Castro Theatre activists urge calls to 'swing vote' supervisors

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 31, 2023
Share this Post:
Jessie Oliver Sanford spoke during a virtual town hall held by groups working to save the seats at the Castro Theatre. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom
Jessie Oliver Sanford spoke during a virtual town hall held by groups working to save the seats at the Castro Theatre. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom

Those opposed to Another Planet Entertainment's plan to remove the fixed, orchestral seating at the Castro Theatre made their pitch in a May 30 virtual town hall, asking viewers to contact two supervisors they have identified as possible swing votes on an amendment to the interior landmarking that would have the seating remain.

The town hall was hosted by SF Heritage and co-sponsored by a new group, San Franciscans to Save the Castro Theatre.

Tuesday's the day that the full Board of Supervisors is slated to vote — at long last — on approving an interior landmarking ordinance for the theater. While that's expected to pass, the pertinent question is whether to approve the amendment to the landmarking that could require that the current style of seating remain in place.

The landmarking as originally written was recommended by the Historic Preservation Commission; District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, a straight ally, proposed the seating amendment, which passed 2-1 out of committee May 8.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro, has voiced opposition to that amendment, which could complicate APE's proposed renovation and remodeling plans for the theater, which it took over managing last year. The supervisors were to have voted on May 16, but that was pushed back because District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani was absent due to a family health emergency.

Jeffery Kwong, a gay man who is the president of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club, identified Stefani and District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí as the swing votes during the Zoom call.

"We want folks to reach out to Catherine Stefani and Ahsha Safaí," he said. "If you're a resident of those two districts, please reach out and engage them and tell them you're their constituent."

The town hall — San Franciscans to Save the Castro Theatre — featured other representatives of the various groups that comprise the Save the Castro Theatre Coalition, too, including the Castro Theatre Conservancy, which unveiled its own proposal for the theater to continue operating as a full-time movie house in April. That proposal was shot down by APE and the Nasser family, which owns the theater. In a letter dated May 1, Chris Nasser stated that "CTC's latest proposal ... does not meet the minimum expectations for investment, rehabilitation, and preservation of the building."

Peter Pastreich, a straight ally who is the executive director of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, disagreed with that assessment and framed the rejection as provisional on the supervisors' decision.

"We don't know what the APE and the Nassers will do," he said, if the proposed amendment passes. "They have said they will close the theater, but that would be a spiteful response, and one that would cost them both."

Pastreich reiterated the belief of some APE opponents that the theater should be run as a nonprofit, and stated that there have been pledges of financial support for the conservancy's plans.

"We hope the Nasser family will consider seriously — as they have not done so far — the conservancy's plan to renovate the theater and run it as a nonprofit. ... The Nassers and Supervisor Mandelman have objected to the plan on the basis of it being, quote, funded. Let me say, first of all, the APE plan isn't funded either," he said. "We have pledges from several members of our working group which would be sufficient for at least the first couple of years of operation. I don't think I can tell you how much has been pledged."

Pastreich said that the conservancy has shown an ability to raise money before — $200,000, which has helped it operate thus far. He conceded this is well-below the $20-40 million price tag of the capital renovations the conservancy has proposed.

Viewers were also asked to show up to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors wearing red to symbolize support for the fixed seating.

'We've been betrayed'

Several speakers expressed their disappointment in Mandelman, who has facilitated negotiations between the two sides arrayed against one another.

"We've been betrayed by our representative, Rafael Mandelman, who has chosen to side with a chosen posse of white, affluent, mostly young men," said Jesse Oliver Sanford, a white Castro resident. "But as they say, it is mostly darkest before dawn." (Sanford is a member of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District's advisory board and co-chair of its land use committee. However, he attended the town hall in his capacity as a community member.)

Tom Ammiano, a gay former assemblymember and city supervisor, agreed, but was optimistic about next week.

"There's a lot of emotional fabric here, and this is going to be a win for us," he said. "It comes down to political will, and I am very disappointed in the queer members of the Board of Supervisors. This should've been a slam dunk."

When asked about these comments, Mandelman told the B.A.R. that "on the merits, I don't believe it makes sense to modify the Historic Preservation Commission [recommendation] just to kill the APE project. The APE project is not before the board on June 6; the landmarking is, and I intend to follow the recommendation of the HPC."

Gay District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio told the B.A.R., when asked for his comment on these remarks, "I don't believe fixed seats are the answer."

"The theater needs seating flexibility to offer all kinds of events and programs to ensure its survival," he stated. "Physical seats are not what brings the Castro to life. People do. We should acknowledge and honor our history and elders, but we must also create spaces where a new generation can make new memories in a magnificent old building outfitted for the future."

Gay District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey did not return a request for comment.

Ammiano and others brought up the legacy of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay San Francisco supervisor.

"People like to grandstand on the legacy of Harvey Milk, but I don't see Harvey Milk in any of the responses or lack of responses from the queer members," Ammiano said. "Jesse is totally right: there have to be consequences."

Terry Beswick, a longtime gay community fixture, also brought up Milk, who wrote a letter dated July 19, 1977 urging then-supervisor John Barbagelata to vote in favor of landmarking the theater. (The exterior of the Castro Theatre was designated a city landmark that year.)

"I hear over and over again people saying 'Why did they tear down the Fox?'" Milk wrote, referring to the Market Street movie house that was demolished in 1963. "The same will happen here."

Beswick said that "a lot of the young people don't know what they're losing until it's gone, and as Harvey Milk said in his letter about the landmarking, once it's gone, it's gone."

Planning, preservation meeting

In addition to attending the June 6 supervisors meeting, supporters are being asked to attend a June 8 joint meeting of the historic preservation and planning commissions, which is at 10 a.m. at City Hall, Room 400. There, they can give comments on a proposed certificate of appropriateness that APE is seeking. Those who cannot attend in person can call in.

When asked for comment on the town hall, gay APE spokesperson David Perry stated, "We're looking forward to next week's hearings, and appreciate everyone's passion for saving the Castro Theatre: a passion everyone at Another Planet and our supporters share.

"However, passion doesn't pay for the renovation, restoration, and revitalization that is needed, and long overdue, for the Castro Theatre," Perry added. "Our well researched, well documented, and fully funded plans are overwhelmingly supported by local businesses, neighbors, and Castro residents who understand the need for a Castro Theatre that not only honors its past, but sustains it for the future, including a robust schedule of music, film, special events and LGBT programming."

Mike Murray, a gay man who's co-chair of Neighbors for a Restored Castro Theatre that supports APE, stated, "We encourage supporters of APE's restoration plans to attend next Thursday's hearing and wear blue to show their support," referring to the joint planning-HPC meeting. "We hope that city officials will respond to the outpouring of community enthusiasm for the project over the last few weeks and allow it to move forward without further delay."

Updated 6/1/23: This article has been updated to include the town hall's sponsoring groups, a disclosure for one of the speakers, and correcting the first name of Mike Murphy.

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