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News + PoliticsLGBTQThe future of the Castro Theater, and its role in the LGBTQ...

The future of the Castro Theater, and its role in the LGBTQ community, now at City Hall

Historic Preservation Commission will consider whether the legendary venue can become a concert nightclub.


The Historic Preservation Commission will consider Wednesday/1 a proposal that could profoundly impact the future of the historic Castro Theater—and whatever happens will be the start of a long process of political and legal wrangling over whether the movie house becomes a concert venue.

It’s a controversy that’s been brewing for a year, since Another Planet Entertainment announced in January 2022 that it had signed a long-term lease to take over programming at the theater—and had plans to remove the orchestra-level seats and level the floor to make room for people to dance at big concerts.

Castro Theater image courtesy of APE

That horrified many in the film community and many LGBTQ activists, who saw the plans as an assault on the city’s last large film venue, which has been at the heart of LGBTQ culture for decades.

Sup. Rafael Mandelman asked the Historic Preservation Commission to look at the issue and decide if the interior of the theater, including the seats and the raked floor, count as landmarks. The exterior is already a landmark.

“It seemed the prudent thing to do,” he told me. “I want the commission to evaluate whether the interior itself fits the definition of an historic landmark.”

If they do, then APE can’t remove the seats. And the company’s entire plan for the space becomes a question.

So many issues here:

—Can an old-style movie theater survive as a for-profit entity in an era when so much cinema is consumed by streaming at home? Is there another model that might work?

—APE says the theater needs about $20 million in upgrades, and the only way it makes financial sense in the current market is to allow it to operate as a concert venue.

—That, APE says, requires removing the seats—although if you want to go see the Taylor Swift concerts, among others, you will have to buy and for at least a moment sit in seats. Many concert venues have seats, but APE says this one won’t work.

—If the seats are removed, theater supporters say, the entire feel of the place will go away, and with it, it’s history and community ties.

Gerard Koskovich, an LGBTQ historian and founding member of the GLBT Historical Society, put it this way in a community forum last week:

My research and our community’s experience show that we have formed a unique queer public at the Castro Theatre, learning from one another across the generations how to react critically and with camp humor to mainstream Hollywood films and how to appreciate and support the work of LGBTQ and independent filmmakers and culture makers.

And we’ve often done it dressed in costume to emulate or mock the characters on screen, waiting with baited breath for the organist to at last play “San Francisco,” watching visiting stars and drag performers parade down the aisles, and finally, reciting aloud our favorite lines of dialog.

All the things I’ve briefly characterized happened out in the auditorium of the theater. The historic raked floor and aisles and movie-palace seats are the physical anchors for this intangible cultural heritage. Preserving them will provide the foundation for sustaining that intangible cultural heritage in the largest indoor public space in the Castro District.

“When you walk in, the orchestra seats and the raked flooring are the first thing you see and are a central part of the movie-house experience,”
Koskovich told me.

Shaya Watson, an LQBTQ historian and architectural historic preservation consultant, told me that “The APE plans would destroy the character of the interior.” She added: “I’m trying to think of a concert I have been to without seats, and there aren’t a lot.”

I’m just going to come out and say this: Whatever the future of the Castro Theater, APE’s announcement was a disaster. The company signed a deal with the Nasser family, which owns the theater, without first adequately reaching out to the neighborhood, the film world, and the LGBTQ community. Everyone was caught by surprise, and it’s not a surprise that so many were so freaked out.

Stephen Torres, co-director of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, put it this way:

 One more component of all this that I think is important in this issue is the minimal outreach and dismissive, if not combative, approach that APE has taken toward the Castro and LGBTQ community. Using derisive language in order to try and minimize the community’s concerns and wishes  while simultaneously trying to offer promises and incentives to individual community groups in order to divide the community. Not only does this run contrary to the good neighbor policies and protocols required by the city that they should be familiar with, but it also assumes that community will not see these promises or re-packaged proposals for what they are and that the community doesn’t know full well that none of these are legally binding and could very well disappear once they get the permits and certificates they seek.

But since the bungled roll out, David Perry, an LGBTQ public-relations specialist who for years lived and worked in the Castro, has been working with APE, and trying to present the changes as not only necessary but consistent with the theater’s history.

“APE’s new plans have been developed at extensive cost to address the concerns of the film community,” he told me. “We have heard the concerns.”

