Dark Habits
On the movie beat in Santa Cruz, ca. 1975
Good Times 30th Anniversary Issue, September, 2005

Reviewing films was never my career plan. When I started, back in the '70s, nobody had plans. Stuff just happened. Even after I began writing reviews for this paper, I assumed that some day I'd have to get a real job and move on.

That was 30 years ago. And if I ever had any lingering doubt about what a dream job my stint at Good Times turned out to be, I need only refer to the journal I've been keeping since I was 12. Delving into that document to research this article, I found it crammed full of movie reviews scribbled in the fury of the moment, long before anybody ever paid me to write them. Seems I just couldn't stop myself.

Santa Cruz in 1975 was a great place for a fledgling film buff. To celebrate 30 years of Good Times, and my (gulp) three decades in the business, return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…

I graduated from UCSC in June of 1974, packed up my BA, and went to work nights selling tickets and popcorn at the UA Cinemas (now the Riverfront) for minimum wage—$1.65 an hour. The U. A., at that time was a depressing giant cinderblock of a building, a miniplex without a mall. In those long-gone days before the Cinema 9 was even a neon gleam in a developer's eye, the U. A. 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 disrepair.

We heard rumors of the occasional enterprising manager at one of the other houses forcing the staff to wear white gloves, but that never happened at the U. A. It was bad enough we had to wear uniforms: blue jackets for the men, blue and red polyester A-line dresses for the women. Clean uniforms were sent out every two weeks; in between we were not allowed to take them home and wash them ourselves. We all reeked of eau de popcorn oil.

In opposition to the U. A. corporate mentality were the funky little independently owned mom-and-pop movie houses. After six years, the single-screen Nickelodeon operated by Bill and Nancy Raney was the queen of the crop, an established venue for foreign language films, maverick independent films (like perennial favorite Harold & Maude) and such inspired festival programming as the series of French New Wave classics that played for months. The family-owned Capitola Theater, and feisty little Cinema Soquel, where the Lighthouse Christian Fellowship Church now stands, eked out a living showing less-than-brand-new double features. The Skyview Drive-in was a local landmark, but Gary Culver had not yet opened Scotts Valley Cinema.

After six months at the U. A., I got a raise to the princely sum of $1.75. A few weeks later, in February, 1975, I quit when it seemed like the U. A. would be playing its holiday hit, Airport '75, for all eternity, every frame of which was already embedded for life on my frontal lobes. (Next time we're at a party together, ask me to do my impression of Karen Black as the plucky stewardess who has to fly the crippled plane.)

Blinking back out into the daylight world, I segued into a job keeping the accounts in the textbook room of the old Bookshop Santa Cruz, which at that time was managed by my older brother Steve. This turned out to be a big boost to my moviegoing habit—it freed up my nights. The biggest movie news in town was the opening of Rene Fuentes-Chao's Sash Mill Cinema in January, 1975, 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. Built on the site of an old lumber mill, the Sash Mill's insulation was poor, and it's ventilation nonexistent. Under its corrugated metal roof, patrons were guaranteed to freeze in the winter and broil in the summer; raindrops sounded like Taiko drumming. We loved it. Back before cable TV, DVDs, and movies on demand, a revival theater with a rotating mix of vintage and recent films was paradise on earth. The program changed three times a week, and they published a fold-out, poster-sized schedule every quarter, which everyone I knew had taped to their refrigerator. Steve, my roommate Jan, and I went out to the movies almost every night.

Some were mainstream movies (Murder On the Orient Express; The Day Of The Locust; Tommy; Nashville) at UA theatres where my former colleagues would let us in for free. We also saw older films (like The Lion In Winter) in re-release. These were called sub-run in the quaint parlance of the day; there was a window of about six months when you might be able to catch a favorite film for one last date on the big screen before the inevitable meander to TV. ("Day For Night is in town again," I reported in my journal, as if it were an old high school buddy.) Admission in those days was about $2.50, often for a double-bill. In April of '75, I got my first raise at the Bookshop—to $2.25 an hour. I was ready to let the revels begin!

Also in April, Good Times began as a 12-page entertainment weekly. By late summer, the designated film critic was Christian Kallen (who has since carved out a career in travel writing and adventure tours). One week, he wrote in his column that Santa Cruz had too many movie screens for one critic to cover, inviting anyone interested in his line of work to get in touch with him. Strangely enough, Jan and I had just been to the movies the night before— some dreadful B-movie at the drive-in—so I hauled out my old (manual) college typewriter, hammered out a one-page review, 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 an official stringer, an occasional reviewer of movies Christian didn't have the time or inclination to see.

My first review—of Monty Python And The Holy Grail ("relentlessly funny," I gushed)—was published October 23, 1975. I reported in my journal that I was more terrified than excited about walking into the Bookshop that morning knowing my name would be in print. And while I remember it more rosily now, my journal reminds me that no actual money changed hands for my 500-word contribution. It would never have occurred to me to ask (gad, I probably would have paid them!), which is exactly what publisher Jay Shore was counting on; as anyone who worked for him in those early years will recall, he preferred to pay his writers in the coin of notoriety. It wasn't until February, 1976—eight movie reviews, one holiday book preview, and one Movie Shorts column later—that I received my first (unitemized) GT check. It was for $10, which works out to a buck an article. But it was the first money I'd ever earned by writing, and I was thrilled, noting in my journal "the constant high of being published weekly in the Good Times."

Those first couple of months, I got my assignments from Christian, but dropped off my typed copy at the GT office downtown. The office was in the same location it is now, but it was a world away in atmosphere. The storefront on Pacific Avenue was a Gallenkamp's shoe store. Around the corner was a dry cleaners, beside which a dark, narrow, rickety staircase led to the upstairs offices. It was like something out of a Sam Spade movie, a gloomy, musty hallway with no windows and never any signs of habitation, not so much as the clinking of ice in a glass of Scotch, or the shadow of a fedora behind the yellowed, fly-specked wire glass in each closed door. The GT office contained a bare room in front, with a desk occupied by receptionist (later publisher) Carole Atkinson. Behind Carole was another door to a room where Jay sat at his desk. That was all I ever saw. If there was an editorial department, production, even ad sales, they must have been curtained off like the great and powerful Oz.

I never actually met Jay until December of '75, when he asked me if I ever liked the movies I saw. (I guess he missed the Monty Python review.) But fer cryin' out loud, Christian winnowed out all the good stuff, the Robert Altmans and Antonionis; all I got was Mahogany. Nevertheless, Jay encouraged me, and offered me cover stories, which I mostly declined. As a caustic hippie in embroidered overalls, my attitude didn't mesh with Jay's infamous "lighter than air" philosophy in any other department except movies, where (unlike, say, restaurants or theater) nobody local had to suffer the slings and arrows of a bad review.

It was the perfect niche for me. I could feed both my movie and writing habits, deliver my opinion with uncompromised honesty, and even (eventually) get paid for it. By the time Christian departed in September, 1976, and I inherited the job, I was up to, I believe, $25 a week.

30 years ago, I had no idea I was launching a career. If I had, maybe I'd have taken the career aspect more seriously, tried to get my column syndicated, tried to get my pithy quotes into movie ads. Maybe I would have dressed better. (Nah, probably not.) John Lennon said life is what happens when you're making other plans, and I never planned for this to become my profession. Then it would've seemed like work. It wouldn't have been nearly as much fun.

(No photo of Lisa in her overalls will ever appear on lisajensenonline.com. Contact her at lisajensen@sbcglobal.net)