Adjustments at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre immediate debate and hand-wringing

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The Castro Theater has seen better days.

Still owned by the Nassers, the family of Lebanese immigrants who built it in 1922, the movie palace dominates the rise where Castro, 17th, and Market streets converge. Its colorful blade neon sign reading, simply, “Castro” rises above the marquee, beckoning locals and visitors alike to the LGBT neighborhood, not, it isn’t too hyperbolic to say, unlike the Statue of Liberty’s torch. The Castro sign has been an assurance to countless tens of thousands that, at last, they were home and safe.

But, like the neighborhood around it, long beset by the issues of skyrocketing rents and increased homelessness, the Castro Theater has seen better days and efforts to revitalize the grand old cinema have been tumultuous at best. After 100 years, the movie house is showing its age and the effects of delayed renovations or, in one case, sloppy preservation efforts have taken their toll on the theater’s unique leatherette ceiling, which is stained and cracked as a result of a misguided attempt to preserve it.

One year ago, San Franciscans were surprised — or alarmed, depending upon your point of view — by the news that management of the cinema had been contracted to Another Planet Entertainment, a concert promoter based across the bay in Berkeley. Already the manager of numerous esteemed venues throughout the Bay Area such as the Greek Theater in Berkeley, the Fox Theater in Oakland, and both Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and The Independent in San Francisco, the addition of the Castro was a big deal for the company .

Entrusted with a building many in San Francisco and particularly those in the Castro regard as a jewel among the city’s collection of artistically notable structures, Another Planet vowed from the outset to restore the beloved theater to its glorious original state. Designed by prominent San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, whose masterpieces dot the city, the theater is a testament to the Churrigueresque influences on Spanish style architecture proliferating throughout California at the time. Many were already dubious, however, suspicious of the concert promoters’ move into one of the last repertory theaters in town, and the oldest, longest running single screen movie palace.

While the Castro began as a first-run theater, by the time it had hit midlife in the 1970s, it was showing second-run movies. With the influx of gay men into the Castro in the 1960s and ’70s, however, the theater took on a new life. Throughout the following decades, programming at the theater began to reflect the tastes of the LGBT community. Campy old classics like 1939’s “The Women” and 1950’s “All About Eve” (“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”) found ready audiences. Live performances, through producers like Marc Huestis and Joshua Grannell — better known as the drag queen Peaches Christ — became regular events. In 1990, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus began their annual Christmas performance “Home for the Holidays,” which has become a holiday tradition.

For cinephiles, particularly LGBT cinephiles, a turning point came in 1977 with the groundbreaking documentary “Word is Out,” featuring interviews with 26 gay men and lesbians about their lives, which premiered at the Castro, and established the cinema as ground zero for LGBT Movie. Other films followed: “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,” “Buddies,” and “Milk.” Most recently, the Billy Eichner film “Bros” premiered there, as well as “The Matrix Resurrections.”

Now, many wondered, what would happen to the Castro’s legacy of film and other programming for its LGBT audience? Another Planet’s renovation plans, submitted to the San Francisco planning department in March 2020, did little to assure their fears.

Save the seats!

Another planet’s plans for renovations, devised by CAW Architects of Palo Alto, California, called for extensive renovations of the entire building, including the installation of an HVAC system and heating (the theater is notorious for its lack of heat), restoration of the murals and decorative features, and numerous other details throughout the building. Recent torrental storms in California flooded the basement, said David Perry, spokesperson for Another Planet, and the roof leaks as well.

One item in particular stood out. Another planet wanted to remove the theater’s raked floor and orchestral seating to make way for tiered platforms which would allow event producers to remove the seats for standing audiences, as well as accommodating other types of events. When the theater showed films, APE insisted, the seats could be replaced.

It didn’t go over well.

Numerous groups voiced their disapproval, including the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District — a quasigovernmental organization which oversees many aspects of managing the neighborhood — various film organizations, and the Castro Conservancy. Founded by former San Francisco Symphony director Peter Pastreich, the conservancy was founded to present a viable alternative APE’s management of the theater, insisting they could run the Castro as a nonprofit.

Months of bickering ensued. In August, Another Planet organized a community town hall, inviting representatives of the Castro Conservancy, the Castro Cultural District, and its own executives and the architects to present their visions for the theater. Packing the Castro, hundreds of people turned up, many holding signs reading “Save the Seats!” A question and answer period devolved into two hours of people venting their frustrations with Another Planet — although a handful of people voiced their support for the renovations too.

Just one of many speakers that night, producer Huestis cried out, “Taking out the seats is ripping out the heart and soul of the theater!”

Notably, the ages of those opposed veered older, prompting Astrid Kane, a millennial newspaper editor in San Francisco to recently quip on Facebook, “You can fill a room with pompous windbag historians yammering about ‘UNESCO intangible cultural heritage’ all you want, but you won’t have Gen Z in there, too.”

Since then, little has improved. A later motion by San Francisco District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, whose district includes the Castro neighborhood, sought to extend the theater’s historic landmark status to the interior of the movie palace beyond its currently protected façade. That’s resulted in delays in hearings at the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, where the plans for the theater must be approved before moving on to the planning commission. After more than three months of delays, the Historic Preservation Commission will discuss extending the landmark status this week.

Members of the commission will also be considering a new proposal from Another Planet. Rather than the tiered platforms the company had proposed earlier, it’s put forward plans for a motorized raked floor which, according to APE’s Perry, will allow both the raked seating and standing room.

Perry described the seating as “a win-win-win,” allowing room not only for concerts, but films and LGBT programming. Even so, not everyone is convinced.

Stephen Torres, a vocal critic of Another Planet Entertainment’s plans, and executive co-chair of the Castro Cultural District’s advisory committee, said the proposed changes at the theater are more than mere renovations.

“People are understandably scared,” Torres said. “This means so much to everyone. Even people who aren’t cinephiles, even they understand how important this space is.”

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