Peek inside Castro Theatre shows why it's a city jewel

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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The proposal to remove the Castro Theatre's auditorium seating, as seen from the stage, has raised concerns among local cinephiles. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The proposal to remove the Castro Theatre's auditorium seating, as seen from the stage, has raised concerns among local cinephiles. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The object of love and much adoration and — lately — plenty of controversy, the Castro Theatre is the crown jewel of the Castro neighborhood.

Despite its grand Spanish Churrigueresque exterior, a popular style in California when the theater was built in 1922, and its even more grand interior, the beloved old movie palace is in worse condition than many may realize. It's not going anywhere, mind you, but once the theater's new managers, Another Planet Entertainment, finish their contractual obligations for various events this year, including Frameline46, San Francisco's International LGBTQ film festival running through Sunday, and concerts by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, the theater will be undergoing extensive renovations. In some cases, desperately needed changes.

The Bay Area Reporter recently had the opportunity to tour the historic cinema, going backstage and into many of the building's nooks and crannies. There are many of them.

Taking a small group backstage, David Perry — spokesperson for Another Planet Entertainment — led visitors through a warren of narrow stairwells and tight hallways that, really, don't go very far.

To get there, one makes their way down a dark stairwell with a sharp 90 degree turn, past decades of old graffiti carved into the concrete walls (Perry said they still haven't identified any by celebrities but said to keep an eye open for just that.) One then enters a small, low door to a large low space beneath the stage, suitable really only for storage.

That, however, also leads to the organ. With a little more twisting into position and lowering one's head, you enter the organ space. Step into there and — bam! — suddenly the entire auditorium opens up and you realize just how large the Castro Theatre is. Fourteen hundred seats gaze back at you.

APE recently held a benefit for the purchase of a new organ. The famed "Mighty Wurlitzer" was removed by its private owner in 2015, APE stated, and there is now a fundraising effort that seeks to raise $300,000 to purchase a new custom-made instrument that when installed will be the most up-to-date theatrical organ in existence.

In a news release, organist David Hegarty stated that APE has "been completely supportive of the Castro Organ project."

From there, Perry went back behind the massive silver screen, which was installed in the 1950s, he said. It isn't the original screen but was installed instead to replace a screen that had been perfectly sufficient for the movies of the 1920s and 1930s, but proved too small for newer film technology, Perry said. But installing that screen hid a feature that movie audiences would have taken in every time they watched a film, a treasure few folks have seen in 70 years. The proscenium, the elaborate frame that contained the original screen, is still there although, admittedly, a little worse for wear.

A small concession stand greets patrons of the Castro Theatre. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Painted gold, the proscenium — a word borrowed from the Greek for "before stage" — is filled with carved details: leaves, fanciful curlicues, and numerous cherubim staring blankly out at the audience. It borders, too, the theater's original curtain, hand stenciled with repetitive pink floral designs on an olive green background. Behind that, however, is a door. An emergency exit, perhaps, it still works but it opens into the backyard of a house on Hartford Street.

"We still don't know whose yard that is," Perry said.

The floor, the original stage, is painted as well, with a large checkerboard pattern and, on the ceiling up above, is yet more hand painted detail, repetitive floral designs encased in cartouches, in gold, green, and blue.

There's at least six feet of space between the proscenium and the newer screen (which, after 70 years, is also going to be replaced with a far more technically advanced one, Perry said). That will add dramatically to the usable space for live performances.

Perry went through other rooms backstage: the green room, only recently emptied out enough to be used comfortably; the tiny dressing room, tucked away into a corner of the stage and bent around what appears to be venting that pierces the room's floor and rises along the wall to the ceiling. On the other end — stage left — is another open space, used largely for storage and piled with equipment.

It was there, Perry said, that they found boxes filled with theater ephemera: old movie posters, tchotchkes, and commendations issued by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Those items have all been moved to other storage locations in the theater where they'll be better taken care of and, possibly, displayed publicly later on.

Finally, it's back to the auditorium itself, that vast, grand space where the audience sits and takes it all in. It's there where much of the controversy lies, too. If Another Planet's proposed renovation plans for the space are approved — and that isn't expected to happen before August at the earliest — the current banked seating will be removed and replaced with multiple levels better designed for watching live performances. They would be able to hold standing audiences or, in the case of film showings, accommodate flexible, removable seating.

That is what worries cinephiles, who argue such an arrangement is less than optimal for movie viewing. As Marc Huestis, who has presented numerous movie screening events at the Castro Theatre, posted on Facebook after attending Frameline's opening night June 16, "sitting in my seat at the Castro, it was also sad to me that due to the changes proposed to the venue, the actual seat might not even be there next year. That still feels like a gut punch. Change is constant, things happen, but I couldn't help feeling the ghosts of Frameline past (and more selfishly the spirits from my many events there), and wishing that somehow we could wave a magic wand and return to the glory days."

Perry is adamant that whatever seating is finally set up there will be able to accommodate the needs of audiences for both films and live performances.

The mezzanine lobby at the Castro Theatre is often used for VIP events. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

The seating in the mezzanine, however, will remain, said Perry. Many of the seats need to be replaced, he said. They're old, many are worn, and they're not as comfortable as the seating below but they will remain.

Fears about the plans for the interior of the ornate movie house led gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro district, to institute improved landmark status for it this spring. Earlier in June the full Board of Supervisors approved the request, kicking off a process that should conclude in the fall.

The Castro Theatre was already designated a city landmark in 1977, but the designation only covers the building's elaborate California Churrigueresque facade. It should now be broadened to cover the building's "full historical, architectural, aesthetic and cultural interest and value," according to the resolution approved by the supervisors.

Just wrapping up an interview with a television crew, Mary Conde, senior vice president of APE, shared more about the music promotion company's plans for the space.

She pointed out the damage to the still beautiful but notably diminished ceiling. Over the years, the ceiling has darkened, obscuring nearly all the details of the hand painted feature, designed to recall the interior of an exotic tent, replete with bunting and plaster tassels. It's not as visible in the dark, but surrounding the fantastic art deco chandelier (installed in 1937 following a small fire) are numerous portraits and depictions of great figures from history. Possibly.

The details have been obscured by a well-intended but poorly carried out attempt at preservation, said Conde. Sometime in the 1980s, someone painted over the work with a polyurethane varnish that has only darkened over the years, concealing the art it was intended to protect. Besides darkening the work, it's done little to protect it. Plaster is flaking, destroying the art, Conde pointed out.

Restoration of the artwork — if it can be done — is just one more detail in the ever growing list of renovations and repairs that need to be accomplished if APE is to successfully protect the theater.

Conde said that APE was prepared for the sticker shock of renovating the cinema.

Another Planet loves doing just this sort of thing, she said. She pointed to several other venues the company has renovated over the years: the Fox Theater in Oakland, the Greek Theater in Berkeley, the Independent in San Francisco.

In addition, APE has already sunk a great deal of money into overhauling the Castro's aging electrical system and will be installing a new HVAC system, to boot, she said.

They were all expensive, she pointed out, but APE is committed to preserving them.

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