Letters in support of Castro Theatre renovation pour into SF supervisors' inboxes

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday September 13, 2022
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The Castro Theatre's banked seating would be removed under plans presented by Another Planet Entertainment, which is a point of contention among those opposed to the idea. Photo: Rick Gerharter<br>
The Castro Theatre's banked seating would be removed under plans presented by Another Planet Entertainment, which is a point of contention among those opposed to the idea. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Since Another Planet Entertainment assumed management of the Castro Theatre back in January, the Berkeley-based concert promotion company has been on a campaign to win the hearts and minds of San Franciscans wary of APE's plans to renovate the beloved movie palace.

Much of that effort centers on APE's proposed plans to remove the current raked seating on the orchestra level in favor of a more versatile seating plan that would allow seats to be removed completely for live music performances. The idea is to allow attendees of concerts and other live performances to stand or dance.

Those plans were submitted in March to the San Francisco Planning Department to an almost immediate outcry from cinephiles who insist that doing so would undermine the theater's moviegoing experience. Others have expressed concerns about APE's commitment to film screenings and LGBTQ programming.

In the packet for the September 6 meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in addition to numerous correspondence from the public addressing other issues, were 309 form letters from people all over the Bay Area, as well as other parts of the country, stating their support for APE's plans to renovate the movie theater.

Supervisors take note of these things, said gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

"The sheer volume of communication to the board regarding the proposed renovation and repurposing of the Castro Theatre certainly reinforces the importance of the theater in the neighborhood and beyond," Mandelman wrote in a text to the Bay Area Reporter. "APE has many supporters, and I remain hopeful that they will be able to address the concerns raised by those who are more skeptical of their plans."

The concert promotion company has been working since the beginning of the year to convince the public that it is the best choice to bring the beloved institution back to health, both financially and physically, said David Perry, a gay man and spokesperson for APE.

"Our hope is the Board of Supervisors will listen and hear and understand the people who are most committed to saving the Castro Theatre, making it sustainable for future generations, is Another Planet," Perry told the B.A.R.

"Any project like this, of significance to the city at large, there's going to be more ongoing dialogue," Perry said.

Two of the letters came from people easily recognized in the city's LGBTQ community: activists and entertainment doyens, Audrey Joseph and Donna Sachet.

Joseph, a lesbian, is an event promoter, record executive, nightclub owner and manager, and LGBTQ rights activist. Sachet is a drag actor, singer, community activist, and writer. Both are well-established presences in the city's LGBTQ cultural scene. Joseph is also a former member of the city's entertainment commission.

The letters, addressed "To whom it may concern," begin with "I'm writing in support of the renovation plans and intended use of the Castro Theatre to modernize this historic venue and ensure that it survives and thrives for another 100 years and more," and go on to detail the various reasons they feel that APE is qualified to handle the job. Among them, the dilapidated state of the theater for which APE plans a full, multimillion-dollar renovation.

"Upgrades and repairs to the historic marquee and blade, interior preservation of beloved murals and the historic proscenium, full restoration of the magnificent ceiling, upgrades to seating, ADA accessibility to create a more inclusive space for the community, backstage dressing rooms, heating and ventilation systems that will provide improved air quality, state-of-the-art sound, lighting, production and concession areas will help to modernize the functionality of the space," the letter states.

Those changes, the letter continues, will help prepare the theater to host a wide variety of events "in order to survive in our current market."

Then, after offering APE's bona fides in restoring old theaters, such as the Fox Theatre in Oakland, it states "APE is the right team for this job and I've already seen the care and the effort they've put into this project."

To Joseph, the willingness of APE to put down the large amounts of money necessary to renovate is key to the theater's survival, not just as a venue but for its iconic status within the community. That's a point Perry was quick to point out, as well.

"It's really unheard of for a private business to spend tens of millions of dollars renovating a building they don't own," he said.

The Castro Theatre marquee, said Joseph, represents the Castro neighborhood and the LGBTQ community itself. And, she noted, the family that has owned the theater since it was built back in 1922, the Nassers, won't do that work themselves.

"They have no intention of fixing it," she told the Bay Area Reporter. "Zero."

Having run shows herself at the Castro numerous times over the years, Joseph said she's seen firsthand the problems that currently plague the old cinema, including its faulty power system.

"The last time I worked in that theater, I had to bring in two generators," she said. "We couldn't trust their power."

For Sachet, her decision to sign on to the letter was influenced most by the town hall hosted at the theater by APE on August 11. That event brought several hundred people to hear APE officials, as well as critics such as the Castro Theatre Conservancy's director Peter Pastreich, discuss the renovation plans. At times, the meeting got rowdy as the audience responded vocally and loudly to comments by APE officials and others.

"That was really eye-opening to me," said Sachet, who added that it reminded her of the divisiveness that arose from the conflict over the presence of uniformed police in the San Francisco Pride parade earlier this year. After SF Pride announced that uniformed officers would not be welcome to participate in the parade, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced she would not participate unless that was changed. The San Francisco Fire Department and the San Francisco Sheriff's Department also announced their withdrawal. Ultimately, however, following further negotiations, law enforcement participated. Breed came down with COVID and had to skip Pride festivities.

"A diplomatic compromise was reached," noted Sachet, adding that is what is needed in this case, as well.

The prospect of APE not taking on the renovations is of greater concern to Sachet. There's too much at stake, she said, and the renovations will allow a greater variety of events and entertainment.

"I want them to have repertory theater, classic films," said Sachet. "They've guaranteed Frameline. I think APE is trying to answer as many questions as they can in the way the public wants to hear it."

Sachet is also conscious of the fact that the presence of her name gives weight to APE's efforts but she insists she researched the issue thoroughly before agreeing to sign a letter. She also said she's "not advocating for everything Another Planet wants to do," but understands that compromise is a necessity.

"I don't want to lose this huge, iconic, almost spiritual meeting place for our community,' said Sachet.

Opponents plan to send letters

Of course, not all the letters making their way to the supervisors' desk are necessarily going to be in support of APE. Pastreich, with the Castro Theatre Conservancy, told the B.A.R. his organization is also launching a letter writing campaign.

Having already collected 6,527 signatures on a petition calling for APE to preserve the theater's raked seating and programming, he's fairly confident the Board of Supervisors should be seeing a wave of letters from people who want to preserve the cinema's seating.

That letter, which was posted on the conservancy's website this week, implores supervisors as well as members of the planning and historic preservation commissions "to help save the Castro for the community, by including the sloped floor and orchestra seats in the update of the Theatre's landmark designation. San Francisco has many chairless, flat-floored venues for live music, but only the Castro Theatre — San Francisco's last surviving single-screen movie palace and an iconic community building — can present film and community events to large audiences."

The conservancy website will also include a laundry list of email addresses to which supporters can send their messages. Pastreich said he expects officials will see plenty of correspondence by the time the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission takes up the matter in October.

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