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Photograph by Traci Hukill
GET ON THE BUS: Nickelodeon founder and author Bill Raney in his Zerkymobile

Love, Dad

Art-house pioneer Bill Raney's 'Letters to Zerky' chronicles the trip of a lifetime

By Traci Hukill

FILM FANS in this area have a deep fond spot for the Nickelodeon Theatre in Santa Cruz, which started showing art films 40 years ago and is still going strong, with multiple screens at its Laurel Street location as well as showing films at the restored Del Mar Theatre and the Aptos Cinemas. Now, Bill Raney, the man who started it all, has returned with a book about his early life and adventures.

The late 1960s, Raney reminds us, was a time when ordinary people could go on adventures without risking their futures or plunging into debt. The potent combination of cultural foment at home and a Herculean dollar abroad meant trips to Europe—even lengthy ones—were not just appealing but attainable. In 1967, two years before they built the Nickelodeon, Raney and his first wife, JoAnne, took their 10-month-old baby Zerky (short for Eric Xerxes) and miniature dachsund Tarzan on a trip around the world in a Volkswagen camper. Conscious that his infant son was essentially missing the trip, Raney kept a diary in the form of letters addressed to Zerky. Together with photos from the trip, they form a travelog from a distinct moment in history, one in which the Cold War rumbled on even as a new global youth movement began to stir.

As literature, Letters to Zerky does not particularly distinguish itself. The young Raney's musings reveal a level of self-consciousness that former diarists may find uncomfortably familiar. Youthful writers are often doing it for posterity—not the most attractive thing in a piece of prose. As a window into the world pre-globalization, however, the book is excellent. Raney writes with a judicious level of detail. Southwest Spain, he notes early on, is the poorest place he's ever seen until he visits Kosovo. Sarajevo's Ottoman history is immediately obvious in the architecture and dress. Pakistan has too many guns. Examined today, these details reveal history, movements, phases in Cold War geopolitics.

But it's as a portrait of grief that Letters to Zerky truly excels. In July 1969, about a year after their return to California and a month after the opening of the Nickelodeon, JoAnne died of a cerebral aneurism. She was eight months pregnant. Raney sleepwalks through the next year. "How do you handle the death of a spouse?" he asks. "I can only speak for myself: I think you don't handle it, it handles you." And then things actually got worse. In the summer of 1970, 3-year-old Zerky was struck and killed by a car while riding his tricycle. Looking back, Raney is graceful, restrained, anything but maudlin. "After the passage of nearly 40 years, Zerky's death haunts me more than JoAnne's, even though hers hurt more at the time," he writes. The observation doesn't just explain how the book came to be; it imbues it with a gently persistent message not to wait, not to squander, not to miss anything that's happening.

Movie Times BILL RANEY reads from 'Letters to Zerky: A Father's Legacy to a Lost Son ... and a Road Trip Around the World' on Sunday (April 12) at noon at the Nickelodeon Theatre, 210 Lincoln St., Santa Cruz. (831.429.4234 or

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