Castro merchants group declines to endorse Another Planet's theater plans

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday October 6, 2022
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The Castro Merchants Association declined to sign a letter submitted by Another Planet Entertainment in support of its proposed changes to the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
The Castro Merchants Association declined to sign a letter submitted by Another Planet Entertainment in support of its proposed changes to the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

The controversy over the new management of the Castro Theatre continues, with the neighborhood's business organization declining to sign a letter in support of Another Planet Entertainment's planned renovations of the movie house.

Another Planet has been working to garner community support in spite of stiff opposition from the Castro Theatre Conservancy, the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, and many others. The groups and individuals are opposed to the concert company's plans to remove the current banked orchestral seating configuration.

City hearings on those proposed renovations have been pushed back to December, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported. APE requested the delay after an August town hall showed that many people were opposed to the seating changes and other issues.

At the October 6 monthly meeting of the Castro Merchants Association, members declined to sign on to a letter in support of those proposed renovations.

The letter, prepared by Another Planet, the Berkeley-based concert promotion company that took over management of the movie palace back in January, "was specific just to Castro Merchants' endorsement. They have sent other similar letters to individual businesses," said Dave Karraker, co-president of the CMA and owner of MX3 Fitness.

Beginning with an upbeat description of the theater as "a beacon, worldwide, for its celebration of free expression, creative enterprise, and diversity," the letter continues, adding, "If the Castro Theatre were to shutter or turned into condos or a gym, it would have a potentially devastating effect on the neighborhood."

It then goes on to commend APE for the work it's done in the past, renovating and restoring a number of Bay Area entertainment venues such as the Fox Theatre in Oakland and Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, although it doesn't mention either by name.

"To this end," the letter states, "Castro Merchants has worked cooperatively with Another Planet Entertainment and has secured in writing the benefits APE will provide local businesses through their stewardship of the Theatre, as well as how they will mitigate any disruption to my business due to any entertainment programming."

The plan was to convince CMA members to sign those letters in return for a list of commitments by APE to the Castro business community. Among those commitments are promises to utilize Castro businesses for everything from catering services to office supplies, and for APE to maintain a preferred-vendor list of Castro businesses "for theatre maintenance, ie: painting, electrical, janitorial, as well as hospitality. Preferred vendors will be available to bid on work across the APE theater network, including outside the Castro."

Promises to be a good neighbor include commitments by APE to install new, improved lighting and sound equipment to mitigate impact on neighboring businesses by reducing the need for loading in such equipment for each show, and enlisting outdoor security for crowd control, in addition to other assurances.

APE spokesperson David Perry and Margaret Casey, APE project manager, attended the virtual CMA meeting. Casey apparently had some technical difficulties and couldn't get her mic to work. Perry was not available to comment before publication of this article online.

Perry told the B.A.R. October 7 that, while disappointed CMA chose not sign the letter, APE would continue its outreach efforts and expected that the merchants' group would eventually sign on.

"I don't think it's a serious blow," said Perry. However, while Casey was unable to address the organization because of mic problems, Perry was busy correcting some misconceptions expressed by CMA members, through chat messages to the group.

One misconception was that, following the planned renovations, the theater's capacity would change from its current 1,400 seats.

"The capacity will not increase," Perry told the B.A.R. Another misconception, expressed by the owner of a business neighboring the Castro Theatre, is that the ownership of the theater has changed with APE assuming control. Perry had to message the group again to clarify that, indeed, the Nasser family — which built the theater back in 1922 — still owns the movie palace.

Finally, Perry reiterated the Nasser family's continued support for APE's efforts at the Castro.

"That plan has not changed," he said.

Echoes of letters to supervisors

The CMA letter is reminiscent of another letter-writing campaign by APE. More than 300 of those form letters were sent by people to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in September, as the B.A.R. reported. Those letters were sent from people from around the Bay Area, as well as other states, and locals included entertainment doyens Donna Sachet and Audrey Joseph, a former president of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission.

