You can't walk through San Francisco's Castro District without your eyes being drawn to the towering marquee. The words "CASTRO" shine in bright, flashing neon over this proud queer neighborhood. But get a little closer and you notice that some of the neon lights are out, and there aren’t any people around. The front of the theater seems as deserted today as it was during the COVID-19 pandemic. What gives?
The theater is in a state of limbo while its new managers push to renovate the space for a mixed-use future. If their plan goes forward, The Castro wouldn’t be just for movies anymore, but also things like concerts, performances and weddings too. These plans have not been received warmly by all members of the community, who point to the theater's historical significance as a reason to restore it, but not renovate. The fate of the space currently sits at San Francisco City Hall, where a fight for it's future has been unfolding.
To understand the issue fully, we've first got to go back to the theater's earliest days, because behind the boarded-up windows lie 100 years of stories.
The early years
In the earliest days of film, three brothers — William, Elias and George Nasser — opened a nickelodeon at 18th and Collingwood in San Francisco. This crude cinema was little more than pictures projected onto a wall, but it led the Nasser brothers to dream of a bigger space in which to entertain audiences with silent films. Before long, they’d tapped architect Timothy Pflueger to design a movie palace.
The Castro Theatre opened in 1922 on Castro Street, and Pflueger would go on to design celebrated movie theaters like the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, and iconic San Francisco cocktail lounges like the Top of the Mark.
“The Castro is a bit of a grab bag of Beaux-Arts, Spanish Baroque, Renaissance, and a variety of other styles,” said queer public historian Gerard Koskovich, “including some Art Deco elements.”
That mix of styles creates a whimsical environment designed to transport the audience into a world of fantasy and film.
In the beginning, the Castro showed silent films, often accompanied by live music from a variety of instruments, most famously the Castro’s Wurlitzer organ. The Castro catered primarily to the working-class community in the Eureka Valley, then considered a distant suburb outside bustling San Francisco.
“In those days, people expected to see a mixed program ... some shorts, perhaps to see a newsreel, and then a feature,” said Koskovich.
As sound arrived in film, speakers arrived at the Castro, installed into a large, burlap-lined hole in the wall behind the square movie screen. When film went wide-screen, so did the Castro: Just a few feet in front of the original screen and proscenium, another screen was constructed, and over time the old, gold square was forgotten. It remains visible backstage at the Castro, if you can climb the stairs.
The Castro, with its 1,400 seats, was considered small for the time period. In San Francisco alone there was competition from behemoths like the El Capitan on Mission Street; now a parking lot, the Cap had double the seats of the Castro. The Fox Theatre on Market Street (on the land now home to Fox Plaza) was dubbed “The World's Finest Theatre” by The San Francisco Chronicle, and clocked in at 4,651 seats.
The average movie theater in 2023 has approximately 150 seats.
The larger movie houses like the Fox and El Capitan would show the big blockbusters or first-run pictures, while the Castro's repertoire mostly consisted of second- or third-run pictures — films that had already played at the bigger theaters.
The gay Castro
Deindustrialization and white flight changed the makeup of the Castro through the '50s and '60s. Then the gay community began moving in. By all accounts, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon — a lesbian couple who became longtime community activists — were the first openly LGBTQ people to move into the Castro, arriving in 1953.
“By the 1950s, this declining working-class neighborhood had started to emerge as a gay enclave,” said Koskovich. The Castro’s first gay bar — called the Missouri Mule — opened in 1963. “And by the early '70s,” said Koskovich, “the Castro was becoming very clearly marked as a gay neighborhood.”
Mel Novikoff was the Castro Theatre’s programmer in those days, and he quickly discovered a strategy for getting the neighborhood’s rapidly growing gay community into the theater:
“Bringing back old film, mixing it with art house films and foreign films,” said Koskovich. This was key to understanding this emerging urban public, he added: “It was people who'd fled their dismal, monochrome hometowns and moved to San Francisco because they wanted to have a sophisticated, thrilling, cosmopolitan cultural life.” Novikoff understood that.
