Santa Cruz searchlights in 1964
It was December 1964, and my family was living in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Auburn. I was 9 years old and my sister Kati was 7, as mom and dad drove us to grandmother’s house in Santa Cruz for Christmas vacation. It was a long drive, and we crossed the Santa Cruz Mountains on Highway 17 after sunset. Not only was the town lit up like a Christmas tree village, but there were two searchlights sweeping across the heavens like a Hollywood skyline.
Of course, these usually were located at car dealerships, and I’d once seen a World War II surplus truck-mounted searchlight for rent at a local truck rental lot. Car dealers used searchlights to signal the arrival of the latest models for the coming year, an event in itself. Automobile tail-fins seemed to foretell a flying-car future, like in the “Jetsons” cartoon show from 1962 to 1963. Yet tail-fins were also getting pointier, and I recalled the time I walked between cars parked along the sidewalk, and got gored by a tail-fin.
In the after-dark townscape, it was hard to guess where the searchlights were located, and as each one came into and out of view, our orientation constantly shifted. It seemed one was on the Eastside terrace, and the other might be on Ocean Street, so it appeared we had passed them. We came down Pacific Avenue in bumper-to-bumper traffic (Pacific Avenue was two-way at the time), and the street was decorated with holiday spandrels all down the street, of tinsel scrollwork and red-lighted stars and bells. To our surprise, the searchlight appeared to be right ahead of us on Pacific Avenue! Was it one of the dealerships at the foot of the avenue, like Prolo Chevrolet? But no, it seemed closer. As we approached, we saw a sign on the music store announcing all the latest Hammond Organs were now available, with a long line in front.
“They’re all getting organs?” I asked in wilderment.
Mom said, “Look at the cinema marquee.” The Del Mar Theater was just south of the music store, and appeared to be where the line originated. I was stunned to see the sign announce “Mary Poppins” was playing. “No way!” I exclaimed. The movie had already been out a number of months, with kids singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in the schoolyard, and playing “Chim-Chiminy” on the piano. We were used to major motion pictures not reaching the small-town market until they’d been running while in the big cities. Yet here in Santa Cruz was an Oscar contender with the local fanfare of a Hollywood premiere.
The 1,500-seat Del Mar movie palace was different in 1964, as a setting for luxury, fanfare, and a tour-de-force of art. (Ross Eric Gibson collection).
We continued on to grandmother’s house, fearing the higher-priced tickets would deter our parents. After all, it wasn’t a 90-minute or two-hour feature, but a two-and-a-half-hour show, with the kids admission raised from 30¢ to 55¢, and an adult ticket going for $1.05. My folks had never spent more than a dollar for a single movie ticket, especially for a single movie without added features, so we didn’t expect to see the film until prices came down.
We hadn’t gotten a television until 1960, a good source of old movies, so theater movies were more a treat for a special occasion, usually being a Disney film, or a Rogers and Hammerstein musical. As we drove away from the searchlights, Mom commented that Julie Andrews had originated the role of Eliza Doolittle in the broadway musical “My Fair Lady,” but had been snubbed as an unknown when “My Fair Lady” was adapted to the screen for an October 1964 release. Audrey Hepburn wasn’t happy her voice was dubbed by an offscreen singer, Marni Nixon, and while the film became an instant classic, Mom was delighted Andrews had gained film stardom in a musical regarded as the chief Oscar challenger to front-runner “My fair lady.” As our parents discussed it, they decided we should all go to see “Mary Poppins” as a Christmas treat.
I was so excited, I rushed in and told my grandmother Hopie. The next day, just as we were getting ready to leave, my three cousins arrived from the Bay Area to spend Christmas. I feared this meant we wouldn’t see the movie, since we’d be having family time with our guests. But Mom told my aunt Jean about the movie, and Jean said we should all go to see the film. But Jean wanted to feed my cousins first. Mom said they could all get hot dogs at the theater’s Delmarette lunch counter, but Jean said her kids needed food now, so Mom said she’d go stand in line for the tickets to the 5:00 show, and she’d meet them at the theatre. Kati and I went with my mom to get the tickets, probably because we still didn’t believe it was really happening. It had been raining on and off all evening, so we stood in line under the music store’s canvas awning, listening to the Hammond Organs inside, then moved under the Delmarette’s awning, but noticing the lunch counter was so crowded with customers people couldn’t get in.