The Castro Theatre Conservancy has an online petition opposed to the renovation plans that has over 7,300 signatures. Supporters of keeping the theater seating in recent days have shared on social media photos of actors Isabella Rossellini and Richard Thomas holding signs that say "Save The Seats!"

They also posted a letter famed queer film director John Waters sent to city officials in which he wrote about how the "sloped floor and seats are indeed a big historic" defining characteristic of the Castro Theatre.

Film noir expert and host on cable channel Turner Classic Movies Eddie Muller also posted a statement on Facebook explaining why the seating at the Castro Theatre was integral to the success of the Noir City film festival he hosted there. The San Francisco native implored city leaders not to allow the seats to be removed.

"Changing the slope of the floor and replacing actual seats with portable chairs is tantamount to announcing that movies are no longer welcome," wrote Muller in his letter sent to city officials.

As almost any discussion of the Castro Theatre seems to do, the discussion of the letter at the CMA meeting touched off a lengthy discourse of the perceived shortcomings of the concert promoters and questions about their potential impact on the neighborhood.

Terrance Alan, co-president of CMA and owner of cannabis dispensary The Flore Store, raised a couple of issues as the discussion got underway.

"Concerns are in, kind of, two buckets," Alan, a gay man, said. In that first bucket were issues about the cultural impact of APE on the LGBTQ neighborhood.

"How can we help Another Planet understand exactly what the community needs, in terms of the unique status of the Castro?" he wondered. Second, there was the far more down-to-earth matter of APE's impact on parking.

"If several thousand people are coming to an 8 o'clock show, how will they get there?" he asked. "How will they leave? That is an issue very important to talk about; it affects not only the businesses but the residential neighbors."

While the theater capacity is limited to 1,400 people, concern about parking is something that needs to be addressed, said Peter Pastreich, executive director of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, a group founded earlier this year to fight for the preservation of the theater, particularly its raked flooring and seating.

Speaking with the B.A.R. October 7, Pastreich noted that, as the former director of the San Francisco Symphony, which he led from 1978 to 1999, parking for the symphony was a huge issue, particularly as the various artistic organizations — San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Ballet, and San Francisco Symphony — moved from sharing the same facility into buildings of their own. Thousands of attendees drove in from throughout the region to attend performances, he said, and he doesn't expect the audiences for live music at the Castro to be any different.

"The need for a garage wasn't all that obvious with just the opera house," Pastreich said. "Once you added Davies [Symphony Hall], it was absolutely essential."

Stephen Torres, a gay man and advisory board executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, was at the meeting representing Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition, a group concerned about the future of the movie palace in the face of APE's proposed plans.

"What stands out to us is an absence of consistent LGBTQ-centered programming," said Torres. "Even at this late date, they've alluded to a quarter of the programming the theater had been running prior to the pandemic. They seem to only promise 15-20 days a month of relevant programming, but for now there has only been one event per week."

In the end, CMA members demurred from signing on, citing too many questions still left unanswered.

"I think the majority of the Castro merchants have not been convinced they won't get what they asked for in return for signing the letter," Torres observed following the meeting.

Another Planet leadership has conceded that it hadn't understood the depth of the community's cultural attachment to the theater and this isn't the first time APE sought, but did not receive, support. At a meeting of the San Francisco Small Business Commission on August 22, APE Vice President of Business Affairs Dan Serot acknowledged that the concert promoter had really not been prepared for the backlash from the public once it announced its takeover of management of the theater.

"Unfortunately for us, we didn't look at this as a community center," Serot told commissioners, but, instead, as a business venture. The theater's owners, the Nasser family, which built the theater in 1922 and has held it since, have stated publicly, however, they have full confidence in APE's abilities to preserve and maintain the old movie house successfully.

The small business commission ultimately tabled a resolution in support of APE's plans, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

Updated, 10/7/22: This article has been updated with comments from APE spokesperson David Perry and Castro Theatre Conservancy head Peter Pastreich.

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