“And what emerged at the Castro Theatre,” said Koskovich, “was the fact that there were an awful lot of crazed movie queens in San Francisco. They just had to go see a double bill of The Women and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? often dressed like their favorite characters, or dressed to mock some of the characters, often reciting along the best lines of dialogue.”
In the outside world, it wasn’t necessarily safe to be openly gay. But inside the Castro Theatre, gay people — mostly gay white men — felt safe to express themselves.
In 1977, the Castro Theatre was recognized as a beacon for the LGBTQ community when it became San Francisco’s 100th historic landmark, protecting the exterior from demolition or alteration.
A place of refuge
“Before there were effective treatments around 1996, remaining part of the community as a person with AIDS was impossible,” Koskovich said. Close to 20,000 people died in San Francisco alone during the AIDS crisis — “the overwhelming majority of them gay men under the age of 50,” Koskovich added, with the majority of them living within two miles of the Castro District. “So imagine the impact of that epidemic, not just on the city, but on this specific neighborhood.”
The Castro Theatre became a chapel to a community grieving the loss of a generation of young men.
“It was a place to go after you got done with the two memorial services for people you knew that week,” remembered Koskovich. “You could spend a couple of hours escaping to a movie, or a live show. You could bring people who were sick and they could sit calmly in a safe, secure, comfortable place and know they weren't going to be excluded if they had signs [of AIDS], like Kaposi's sarcoma lesions. That people weren't going to pull away from them. They could remain part of the community that had been built there.”
Throughout the '90s and 2000s, the Castro Theatre continued to grow in engagement and visibility within the LGBTQ community under the watchful eye of programmer Anita Monga. She began the era of film festivals, like Frameline, being hosted at the theater, as well as major film premieres.
In 2008, the Harvey Milk biopic, Milk, much of which takes place in the Castro, held its world premiere at the theater. In preparation for the event, the film studio funded a facelift to the Castro’s exterior, restoring it to its 1970's glory.
The future of an icon
During the COVID-19 pandemic, theaters and concert venues were shuttered. Though the Castro Theatre is still owned by descendants of the original Nasser brothers, it came out of 2020 under new management, a company called Another Planet Entertainment. APE is a locally owned concert production company founded in 2003, which also manages the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, Oakland’s Fox Theater and the Outside Lands festival.
APE announced plans to renovate the Castro Theatre, which include removing the fixed movie theater-style seating, and adding tiered sections for standing-room concerts. The film community's reaction was swift, and decisive.
The Castro Theatre Conservancy, a community organization whose mission, according to their website, is to protect the theater “as a cultural and entertainment venue for motion pictures and live performances,” announced the creation of the “Save the Castro Theatre” campaign in response.
What followed were rallies, the online #SaveTheSeats campaign, and hundreds of chain emails sent to officials asking that the seats and their layout be specifically protected in a landmark designation for the interior of the theatre.
The Historic Preservation Commission took public comment for and against the proposed landmarking on Feb. 1, 2023, at San Francisco City Hall. More than 100 people lined up and waited hours to speak. The majority of the public comments were against any proposed changes to the Castro Theatre’s seating.
Ultimately, the HPC voted to recommend landmarking the interior of the Castro Theatre, but the details are complicated. The official draft of their recommendation to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors says, "The following features are character-defining and shall be preserved or replaced in kind," and goes on to list interior features of the theatre, including the "Vast interior auditorium volume with raked floor, aisles, and presence of seating."
In other words, it will be up to the Board of Supervisors to decide on the designation and interpretation thereof, including what that means for the existing seats.
Some members of the film community see APE’s proposed changes as the destruction of a cultural space. On the other side are folks who imagine a future where queer concerts play just as much of a role as queer cinema.
"I can't imagine the city of San Francisco, or the international gay community without the Castro Theater," said David Perry, the Castro Theatre spokesperson for APE, "The plan that Another Planet has put forward doesn't lessen the iconic nature of the Castro. It increases its ability to become an icon for people to embrace for years to come."
Either way, the iconic Castro Theatre will remain a part of the San Francisco experience for generations to come, whether as a multi-use community space, or a temple to film.
A final decision on its fate could be reached by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors some time in April.
This story has been updated.
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