SF historic preservation panel recommends interior landmarking of Castro Theatre

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 1, 2023
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David "Gaybraham Lincoln" Thompson addresses the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission February 1. Photo: Screenshot
David "Gaybraham Lincoln" Thompson addresses the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission February 1. Photo: Screenshot

The San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission unanimously approved a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors that would preserve the interior of the Castro Theatre with the "presence of seating" after a marathon meeting that stretched into the evening hours Wednesday.

Sparks flew throughout the afternoon as the commission was asked to consider whether to recommend an amendment to the Castro Theatre's landmark status to apply to the building's interior, including the seats. In the end, it did not specify "fixed seating," as several speakers requested.

Public comment went on for over five hours in a showdown between those who want to preserve the current raked, permanent seating and those who agree with the plan of new management Another Planet Entertainment to replace these with a motorized floor.

A San Francisco Planning Department staff report gave a preliminary recommendation in support of the expanded landmarking, which staff member Alex Westoff reiterated at the top of the meeting after a short presentation.

Prior to the 6-0 vote, several commissioners pointed out that they were only considering the proposed recommendation regarding expanding landmark status to the interior of the building. And several were critical of APE's apparent lack of understanding the significance of the theater to the LGBTQ neighborhood. (Commissioner Jason Wright, the body's only out member, was absent.)

Commissioner Richard S.E. Johns said that "we cannot consider economic viability." He was referring to many speakers who debated whether the theater could survive with the fixed seating or be allowed to have more flexible programming with APE's proposal.

"Likewise there's been a lot of discussion of if Another Planet is a good guy or a bad actor. That's not in front of us and we just don't consider that at this stage," Johns said. "All the other things are for another day in front of us, or are of a political nature, and those are the things the Board of Supervisors will want to hear in depth and will want to consider."

"This is the Castro," Commissioner Kate Black said, referring to how APE did not initially grasp the significance of the theater, which she noted was the site of so many demonstrations for LGBTQ rights over the decades, and a beacon to queer people the world over.

Black said that the theater is "central to the neighborhood for which it is named."

The resolution included an amendment to add some 1922 seats in the balcony.

After the initial publication of this report, David Perry, a gay man who is a spokesperson for APE, told the Bay Area Reporter, "Another Planet has always supported the landmarking of the interior of the Castro Theatre." (Although many in support of APE's plans urged a no vote during the meeting.)

APE is "gratified by today's unanimous vote to do so," Perry stated. "Equally, we acknowledge all who spoke at the hearing both in support of and in opposition to our project. This is good news for all of us who share a passion for saving the Castro.

The meeting was recessed for a half-hour just before 5 p.m. and adjourned in another room, so that the police commission could hold its meeting in the original room.

Castro Theatre Conservancy Executive Director Peter Pastreich called the night "kind of disappointing" after the meeting. He'd wanted the "presence of seating" line clarified to "make clear it's the kind of seating that the architect had in mind and that's really characteristic of the theater."

"What they did was ignore the question of the downstairs seating, which is central to the whole controversy," Pastreich said. "I don't think they listened to most of the arguments made."

Disapproval by community groups

As the B.A.R. reported last week, the Save the Castro Theatre Coalition is made up by a number of neighborhood groups, such as the conservancy and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, that disapprove of many of the changes that have come to pass or are proposed after APE took over management of the building from the Nasser family last year. The 100-year-old moviehouse is still owned by the Nassers — the longtime owners of the theater since it was founded by Abraham Nasser in 1922.

Last year, gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced a resolution to the Board of Supervisors for an expanded landmarking of the theater (the facade of the cinema became the city's 100th landmark in 1977). The board supported it unanimously. The historic preservation commission on Wednesday considered a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which has final approval.

Jim Abrams, an attorney representing the Nassers, told the commission during public comment that "the family strongly opposes any amendment to the ordinance in front of you," referring to the orchestra seating.

"They've shown the most love, care, and respect for the theater and the neighborhood," Abrams said.

Abrams showed internal numbers from the theater's hundredth anniversary last year, showing that out of 1,400 seats some screenings — such as a matinee of "Casino" on June 10 — got as few as 16 patrons.

The theater "operated on a loss on over three-quarters of the days only films were shown," Abrams said.

