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SF Supes OK Bid to Remove Castro Theatre Seats to Make Way for Multiuse Entertainment Venue

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Several people in rainbow patterned clothing hold signs that read "save the seats" in front of ornate gold-leafed doors.
Michael Petrelis (center) holds signs that say 'Save the Seats' during a rally at City Hall in San Francisco on June 6, 2023, in opposition to a plan to remove fixed seating at the Castro Theatre. The rally was held before a Board of Supervisors' meeting regarding the landmark status of the theater. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San Francisco lawmakers on Tuesday approved an effort to change the seating plan in the Castro Theatre, marking a big win for its new managers who have sought to convert the famed movie house into a multiuse entertainment venue.

Although the full Board of Supervisors voted nearly unanimously to designate the interior of the legendary theater a historic landmark, it also narrowly passed an amendment allowing the orchestra-level seats to be removed.

The 6–4 vote in favor of the amendment — brought by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro neighborhood — deals a blow to local activists who waged a protracted fight to protect the movie-theater-style layout of the century-old cinema, and brings the venue’s management company one step closer to gutting the theater’s seats as part of a major renovation plan.

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The move, however, still needs final approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and could be delayed if opponents try to appeal.

“The Castro Theatre needs saving, but I don’t believe landmarking fixed seats is the answer,” said Supervisor Joel Engardio, who voted for the amendment. “The theater needs seating flexibility to offer all kinds of events and programs to ensure its survival.”

It’s the people that bring the theater to life, he added, not the physical seats.

“That’s why we must create spaces where a new generation can make new memories in a magnificent old building outfitted for the future,” Engardio said. “A theater completely preserved in amber and closed will not help the Castro neighborhood. A thriving theater will.”

But Supervisor Dean Preston, among the minority on the board opposing changes to the theater’s seating, said it didn’t make much sense to designate the inside of the venue a historic landmark but “exclude what are clearly key features.”

The ornate theater, which had long been known as a jewel of the local film scene and a beacon for the LGBTQ+ community, became San Francisco’s 100th historic landmark in 1977, a designation that protected the building’s exterior from demolition or alteration, but did little to ensure the preservation of its interior.

In early 2022, less than two years after taking over management of the Castro, Another Planet Entertainment (APE), a locally owned concert production company that also operates Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Oakland’s Fox Theater, among other venues, announced major renovation plans for the theater, including removing the current seating arrangement and adding tiered sections for standing-room concerts.

“We want to present all sorts of programming in the theater — comedy, music, film, community and private events and more,” APE said in a statement at the time.

The local film community’s reaction was swift and decisive, with many insisting that APE’s proposed changes would irrevocably compromise a hallowed cultural space.

What followed were rallies, the online #SaveTheSeats campaign, and hundreds of chain emails sent to officials demanding that the inside of the theater be designated a historic landmark to preserve the seat layout. Much of that organizing has been led by the Castro Theatre Conservancy, a nonprofit group whose petition to protect the existing seat configuration as part of the theater’s historic landmark status has drawn more than 12,000 signatures.

Changing the theater’s seating plan, the group argues on its petition site, “would undermine film presentation or price out LGBTQ+ events or the City’s many independent film festivals that call the Castro home.”

In February, more than 100 people — most opposed to the renovation — waited for hours to implore the city’s historic preservation commission to reject APE’s proposed changes to the theater. The commission went on to recommend landmarking the theater’s interior (PDF), but left the final decision to the Board of Supervisors.

“We feel that as the only surviving theater of its type in the city that it should be protected from that,” said Harry Breaux, a local activist who was among a group of demonstrators on the steps of City Hall early Tuesday afternoon, ahead of the board’s vote.

Michael Petrelis, who has helped lead opposition to the renovation plan, says the seats are a crucial part of the theater’s history and character, and fears that if APE removes them, “then the interior is totally destroyed forever.”

“We will never get back the interior integrity of the Castro Theatre if Another Planet gets their way today,” Petrelis said, accusing APE of not respecting the community’s input and refusing to allow local groups to host traditional film screening events on nights when no concerts are scheduled.

Proponents of the renovation, however, argue the change would beneficially broaden the theater’s offering, transforming it into a more dynamic arts venue where queer film and performances could be equally showcased. Doing so, they say, would also give the financially struggling venue a fighting chance of surviving at a time when local movie theaters are shuttering at an alarming rate.

“I can’t imagine the city of San Francisco, or the international gay community, without the Castro Theatre,” 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.”

This story includes reporting from KQEDs Phoebe Quinton and Chris Beale.

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