New group wants to save Castro Theatre seats

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 29, 2022
Share this Post:
The Castro Theatre Conservancy wants Another Planet Entertainment to maintain the seats in the lower level of the auditorium that APE wants to replace with "movable, comfortable, flexible seating." Photo: Rick Gerharter
The Castro Theatre Conservancy wants Another Planet Entertainment to maintain the seats in the lower level of the auditorium that APE wants to replace with "movable, comfortable, flexible seating." Photo: Rick Gerharter

Seeking to preserve the rich film history of the Castro Theatre, as well as its LGBTQ programming, the Castro Theatre Conservancy has launched a campaign to draw attention to proposed changes at the much loved institution — including a plan to remove the seats on the main level.

While the group itself only launched on June 22, with a news release calling for "preserving and protecting San Francisco's Castro Theatre as a cultural and entertainment venue for motion pictures and live performance," its leaders actually approached brothers Donald and Steve Nasser, of the family which has owned the movie palace since it was built in 1922, back in 2020 in the hope the family might consider letting them take over the theater's programming.

"I was exploring with them whether they would be interested in running a nonprofit, possibly as a long-term lease," said Peter Pastreich, executive director of Castro Theatre Conservancy, in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

The Nassers didn't bite. In fact, Pastreich said on the phone from southern France that he was later surprised when Another Planet Entertainment announced in January that it was taking over management of the theater.

A Berkeley-based concert promotion company, APE operates several venues around the Bay Area including Bill Graham Auditorium and The Independent in San Francisco, as well the Fox Theatre in Oakland. Promising to maintain the theater's commitment to film as well as LGBTQ programming, APE submitted plans for extensive renovations of the theater, which immediately caught the attention of a public already wary of APE's assumption of management.

Those plans, submitted to the San Francisco Planning Department in March, called for removing the banked seating on the main floor of the auditorium and replacing that with three tiered platforms, providing more flexibility for live performances. Chairs, or what APE spokesperson David Perry has described as "movable, comfortable, flexible seating," would be brought out for films or other events. (That type of seating is in place on the main floor of the Fox Theatre in Oakland.)

The mezzanine level seating would remain unchanged save for individual seats that need to be replaced because of wear and tear. The proposal drew immediate concern — and criticism — from numerous people within the LGBTQ community as well as film aficionados.

The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District has expressed continued concern over APE's plans for renovating the cinema, and has frequently accused the concert promoters of not being very transparent with their plans. Other groups and organizations that have expressed concerns include Castro Merchants Association; Frameline, which produces the LGBTQ film festival that just concluded; the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District; SOMA Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District; the Harvey Milk and Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic clubs; Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza; the Queer Cultural Center; drag artist Juanita MORE!; gay activist Cleve Jones; and gay photographer Daniel Nicoletta.

In fact, at a Frameline screening June 25, APE was the sponsor of "In From the Side," about gay British rugby players. The audience booed and hissed after an APE promotional video was shown ahead of the film. "Save the seats," someone shouted in the theater, which was met with laughter and a smattering of applause from the audience.

Orchestra seating 'essential'

In the conservancy's June 22 release — which was also the 100th anniversary of the opening of the movie theater — it stated its concerns about plans to remove the cinema's "orchestra seating and sloped floor, as both are essential to preserving the filmgoing experience."

"In addition, we are working to ensure the many film festivals, luminaries of the world of cinema, LGBTQ+, and other community events are able to continue using the theater at affordable prices," the conservancy stated.

Their release included a veritable who's who of civic, film, and cultural giants, not only from San Francisco but throughout the world. Signatories calling for preservation of the theater as a film center include former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos; filmmaker Wes Anderson; singers Jello Biafra and David Byrne; attorney Nanci Clarence; and directors Joel Coen, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Ernest Dickerson, Rob Epstein, Ang Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg.

Other supporters include former supervisors Sandra Lee Fewer and Leslie Katz, a lesbian; Alexandra and Christine Pelosi, daughters of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco); Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence; and gay author Armistead Maupin. Gay filmmaker John Waters is also listed.

The conservancy has found support in other groups, as well.

"We have been meeting with the conservancy on a regular basis, and their membership and goals overlap with ours," said Lee Hepner, a spokesperson for Friends of the Castro Theatre.

"As Friends of the Castro Theatre, we continue to advocate that APE work together with our merchants and cultural institutions to enhance the theatre's queer past, present, and future," said Hepner. "Though APE has hired high-profile community liaisons, we remain skeptical that they are interested in good faith engagement."

Besides concern about maintaining the theater's current seating configurations, Pastreich also called upon APE to commit to running 100 days' worth of the programming, including LGBTQ, it has been running annually until now.

"We are urging two things," said Pastreich. "Don't mess up the orchestra floor, and allow reasonable access for a set number of days."

APE spokesperson Perry has noted in the past that film attendance at movie theaters is down overall and that repertory film showings aren't drawing the audiences they once did. Live performances, such as concerts, are an important way of helping to preserve old theaters like the Castro, he has said. Perry declined to comment for this story.

Film preservationist and conservancy President Robert Byrne disagreed with the idea that art house and repertory films aren't drawing sufficient audiences.

"The [Castro] was dark for 12 days in 2019," Byrne told the B.A.R. on the phone from Amsterdam where he was attending a film festival. "There was always something going on there."

"There are plenty of other venues," he added, "that APE can go to to maximize its profits, other than taking one of these incredible, rare, cultural components."

Byrne pointed to the nonprofit California Film Institute, based in San Rafael in Marin County, as an example of an organization that has managed to make the showing of arthouse films financially feasible. In addition to showing films at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, the organization also produces the Mill Valley Film Festival and Doclands, a documentary film festival, as well as conducts educational outreach throughout the year.

Mark Fishkin, founder of the 45-year-old California Film Institute and its executive director, as well as the director and founder of the Mill Valley Film Festival, agreed that the Castro's current seating is important to the ability of the Castro to retain its vital role as a film center.

The role the Castro plays is vital, Fishkin said in an interview with the B.A.R.

"What the Castro has been doing, in a sense, is a testament to their role in the community," said Fishkin. Programming at the theater is represented through the many important festivals that occur there, as well, such as the Silent Film Festival, the Jewish Film Festival, and Frameline, the LGBTQ film festival, he said.

Byrne said there aren't many theaters like the Castro left in the United States.

"There is no replacement for this venue. It is not a dinosaur. It is active and it's very important to people," said Byrne. "When it's gone, it's gone."

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.