Abrams said that the Nassers would oppose a plan from the Castro Theatre Conservancy sent just this past day to sublease the theater from APE. The B.A.R. reported last week that the three entities had been in discussions, but Abrams said that the plan did not adequately describe how the conservancy would restore the theater. Pastreich, on behalf of the conservancy, said, "that's disappointing too," since the Nassers solicited the proposal.

Rob Byrne, the board president of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, spoke after Abrams, saying that he's been able to fill all 1,400 seats.

"That is a perfectly viable motion picture theater," Byrne said to the applause of dozens of supporters of keeping the seats who showed up to the Wednesday afternoon meeting, many clad in red in honor of the seats. "I agree it can be used for multipurpose. It's radically drastic the plans APE has in place, but I do want you to take into consideration [that] the Nasser family is being disingenuous. To say it is no longer viable is completely absurd and disingenuous."

Michael Petrelis, a gay activist whose public records act requests revealed that Mandelman thinks APE has "put their pencils down" on the project, evoked his days in ACT UP.

"Act up! Fight back! Fight APE!" Petrelis said. "Since the last meeting there was a five-week gap of absolutely no programming. From December 24 to January 27 nothing was shown. There were no concerts at the theater. That absence represents the commitment of Another Planet."

Queer historian Gerard Koskovich asked the commission to amend the proposed language so that it protects the specific seating currently in the theater. (The current language only protects the "presence of seating," which Koskovich and others said is too vague.)

David "Gaybraham Lincoln" Thompson showed up in full rainbow attire to argue for changing the seats.

"I can tell you with absolute certainty those chairs that have been there only 20 years have no character," Thompson said. "They have no character whatsoever other than to make my derrière go running toward the door."

Thompson said that the Castro neighborhood needs to accept and celebrate the presence of straight allies.

"If you go to Beaux, fabulous Beaux, one of the most fabulous gay bars in the Castro, half of the people are not LGBTQ," Thompson said. "They are allies. We need more and more people in the Castro. We need fabulous events; we need fabulous allies. Let's get going with a new Castro, with a new fabulous feel and future."

Thompson fears that the theater will close entirely if people are too attached to the past.

"I don't know if you spend as much time as I do there [in the Castro] but it is one of the most depressing sights in San Francisco today," Thompson said. "We need change in this neighborhood. We need to change the seats. We don't want the Castro Theatre to end up like the theaters on Mission Street, which is the direction we are ending up in right now."

Others feared that it is change that will destroy the neighborhood.

"We do not stand by the removal of the seats," said Meat Flap, a transgender drag king. "The Castro Theatre is incredibly special to me. If there is a heaven I believe it is that theater. It is our church. I first went to that space as a cis straight person and I am now a trans, very queer person. I've been to other venues APE is stewards of, and they're soulless."

APE is responsible for the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, as well as the Fox Theatre in Oakland and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in downtown San Francisco.

Matthew Carhart, a San Mateo native who now lives in San Francisco, told the commissioners what the theater meant to him as a young gay child.

"You could be in a crowd of people without being in a parade. It was a quiet, safe way to do that," he said, arguing in favor of keeping the current seating. "Even more thrilling was seeing a guy make that classic movie house move of throwing his arm around the seat to land it on his date. That was thrilling to a boy from San Mateo. I knew we were welcome and I knew we were safe, because after all it was the Castro."

Deep love for the Castro Theatre

Perry, the APE spokesperson, told the B.A.R., "Everyone here today shares a deep love and respect for the Castro Theatre and its irreplaceable place in the soul of the LGBTQ communities.

"We all want it to survive and thrive," Perry continued. "Another Planet's revised seating plan guarantees a raked floor for film events. This new revised seating arrangement, which would be done at considerable additional cost, shows APE's deep commitment to film at the Castro and that APE has heard and listened carefully to input. This recent update to APE's plans has led in rapid succession to support by Frameline International LGBTQ Film Festival, the Silent Film Festival, the Gay Men's Chorus of San Francisco, the Castro Organ Devotees Association, and numerous disability advocates."

Terry Beswick, a gay man on the Castro Merchants Association board, called APE's plans an example of "hetero-normative gentrification."

"The neighboring LGBTQ bars and restaurants will continue to lose business," Beswick said, alleging that the planned inclusion of libations at the theater is because APE fears heterosexual audiences attracted to music shows won't visit the Castro's LGBTQ bars. "That, my dear commissioners, is what gentrification looks like."

Updated, 2/1/23: This article has been updated with comments from APE's David Perry.

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