa Cruz Cinema opened at 25% capacity Thursday, updating the multiplex once run by Regal Cinemas.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)