Attendees at Castro Theatre town hall demand seats be saved

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Friday August 12, 2022
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Attendees at Another Planet Entertainment's Castro Theatre town hall August 11 held up signs asking that the ground floor seats be retained under any renovation. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Attendees at Another Planet Entertainment's Castro Theatre town hall August 11 held up signs asking that the ground floor seats be retained under any renovation. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The new-ish managers of the Castro Theatre got an earful at a town hall they hosted at the beloved movie palace Thursday night, an event that easily drew several hundred people and went on more than an hour longer than planned.

Another Planet Entertainment, which assumed management of the Castro Theatre in January, hosted the meeting to explain its renovation plans for the cinema and to get feedback from the public. Moderated by gay former District 8 supervisor and current BART board member Bevan Dufty, the event featured a slick promotional video promoting APE's plans for the theatre, a presentation by the lead architect, Christopher Wasney, for the renovations, and two presentations by groups opposed to some of the renovation plans. This was followed by nearly two hours of questions and answers with leading figures from APE, including Senior Vice President Mary Conde.

A lightning rod among the renovations proposed by APE are the plans to remove the current banked orchestral seating configuration, which have drawn criticism from people concerned not only about the aesthetic changes to the theater but, more significantly, from film enthusiasts and professionals.

In March, CAW Architects submitted plans to the San Francisco Planning Department that would see the complete removal of the current banked seating, designed to allow full line of sight for clear viewing of the theater's movie screen, to be replaced with three platforms, upon which temporary seats could be placed when movies were shown. Notably, for concertgoers, the platforms would remain open, allowing patrons to stand and dance as they watch the live performance on stage. The configuration would also allow the placement of tables, which would be useful for dinners, weddings, or similar events. The proposal would also allow for more access for disabled guests.

Several of the hundred or so people who lined up to ask questions during the Q&A likened the theater to a religious site, irreplaceable as a center of LGBTQ culture and heritage. The big issue for most of the people there was APE's plans to remove the seating on the sloped ground floor. Several attendees held up signs that read, "Save the Seats," while another group wore T-shirts that spelled out that message.

Peter Pastreich, executive director of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, which was launched in June to convince APE management to abandon its plans to replace the seating in the cinema in favor of a floor plan more favorable to live music, and Jesse Oliver Sanford, co-chair of land use for the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, both offered their arguments in presentations against the proposed changes to the theater's seating. Those changes, which along with what many feel is an abandonment of the theater's focus on LGBTQ programming, have driven the opposition to APE's plans for the past seven months.

Representatives from Another Planet Entertainment Dan Serot, left, Elisa Skaggs, architect Christopher Wasney, and Mary Conde, described their planned renovations to the Castro Theatre and answered questions posed by attendees during an August 11 town hal  

A 'sacred temple'
Calling it "a sacred temple," Sanford, a gay man, argued that the "the Castro Theatre is really synonymous with this neighborhood. It's something that is our most easily recognized landmark. If we were to choose buildings that represented LGBTQ cultural heritage in this city, this would be the one."

Over the years, Sanford continued, the theater has become "entwined with our rights struggle, with the liberation we enjoy in this community in a way that is absolutely irreplaceable."

Sanford called for a signed agreement from APE "before renovations begin" committing to affordable and accessible events and accommodations, with guaranteed accessibility for local producers and theater companies.

"Our hope is for an open and honest, transparent conversation with Another Planet regarding their business plan," Sanford said. "Unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet."

Pastreich, a former executive director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra as well as American Conservatory Theater, recounted his group's efforts to convince the Nasser family, the owners of the theater since they built it 100 years ago, to convert it into a nonprofit organization.

"Two years ago, we told the Nasser family we could raise sufficient money to renovate together and maintain the Castro's place at the center of the Bay Area's fine film culture and the light of the Castro area," Pastreich said.

With this the audience burst into applause.

"The Nassers preferred to work with APE, whose business is concerts, not film," he added.

"Why?" cried out audience members.

"The conservancy has never suggested that the Castro could be simply a movie house. The Castro has not been that in many years. APE will bring in a lot more concerts and that's fine," Pastreich continued. "What's not fine is destroying the orchestra floor of the Castro."

Again, the audience burst into a long, enthusiastic applause.

Pastreich pointed out that numerous movie palaces around the country have been saved and converted to multi-use programming without removing the traditional banked seating, which critics of APE's plans argue are vital to the theater's existence as a robust movie theater and which Pastreich said was "integral to their architect's vision of their building."

There are two major goals he said. "To keep, in fact, the last great movie palace in San Francisco, and to ensure that the theater will remain available to the film festivals and LGBTQ-related events that have made it their home."

With that, the audience burst into applause again.

The evening was full of many similar moments, particularly when the Q&A began.

Most were not particularly favorable to APE's plans to remove the seating, such as filmmaker Marc Huestis who burst out in a cri de coeur, "Taking out the seats is ripping out the heart and soul of the theater!"

But some were favorable.

Mike Murray, who was among the younger people in the largely older, white, gay male crowd who addressed the panel, said he was "a gay resident of the Castro," and told the panel how much he loved the current programming at the theater but, as a fan of live music, had attended a concert at the Castro recently and found himself wishing there were space to dance.

"I heard this news about APE with great excitement, as did many of my friends and acquaintances who couldn't make it here today," Murray said. "I'm not hearing their voices represented in this conversation and so I wanted to share this."

And while a handful of other speakers also spoke in favor of the plans to change the seating, most were having none of it. One after the other, many spoke of their love of the theater, their memories, and their fears that the proposed alterations to the seating would destroy a place they cherished, as well as the programming they felt was integral not only to the theater itself, but to the surrounding community.

Gerard Koskovich, a queer historian, pulled out the big guns.

"But most importantly, under the 1947 UNESCO convention, under the standards of the secretary of the interior, intangible cultural heritage is crucial to preservation," he said, referring to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He added that the proposed changes to the space and the programming will bring "grave damage to the intangible cultural heritage of the Castro."

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has already initiated a proposal to enhance the theater's landmark status, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported. The theater's exterior became a city landmark in 1976. Mandelman's proposal, which the Board of Supervisors preliminarily approved in May, focuses on the interior of the structure. The planning department will now prepare a report for the Historic Preservation Commission. If it's approved, Mandelman is expected to introduce an ordinance, which would then be heard by the supervisors' land use committee and then the full board for final approval.

Other attendees addressed concerns about the impact the changes would have on the cost of renting the theater and producing events and that, as a result, local producers would be priced out.

"The rental rates for the theater have been underpriced for quite some time," Conde responded. But she added that APE was in discussion with an unnamed organization to provide help in covering the costs for those smaller independent producers who wanted to continue using the theater. Those discussions were ongoing, she said, and she could not provide any hard numbers for the audience.

One point raised repeatedly was concern about the use of Ticketmaster, a national ticket sales and distribution company, which would contribute to the higher costs of ticket sales to the consumers through its fees. And, although APE has used Ticketmaster, Conde told the audience, "We have not said we will use only Ticketmaster. We haven't selected a ticket platform yet."

As the town hall wound down, one man, Michael Petrelis, a gay longtime community activist, demanded to know when the next town hall would be held.

"I want another public meeting," Petrelis, dressed in bright rainbow pants, demanded abruptly, as Dufty attempted to wrap things up. The activist rejected the idea of further meetings "behind closed doors" and insisted upon another public meeting in "at least a month."

That date hasn't yet been set.

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