Ahead of crucial vote, new group advocates for Castro Theatre changes

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday May 11, 2023
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Yet another group, Neighbors for a Restored Castro Theatre, has formed just days before an expected San Francisco Board of Supervisors vote on an amendment to keep the fixed orchestra seating. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
Yet another group, Neighbors for a Restored Castro Theatre, has formed just days before an expected San Francisco Board of Supervisors vote on an amendment to keep the fixed orchestra seating. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

With just days till the San Francisco Board of Supervisors casts a key vote that may complicate Another Planet Entertainment's plans to make major changes inside the Castro Theatre, a new community group has coalesced, arguing it speaks on behalf of the neighborhood in support of the company's plans.

Joe Sangirardi, a 32-year-old Castro resident and "as gay as they come" and Mike Murray, 35, and also a gay man who lives in the LGBTQ neighborhood, are the co-chairs of Neighbors for a Restored Castro Theatre, the formation of which was announced Thursday.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is expected to vote May 16 on an interior landmarking proposal for the historic movie palace that includes an amendment to retain the fixed orchestra seating. The supervisors' land use committee advanced the amendment on a 2-1 vote May 8, as the Bay Area Reporter reported. APE had planned to remove the orchestra seating and replace it with a motorized device that would allow for theater-style seating or standing for concerts.

Sangirardi and Murray did not think their 11th hour formation of the new group was an issue.

"It's never too late," Sangirardi said.

"There have been hundreds and hundreds of people organizing and working to organize support for APE's plans, but no central organization doing that," Sangirardi told the B.A.R. "We realized our voices will be much more powerful if we speak together with one voice. A lot of organizations say they speak on behalf of the community but don't speak for the vast majority of residents."

When asked which organizations they were referring to, they specified the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District and the Castro Theatre Conservancy — two groups that are opposed to APE's plans.

The imbroglio over the theater began in January 2022, when Another Planet — which runs the Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium near San Francisco's Civic Center, and the Fox Theatre in Oakland — was announced as the new operators of the 101-year-old Castro Theatre.

Other groups

Some Castro neighborhood, LGBTQ, and film groups — such as the cultural district and the conservancy — formed the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition in opposition to the proposed changes, which would allow the theater to sometimes operate as a concert venue.

It is unclear what would happen if the full board approves the landmarking amendment, but it could be the death knell for the project. However, APE spokesperson David Perry, a gay man, told the B.A.R. that the company wasn't surprised by the land use committee's vote.

The raison d'être for the neighbors group is nothing less than saving the Castro, Sangirardi said.

"Though they [the conservancy] care a lot about film, we're the ones who actually live here and want to preserve not just one aspect of the history of our community but the whole breadth of that history," he said. "A lot of folks have been trying to turn the neighborhood around and now we have a chance, too."

Changes at the theater provide "a real template for what the community needs to survive in the 21st Century to continue being a center of queer culture for the future," Sangirardi said.

The two have not received any financial contribution from APE, they said. Perry confirmed APE is not paying the two activists.

"Absolutely not — Another Planet Entertainment has paid none of the groups that've come forward to support our efforts," Perry said in a phone interview. "None have been paid or urged to voice their support; this was entirely an organic neighborhood, citizen and resident-fueled effort that came to Another Planet because they were disturbed by how this situation was being represented by people who said they represent the community and we are very grateful for the support."

Sangirardi said the new group is an extension of work APE supporters have already been doing.

"We've organized hundreds of letters to be written to the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission," he said. "We have been organizing and we have hundreds of supporters. This is a point we need to be able to speak collectively, which is why we have formalized these organizing efforts."

Part of that has been a letter to the conservancy critiquing its plans for the theater, announced two weeks ago and rejected by both APE and the theater's owners, the Nasser family, as the B.A.R. reported. The conservancy wants to buy the theater outright or have the Nassers sign a 60-year lease if APE is no longer able or willing to make the changes.

The new neighbors' group's letter stated: "We hope that you will respect our voices as LGBTQ+ community members and those most impacted by your actions. End your call to 'Save the Seats,' and instead think about how you can constructively contribute to saving the Theatre, the neighborhood, and the Castro's place at the center of LGBTQ+ culture."

Rob Byrne, a straight ally who is the president of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, stated to the B.A.R., "Since our founding, our mission has remained the same: to maintain the Castro Theatre as an iconic LGBTQ+ resource and mixed-performance venue. We continue to work towards unifying the community with that mission in mind."

"APE insists that they must remove the orchestra floor seating to operate the Castro, but we know the theater can accommodate diverse and varied programming — and real community benefits — without demolishing its interior," he added. "It's unfortunate that APE threatens to shutter the theater when the conservancy has a fully-funded plan to begin operating it immediately, keeping it open 365 days a year.

"We know the Castro Theatre can thrive as a nonprofit, multi-use venue with film, comedy shows, concerts, drag shows, and other events. Our plan includes $20M in renovations and our first priority is to serve the community," Byrne stated. "There is only one Castro Theatre. Ripping out the seats puts the Castro on an irreversible path to losing this irreplaceable treasure."

According to the conservancy's proposal, people in the performing arts and fundraising communities would draft a three-year plan that would lead to a $20-$40 million capital campaign for the renovations and improvements.

Stephen Torres, one of the executive co-chairs of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, on behalf of the Friends of the Castro Theatre coalition stated, "We're not aiming our advocacy against other community members."

"We reject APE's divisive tactics. We have a plan backed by real funding that seeks to unite the community," he stated. "We're sticking to the issues: The Castro Theatre should be activated everyday, and APE is leaving it mostly dark. There is no reason for APE to demolish the theater's historic interior, limiting community and disability access. And we don't trust APE to do even the most basic repairs given their $4 million breach of contract at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium."

As the B.A.R. reported last month, the city's real estate division maintains APE still owes $4 million in improvements to Polk Hall, a smaller venue inside the Bill Graham auditorium. Perry stated that APE has secured permits and started the work.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro, did not reply to a request for comment for this report as of press time.

The supervisors' meeting is 2 p.m. May 16. Read in-depth coverage at ebar.com later that day.

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