Guest Opinion: The Castro Theatre belongs to the community

  • by Tom Ammiano and Michela Alioto-Pier
  • Monday April 24, 2023
Share this Post:
The Castro Theatre has been mostly dark in recent months. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
The Castro Theatre has been mostly dark in recent months. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

For over 100 years, the Castro Theatre has been an architectural and cultural jewel in our city's crown and has evolved as an icon of the LGBTQ community and culture. It is an anchor for small business growth and hub for tourism, the film industry, and local residents and families seeking fun and affordable entertainment.

Yet, since Berkeley-based entertainment conglomerate Another Planet Entertainment took over management just over a year ago, in January 2022, the theater has mostly sat dark. In contrast to its pre-pandemic vibrancy, the theater has had only sporadic events with one in January — a packed house for Elliott Gould's "The Long Goodbye." The theater announced its reopening April 18 with a showing "Joan Baez: I Am a Noise" as part of the San Francisco Film Festival. Two more events are planned for late April.

Despite this, metal barricades block the box office and entrance when it's dark. For small businesses still recovering from the pandemic, the loss of foot traffic is devastating.

We both come from long San Francisco legacies with deep community connections. We have worked in the mold of visionary leaders like the late gay leader Harvey Milk and disability rights advocate Judy Heumann, who passed away in March. The LGBTQ and disabled communities have long been in solidarity, including through the peak of the AIDS crisis. Given those histories, we see the dispute over the Castro Theatre as a fight for who will have access to this cultural mainstay into the future.

In 2008, we worked together as members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to keep St. Luke's Hospital open amid Sutter Health's threats to close it down. As one of only two city hospitals located in the South of Market area, the Board of Supervisors fought to save St. Luke's because the community made clear that this hospital must remain open and accessible. The CPMC Mission Bernal Campus (formerly St. Luke's) is there now because the city compelled Sutter Health to prioritize those community needs.

We see the Castro Theatre as a similar fight. As with St. Luke's, the disagreement over the Castro Theatre is about access — access for the Castro's many community institutions that have long depended on the theater as a neighborhood anchor. It's about access for disabled people, generational access, family access, access for people with lower incomes, and beyond.

What do we mean by "access?" On the one hand, access is an architectural and physical concept. We don't deny the need for maintenance and improved disability access, and have partnered before to improve disability access at City Hall. Removing the theater's current seating configuration and replacing it with tiered platforms, as APE wants to do, will create new challenges for people with disabilities.

Access is also about what kind of events the theater will host and who will feel welcomed to attend them. APE's business is to produce live music events. But studies show that attendees will skew both younger and wealthier than audiences who have historically enjoyed the theater. Until APE's takeover, the theater's famed movie sing-a-longs were extremely popular among families and elders. Regular film screenings made the theater the backbone of the Bay Area film community. Productions by drag artist Peaches Christ and gay impresario Marc Huestis brought the city's queer community to the theater.

We're also concerned by reports that APE's plans would leave the theater dark about 180 days per year. APE has said it will offer the space for private rentals, at a hefty price tag out of reach for nonprofit and community-centered use. We understand the need for creative booking to keep audiences coming. But corporate rentals are not the same as accessible community programming.

The Castro Theatre should reflect San Francisco's diverse communities. Absent a clear plan for the theater's operation, those communities are left guessing. APE must honor the theater's historic interior, which includes fixed theater seating, while improving access and programming events that are inclusive of a broader audience.

We want the Castro Theatre to succeed as much as anyone. But APE can't succeed without support from the Castro's rich community fabric. If APE is going to earn that support, that will require inviting the community in, not picking it apart.

Michela Alioto-Pier is a former San Francisco supervisor and lifelong disability advocate. Tom Ammiano, a gay man, is a former state Assemblymember, San Francisco supervisor, president of the San Francisco Board of Education, and SFUSD special education teacher.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.