Emotions run high at Castro Theatre town hall

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday January 27, 2023
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Stephen Torres, executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District board, speaks at the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition town hall January 26. Photo: John Ferrannini
Stephen Torres, executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District board, speaks at the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition town hall January 26. Photo: John Ferrannini

A coalition seeking to preserve the Castro Theatre held a town hall Thursday night ahead of two critically important public meetings about the theater's landmark status and the preservation of its seats.

The San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission is set to hear gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman's request to expand the landmarking of the theater to include the interior when it meets February 1. (The exterior is already a city landmark.) According to the meeting's agenda, planning department staff have issued a preliminary recommendation in support of the expanded landmarking.

That hearing will be followed by the San Francisco Planning Commission discussing the theater in March.

The town hall, hosted by the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition, drew almost a hundred people to the parish hall at Most Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church in the Castro. It came, coincidentally, just after a letter from the Nasser family and Another Planet Entertainment was released proposing interest that a member of another coalition enter into a sublease agreement with them. Another Planet took over management of the historic theater a year ago. The Nasser family owns the movie palace in the heart of the LGBTQ neighborhood.

The letter, obtained as part of a public records act request from gay activist Michael Petrelis to the office of San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, was sent November 28. Addressed to Castro Theatre Conservancy Executive Director Peter Pastreich, the letter asks the conservancy to provide "an initial proposal ("term sheet") for subleasing the Castro Theater within 10 business days of the date hereof" due to "our mutual interest in participating in discussions about the potential of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, or a duly formed affiliate ('Castro Conservancy'), entering into a sublease agreement with APESF, LLC ('tenant'), which would be consented to by 429CASATROLLC ('landlord')."

The letter proposes that the conservancy "be responsible for required capital improvements to the building ... estimated to cost approximately $20 million."

Another Planet spokesperson David Perry, a gay man, issued the following statement late Thursday: "Another Planet met with the conservancy on October 27 at SF City Hall to hear their proposal. There was none. Another Planet sent the letter recently shared online one month later. In the intervening three months, the conservancy has offered no plans, no budgets, and no commitment to improve the theatre."

Pastreich was contacted Friday morning for a response. He said it was not a good time to talk and he would get back to a reporter.

The Nasser family could not be immediately reached for comment.

Petrelis posted the letter to his Facebook page just before the town hall meeting, but it did not come up there. As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, Petrelis also published a text between Mandelman and a constituent dated December 7 — the day that the historic preservation commission's hearing on the theater was continued to February 1 — in which Mandelman wrote "not even sure if APE is still interested; they're acting like they're done" and "they've definitely put their pencils down."

'There is only one Castro Theatre'

The upcoming historic preservation commission meeting prompted the town hall. Subsequently, the planning commission is scheduled to take up the Castro Theatre matter on March 16.

Stephen Torres, a queer man who is executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, one of the many groups involved in the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition, narrated for the crowd the history of the community's interactions with the Nassers — the longtime owners of the theater since it was founded by Abraham Nasser in 1922 — and Another Planet.

Torres said the cultural district approached the Nassers during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns asking if they needed assistance but "did not hear anything" back from them. Then, in January 2022, it was announced the day-to-day management of the theater would be taken over by Another Planet — the producer of the popular Outside Lands festival in Golden Gate Park.

"We sent a letter welcoming APE to the neighborhood," Torres said. But the initial meeting "was not productive."

"It was apparent there was a significant lack of cultural competency, but we were cautiously optimistic," Torres said. "We asked for subsequent meetings. That never happened."

Subsequently, at a town hall last August, Another Planet "let us know they have plans for the theater that change the use of the theater altogether."

One of these plans was the removal of the theater's permanent orchestra seating so that the theater "would be able to function as a nightclub" while it hosts live music events, Torres said.

That's something he isn't too sure is good for the Castro neighborhood.

"I'm a bartender at Twin Peaks Tavern," said Torres, who is also a member of the city's entertainment commission. "We have already experienced the crowds coming out of the theater under this stewardship and it's not altogether clear all the impacts are positive."

On January 26, the Castro Theatre's Facebook page released a new video showing Another Planet's latest seating proposal, which would consist of temporary seats that could be moved depending on the event taking place at the theater.

Gerard Koskovich, a queer public historian, said that under Another Planet's plans, 14 times a month "crowds will pour out" into the Castro.

"What effect will that have on the neighborhood?" he asked. "There are lots of places to put on rock shows in San Francisco. There is only one Castro Theatre."

