Castro Theatre hearing postponement angers supporters of landmarking movie house's interior

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday December 8, 2022
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As expected, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission postponed a hearing on expanding the landmark status of the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
As expected, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission postponed a hearing on expanding the landmark status of the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

Much to the dismay of many who attended Wednesday's San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission meeting, the seven-member body voted to continue the hearing on the landmark status of the Castro Theatre until February 1.

The postponement was not unexpected, as it had been requested by gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported. The new timeline is for the Historic Preservation Commission to hold the hearing in early February, with a subsequent hearing for a conditional use authorization on March 15. The San Francisco Planning Commission is scheduled to take up the matter March 16.

Crowds showed up in the City Hall hearing room December 7 to voice their opposition to the proposed postponement of hearings about granting the interior of the 100-year-old Castro Theatre landmark status. The change would bring the indoors into line with the already established landmark status of the theater's facade. In 1976, the exterior of the building, designed by prominent San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, was designated San Francisco Historic Landmark #100.

Mandelman asked for the delay on behalf of the Nasser family, which built and has owned the theater throughout its century-long history. The Nasser family has not commented on the matter.

If approved by the historic preservation commission, the landmark ordinance would go back to the Board of Supervisors for final approval. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in May to start the process to enhance the landmark status, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

Nearly two-dozen people addressed the commission during the meeting's general public comment period at the beginning, despite pleas from the commission clerk to hold their remarks about the matter until it actually came up on the agenda. Many wore buttons bearing the now familiar battle cry, "Save the Seats."

That's in reference to the most contentious part of proposed renovations by Another Planet Entertainment, which took over management of the theater in January. Another Planet wants to remove the movie house's banked seating in favor of level platforms that could hold both removable seats for film screenings and standing audiences for live music performances.

Few meeting attendees adhered to the clerk's request and went ahead and shared their concerns with the commission. People talked about everything from their memories of the classic, old movie house to complaints about what some said was a lack of transparency on the part of Another Planet Entertainment to their displeasure with Mandelman for even putting the continuance request through.

Star power at hearing

Theater supporters also turned out some star power. Eddie Muller, host of Turner Classic Movies' "Noir Alley," was the first person to address the commission. While he encouraged the commission to support preserving the cinema's seats, he also added that he resented the Nassers' and Another Planet's characterization of those who are deeply passionate about the fate of the theater as "kooks."

Author Rebecca Solnit, who wrote "Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas," spoke up as well. Holding up a map of San Francisco, she noted there used to be dozens and dozens of movie theaters in the city but now, she said, there are only a few.

"We need the seats as part of what the theater is, and can be, going forward," she said.

Others urged the commission not to delay.

"Stop punting the issue," said film producer and San Francisco International Film Festival Director of Programming Jessie Fairbanks.

When the first group had finally finished, the commission completed some of its routine business before heading back to the topic of postponing the hearings when it came up on the agenda. Nearly two-dozen more people took to the podium to address the commissioners.

Attorney Scott Emblidge probably summed up the crowd's concerns best when he told commissioners there were three reasons to reject the continuance: they could, that day, set the parameters that would guide further discussions; not making a decision would let "an important cultural resource sit vacant"; and, "The only controversy is whether a 100-year-old seating configuration should be preserved," he said.

"The only reason not to delay the hearings is because Another Planet Entertainment doesn't want you to," Emblidge added. "The Nassers know the [Castro Theatre] Conservancy is ready to run the Castro as a film venue."

The conservancy is a group of theater supporters that formed in June. It has collected over 7,000 signatures online calling for Another Planet to preserve the seating.

Commissioners were unbowed, however.

"This is a fine kettle of fish we've been handed here," observed Commissioner Richard S.E. Johns, who said he saw "a great deal of uncertainty here."

Saying he sensed a great deal of conflict between Another Planet, the Nassers, and the Board of Supervisors, he said he also sensed conflict with some of the community-based groups that had shown up for the hearing. At the bottom of it all, he said, are financial considerations.

"One thing I've encountered many times is that what one party is able to do may well depend upon the financial arrangements it has made with the Nassers," Johns said, adding that he didn't think anything would be done in the ensuing 60 days if the hearings were continued.

Saying she understood how difficult it was not to receive the answers many were hoping for at the meeting, Commissioner Kate Black said the panel had heard only from opponents to the continuance.

"It's almost ironic that, because this has been shown on the agenda, there will be more people who want to be heard. It's important for us to try and do our best to uphold the integrity of a process like this," she said.

Clearly unimpressed, a woman from the audience shouted, "That's a copout! That's a total copout!"

Moments later, the commissioners voted unanimously for the continuance.

Another Planet Entertainment spokesperson David Perry said his organization was pleased with the results, and that the next 60 days would give them the opportunity to ensure the commissioners had all the information they needed.

"Another Planet is passionate about preserving the Castro Theatre, which is the one thing everyone shares," he said. "The Castro Theatre needs a lot of physical love. Easily a million dollars have been spent by Another Planet to address seriously deferred maintenance issues."

Peter Pastreich, executive director of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, was disappointed with the results but thoughtful about the outcome.

"We at the Castro Theatre Conservancy are convinced that the seats and sloping floor have been an essential part, and a defining characteristic, of the Castro for over 100 years," he told the B.A.R. in an email. "We would have preferred that the Historic Preservation Commission vote to landmark the theater's interior, including the seats, at today's hearing, but we were pleased that the commissioners heard the passion and love that so many friends of the Castro feel for the theater, including, in every case, for the seats and floor."

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