Ross, Dana, and Kati Gibson in 1964, crowded into the Boardwalk’s photo booth. (Ross Eric Gibson collection)
After making our way to the box office, we learned the 5 pm showing was sold out. Kati and I were certain this meant we couldn’t see the show, since mom only had enough patience to stand in a long wet line once. And we envied the fast-moving line of happy people with tickets already filing into the theater. But to our surprise, Mom bought tickets to the 7:30 show, figuring we could eat dinner downtown first. So we went to the Teacup Chinese Restaurant, upstairs in the old Flatiron Building, just across from the post office. We phoned grandmother to let her know we got everyone tickets for a later show, and said our cousins could meet us at the theater.
When we left the restaurant it was dark, the rain had subsided and holiday lights and neon signs glinted in the mirror-wet streets. We walked past store windows of holiday displays, saw the St. George Hotel’s lobby tree through the front windows, with carols on the grand piano as people sat by a warm fireplace. Leask’s department store had animated displays in their show windows, and there was a line of kids to talk to Santa Claus in the window of Woolworth’s Department Store. When we heard the ringing handbell, Mom gave us coins to put in the Salvation Army kettle.
As we approached the theater from a distance, we saw the Del Mar’s colorful neon blinking in sequence animation. The line to buy tickets for the later showings, now stretched around the corner onto Soquel Avenue. We got to stand in the ticket-holder line for quick admission into the theater, while overhead running stud-lights under the marquee seemed to usher us in like an electric tide.
We entered under the Egyptian spread-wing poster case that sat atop the box office. But the auditorium wasn’t open yet. So we stopped to buy snacks and ordered orange drinks, which bubbled from the glass dome of the soda urn. A cigarette machine was in the lobby, but both Mom and Jean had given up smoking.
Up on the mezzanine it was cold near the windows, because the smokers had them open for ventilation, even though the light rain would gust in from time to time. Kati and I watched out the windows for our cousins, and called to them when they showed up. Then we ran across to the mezzanine rail overlooking the lobby to watch as they entered, and waved them up the stairs lighted by Saturn-like lamps.
The ushers were dressed as yachtsmen and toreador women, and when they opened the auditorium doors, even holding tickets, the place was so packed that ushers asked how many were in a group. Then they communicated with other ushers across a crowded room, using hand signals to find seats together. They looked like bidders on the crowded floor of the Stock Exchange, entirely filling the 1,500-seat auditorium every two-and-a-half hours. Our favorite seats were the lower-right loge or mid-balcony above the cross-aisle, and we managed to get our first choice.
The auditorium’s five art deco chandeliers (with three smaller ones under the balcony) were trimmed with stars, trumpets, and frosted glass panels resembling fountains. They illuminated a WPA-style mural ceiling, depicting lions flanking an Etruscan queen, while on either side of the curtains were molded panels of Egyptian maidens, inspired more by Busby Berkeley musicals than ancient Egypt art.
Then the drama began, as the lights lowered to a medium setting for a couple of minutes, to let stragglers find their seats, and stop gabbing, then dimmed out as the velvet curtains parted. Once the movie started, it didn’t matter if we were sitting together or not, we got so absorbed in the story.
“Mary Poppins” was nominated for 13 Oscars, winning five; while “My Fair Lady” had 12 nominations, winning eight Oscars, including Best Picture. The Oscars for “Mary Poppins” included Best Actress (Julie Andrews), Best Song (“Chim Chiminy”) and Best Special Visual Effects. Seeing the movie on a giant Cinamascope Screen heightened the film’s innovations and action, especially in such luxurious appointments as the Del Mar. Fresh from his TV show (1961 to 1966), Dick Van Dyke was a standout as the chimney sweep Bert, in spite of his barely-cockney accent. Then a reluctant Walt Disney had to be persuaded to give Van Dyke an added role of elderly banker Mr. Dawes Sr., which became a hilarious bit part; as was Ed Wynn, laughing himself to the ceiling.
And when the change in the weather came denoting Mary Poppin’s departure, one reluctantly left this invented world behind that lived in the Del Mar, emerging back out into the chill of a drizzling evening, and the lines of crowds waiting to get into the next two shows. But the magic stayed with you, as the closing song echoed in the memory “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.”
My gratitude to Daisy Gandolfi, a former Del Mar usherette, who asked people like myself, to give early recollections of the Del Mar Theatre, for her 2002 oral history “Theatre Del Mar: Now Playing In Santa Cruz.”
Facade of the Del Mar Movie Palace, with the Delmarette Fountain on the left. (Friends of the Del Mar Collection).