The latest plans include a rather ambitious technological and architectural approach: APE is offering to create a mechanical floor that would shift back and forth from a raked-seating model for movies to a tiered-space model for concerts, with the seats removed and replaced as needed.

Anita Monga, artistic director of the Silent Film Festival, told me that “it’s not beautiful, but if they can pay for it, it could work for the film festivals that are so important to the city.”

Torres disagrees. “It’s the same kind of demolition and structural work, gutting the interior of the theater,” he said.

The APE plan would also be “more exclusive,” Torres said. The company wants to turn it into a nightclub that would serve alcohol “and this is one of the few venues that is still all ages… the prices for the shows would keep some people out.”

That, of course, speaks to the mistrust between the community and the promoters that started when APE signed this deal without adequate outreach.

There’s another element to the entire discussion that just came to light a few days ago. On Nov. 28, 2022, Dan Serot, the head of APE, and Chris Nasser Padian, representing the Castro owners, wrote to the Castro Theater Conservancy, a nonprofit seeking to preserve the theater, and offered to turn over the lease, and essentially give the Castro, to the group—if the conservancy would put up $20 million for improvements to the property (which the Nasser family owns).

From the letter:

If the Castro Conservancy is interested in participating in such discussions, we would ask that you send the undersigned an initial proposal (“term sheet”) for subleasing the Castro Theater within 10 business days of the date hereof. In addition to setting forth terms typical for a commercial property sublease, we ask that the term sheet also set forth in reasonable detail a proposal for how the Castro Conservancy would be responsible for required capital improvements to the building. These improvements are required to be performed by tenant under landlord’s lease with tenant and are critical to the building’s longevity and continued operation. The improvements, estimated to cost approximately $20 million, include (among other items), the following:

Install modern HVAC system

Rewire lighting systems

Implement life-safety improvements to the building including to emergency exit stairs and alarm systems

Repair, restore, and modernize the Castro Theater’s marquee and blade sign

Restore basement to its original historic use as a production support and performer dressing room

Restore main auditorium leatherette and motive as outlined in the September 12, 2022 report by Evergreene Architectural Arts.

Neither side released the letter during the fall discussions. But Michael Petrelis, who has a long history of very controversial activism (full disclosure, I was a target of his toxic venom back in the day, and it was awful, but I took no legal action) filed a public-records request with the Board of Supes and got a copy of that letter, which had been sent to Sup. Aaron Peskin. He put it on Facebook.

Perry told me that “I will not respond to anything posted by Michael Petrelis.”

Fair enough. I asked Peskin for the letter, and he sent me a copy. He confirmed that it’s real and legit.

Perry told me that the letter “is not now and was never any form of an offer. APE is not working with the conservancy.”

But there’s some evidence, at least, that either APE is willing to get the hell out of this mess—or that it has a PR plan to say that it offered the community a chance to take over the theater, and nobody came up with the money.

If the interior is landmarked and APE can’t pull out the seats, it might decide the whole deal doesn’t work. From Perry:

The Castro has not been economically sustainable as a film venue for over a decade. The reality is that in 2023, film venues across the country are closing.  The group most dedicated to saving the Castro Theatre is Another Planet, who will continue lively film programming, including the Frameline LGBTQ fllm festival and the Silent Film Festival among others, plus the beloved film “Sing-a-Longs.”

Torres says he doesn’t buy that. Before Covid, the Castro had 30 days of programming every month, in the afternoons and evenings, he said. “Would it mean the city or state might have to put up some money for appropriate renovations? Maybe. But that’s our responsibility as a community.”

The Historic Preservation Commission meeting will, by all accounts, not be the end of this. At this point, the latest commission documents, suggest that the interior is worth consideration for historic status:

Additionally, the distinctive configuration of the seats, aisles, raked floor and stage are linked to the theatre’s cultural identity as the setting where notable directors, actors, musicians, writers, community leaders and more have made substantive contributions to LGBTQ community building.

But the final language of any resolution will be critical to all sides.

Whatever the commission decides then has to go to the Planning Commission—and whatever the planners decide can, and will be, appealed to the Board of Supes.

If APE gets approval to make its renovations, there’s a good chance that someone will sue under the California Environmental Quality Act, since planning never did an environmental impact report.

All of this is going to cost APE time and money. Is there a model where the company bails, and gives the theater to a nonprofit—and is there the money and community support to make that happen?

The commission hearing starts at 12:30pm.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


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