Nasser family calls out SF Castro Theatre Conservancy group in open letter

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday July 20, 2022
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The Nasser family, which owns the Castro Theatre, has taken out a full-page ad in several newspapers in support of management company Another Planet Entertainment and criticizing the Castro Theatre Conservancy group. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
The Nasser family, which owns the Castro Theatre, has taken out a full-page ad in several newspapers in support of management company Another Planet Entertainment and criticizing the Castro Theatre Conservancy group. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

After months of observing the raging public debates over the future of the Castro Theatre, the Nasser family — the owners and founders of the fabled movie palace — has spoken, criticizing by name one of the groups that formed to see that the new management company preserves the space.

In a full-page ad that ran in the July 21 issue of the Bay Area Reporter, the Nasser and Nasser-Padian families state that they fully support the work that Another Planet Entertainment is doing to restore the cinema, including proposed seat configurations that have led to much disagreement.

In the ad, which also ran in other Bay Area newspapers, the Nassers state quite clearly that APE has their full confidence and support. They also name — and take issue with — one of the groups that have been critical of the proposed plans for the theater.

The ad calls out the Castro Theatre Conservancy, a group that formed in June with the primary goal of preserving the theater's seating on the main floor. The Nasser ad says it disagrees with the group's guidelines.

The Nasser family and APE have planned a community meeting for August 11 at the theater.

The Castro Theatre, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in June, announced the partnership with APE in a Facebook post January 19 stating, "We are thrilled to announce a new development — after operating the Castro Theatre for nearly a hundred years, we are partnering with our friends at Another Planet Entertainment to bring you world class entertainment and the next evolution of our historic theatre. The Castro Theatre will be undergoing major improvements while also preserving our rich history."

The announcement, which APE officials later acknowledged was "fumbled," drew immediate concern from community groups, longtime theater-lovers, and those who produced events there. In February APE pledged to be a "good neighbor" to the LGBTQ neighborhood.

Soon afterward, drawings submitted to the San Francisco Planning Department outlining renovation plans for the theater became public, unleashing a torrent of concerns and criticism from numerous parties, including the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, and gay producer Marc Huestis, who told the B.A.R. at the time the news made him "very sad."

"I'm somewhere in between people who are really pissed and people who are like 'Oh, great, it's going to be spiffier, cleaner, and more state of the art,'" Huestis said at the time.

Much of the hand-wringing has been over proposed changes to the movie theater's traditional banked seating, which creates a line-of-sight, allowing back row film viewers to see the movie screen without interference from those in rows closer to the screen. The proposals call for removing the seats and replacing them with three tiers that would allow for standing room — ideal for concerts — or removable seating allowing for other performances when films aren't shown.

For weeks, management has been sampling a variety of seats for the new set up, said APE program manager Margaret Casey. As recently as this week, several chair samples — bright red with thick cushions and ample back and neck support — were stationed in the entry of the theater, awaiting their turn.

Critics have argued that removable seats on level platforms aren't as conducive to comfortable movie viewing. However, the Nassers said in their ad that a wider variety of programming is needed to save the theater because film attendance is down.

"Because of the low attendance for film and the theatre's inability to financially sustain itself in its current form, we entered into an agreement with Another Planet Entertainment to help restore and modernize the theatre, enhance programming and address years of deferred maintenance," the family writes in the ad. "We formed this agreement with a tremendous amount of thought and care to ensure that we found the best group to be the stewards of the theatre."

They go on to say that APE will continue its commitment to film and LGBTQ programming.

"We know that APE will be able to revive the theatre, preserve its legacy and continue important programming to the LGBTQ+ and film communities," the ad continued.

Conservancy group called out

It's that variety of programming that the Nassers hope "will stave off the fate of so many other theatres of this era that have closed" or been converted to other uses. To that end, the Nasser ad takes issue with the Castro Theatre Conservancy, the advocacy group 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."

Peter Pastreich, executive director of the conservancy, differed.

"Obviously we don't think we're misguided," Pastreich told the B.A.R. "And it's not surprising the Nassers approve of what APE is doing. They've made a deal with APE to do it."

Members of the conservancy had earlier approached the Nassers hoping to convince them to let the group run the theater as a nonprofit on a long-term lease. The Nassers didn't go for it and, shortly afterward, announced their partnership with APE.

In the ad, the Nasser family said while they appreciate the conservancy's love for the Castro Theatre, "we strongly disagree and oppose the wildly restrictive guidelines" the group had proposed. "Their approach, while well intentioned, is extremely misguided and will further restrict and limit the diverse programming needed for the theatre to remain operational."

The Nassers didn't end the letter without getting in one dig, however. During the theater's 100th anniversary celebration in June, the movie house ran showings of classic films from each decade of the theater's existence. Attendance at the showings was low, said APE spokesperson David Perry.

"Surprisingly, many of the groups who claim to know what's best for the theatre failed to participate in or support the recent 100th anniversary events," the ad states.

Pastreich doesn't believe it will be possible to reconfigure the seating at the Castro and still be serviceable for both film and live music performances.

Oakland's Fox Theater, which is also managed by APE, saw its seats pulled out and the floors leveled to make way for the open seating it now utilizes for concerts, he said. The Fox no longer shows films.

"We understand they have to make some money but they are purposely converting [the Castro Theatre] to something where they know darned well they won't show films anymore," said Pastreich.

In short, Pastreich simply doesn't believe the Castro can do both. While many critics of the planned renovations may be disappointed with the Nasser's letter, APE officials are delighted with the public show of support.

"My response to that is, thank you," said Perry in a phone call from Andalusia, Spain, where he is at work on a book project. "We are so grateful to the Nasser family for placing their faith and trust in a local business." Another Planet is headquartered in Berkeley.

Perry said that the Nasser family was not available for comment.

Conversations with the public are not over, however, he said. On Thursday, August 11, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., the Nasser family and APE will host a presentation at the Castro Theatre to discuss the cinema's upcoming renovation. The event will be moderated by gay former supervisor and current BART board member Bevan Dufty, who is working as APE's community outreach director. The presentation will be free and open to the public.

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