The landmarking of the theater's interior would complicate APE's plans to remove the permanent seating, according to Christine Madrid French, the director of advocacy, programs and communications with San Francisco Heritage, a local historical organization.

She said that the interior is as important as the exterior. The exterior of the theater was designated as the city's 100th landmark in 1977.

"Imagine Mission Dolores — landmark No. 1 — without the pews inside it," she said, referring to the church located at 320 Dolores Street. "It is the interior of a structure that makes a building a house, a theater or a church. It is the crown jewel of the Castro — indeed the queen of the neighborhood."

Koskovich said sometimes it is the "intangible cultural heritage" of a place that is worth preserving. He tapped into the emotions of the crowd, reminiscing about "quite possibly the most famous neighborhood theater" in the world.

"Inside the Castro Theatre, LGBT people and our friends have felt safe in a crowd — sometimes for the first time in our lives," Koskovich said. "We've gone to countless films and sing-alongs and drag shows there. ... We've formed a unique queer public at the Castro Theatre — what sociologists call a counter-public — against the grain of the culture."

Koskovich said watching films as an LGBTQ community together taught people "how to respond to a culture that sometimes oppressed us."

"The amazing thing about the Castro Theatre is that it has an audience like nowhere else in the world — that's us," he said. "A unique queer public that does not exist at all anywhere else and will not if APE has its way."

Pastreich, attending the town hall, argued that the theater should be run as a nonprofit.

"Neither APE nor the Nassers seem to have anticipated the strong community reaction to the plan to turn the theater into a live music venue unlikely to serve as a home for film," he said.

Pastreich said that Another Planet CEO Gregg Perloff has been keeping programming sparse at the theater as a negotiating tactic.

"Given the lack of action at the Castro right now, I wonder how we'll be able to tell" if the theater closed, Pastreich said, to the guffaws of the crowd.

When asked, Another Planet declined to respond to this allegation.

"The Castro should be run as a nonprofit," Pastreich said. "Hundreds of movie theaters in the United States are run as an arthouse guided by a mission other than profit. Eighty-four percent of those are nonprofits."

Pastreich said that the Balboa Theatre on San Francisco's Westside and Roxie Cinema in the Mission have been preserved in their historic roles in just this way.

"These historic theaters contribute to the unique character of their neighborhoods," he said. "But none of them is the Castro."

Torres alleged that Another Planet gave film festivals an "offer they can't refuse" by asking them to sign on to its changes or have problems rescheduling their festivals at the Castro Theatre. The San Francisco Film Noir Festival, for instance, is moving to Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre.

When asked, Another Planet declined to respond to this allegation.

'Wonderful solution'

When asked for comment on the Thursday town hall and specific allegations against Another Planet, Perry issued a statement about the revised seating rendering of a motorized floor that would make "both raked seating and tiered standing arrangements possible," which was announced the same day in a video posted to Facebook.

"Another Planet Entertainment is excited to reveal its new floor rendering for the Castro Theatre's planned improvements and look forward to presenting these plans to the Historic Presentation Commission on February 1," Perry stated. "This video rendering illustrates Another Planet's plans for a state-of-the-art motorized raked floor. As the video demonstrates, the motorized floor makes both raked seating and tiered standing arrangements possible. In addition, this improvement creates a more accessible layout and better sight lines for patrons."

Perry presented the floor proposal as a "wonderful solution" to the concerns of those afraid that the theater will no longer be able to serve as a moviehouse.

"We're thrilled to have found a wonderful solution that guarantees not only a vibrant future for film, but also allows for an expanded repertoire of programing including a continuing commitment to the LGBTQ communities and Castro neighborhood that will ensure another 100 years of this beloved and irreplaceable institution," Perry stated.

Koskovich derided the proposal. "Magical seats" is what he called it.

"All of their magical talk about magical seats coming out of nowhere are irrelevant with respect to historic preservation and the space," Koskovich said. "Their [the commissioners'] decision is based on the secretary of the interior's historic preservation standards."

Jeffrey Kwong, a gay man who is president of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club, tied the theater fight into widespread anxiety that the Castro neighborhood is in decline. As the B.A.R. reported this week, the longtime eatery and nightlife venue Harvey's at the intersection of Castro and 18th streets closed its doors, while up the block the space that had housed dance club Badlands remains vacant and boarded up.

"These spaces are important to all of us and, as a former member of the [San Francisco] Gay Men's Chorus, singing there on Christmas Eve to countless folks who have no family to return to, these sacred spaces are under attack," Kwong said.

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