Castro Merchants drops its conditions to APE's theater plans

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday June 1, 2023
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The Castro Merchants Association has dropped its conditions for supporting Another Planet Entertainment's plans for the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
The Castro Merchants Association has dropped its conditions for supporting Another Planet Entertainment's plans for the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

Pride Month kicked off for the Castro Merchants Association with the group dropping the conditions it had previously adopted before it could endorse Another Planet Entertainment's plans for the Castro Theatre.

The vote was almost unanimous, with one member voting no and three abstaining.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, in April the merchants voted that supporting APE's plan was dependent on gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman's office accepting an economic impact report from APE, and APE completing another one if the first one is found unacceptable. That never happened, as Mandelman told the merchants in May that he did not feel competent to ascertain whether APE's economic impact report was sufficient.

At that May meeting, gay former merchants co-president Dave Karraker argued that because Mandelman excised himself, the conditions should be stricken. This was the motion that was approved by the association June 1.

One of APE's major renovation plans calls for removing the fixed orchestra seating with a motorized floor that'd make both raked seating and tiered standing arrangements possible.

The merchants' change of course came just one meeting after the dramatic toppling of Terrance Alan, the gay proprietor of the Flore Dispensary, as the association's president. Cliff's Variety co-owner Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally, said in her first full meeting as the association's president that "regardless of how I feel about the vote, it's not about me." Asten Bennett is serving her second stint as the association's leader.

Stephen Torres, a queer man who is executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, told the B.A.R. that the merchants group is still counted among the members of the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition, which was formed to oppose APE's plans.

Asten Bennett demurred when asked the same question moments before by the B.A.R., saying "well, I certainly haven't been invited to any of their meetings."

The imbroglio over the theater began in January 2022, when APE — which runs the Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium downtown — was announced as the new operator of the 101-year-old Castro Theatre.

Some Castro neighborhood organizations, and LGBTQ and film groups — such as the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District and the Castro Theatre Conservancy — formed the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition in opposition to the proposed changes.

APE has recently stated that the number of films shown at the theater will be about one-third of the time, which has dismayed moviegoers and many others.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is set to take up a proposal to landmark the theater's interior on June 6. If an amendment to preserve the current seating configuration is passed by the supervisors, it could complicate matters for APE. (The exterior of the theater was designated a city landmark in 1977.)

The merchants initially declined to endorse a letter in favor of APE's plans last year, as the B.A.R. reported. Then, in April, the merchants voted in favor of endorsing on several conditions.

APE and its supporters were jubilant at the news of the merchants' latest action.

"Another Planet is honored by today's overwhelming vote of support by the Castro Merchants for our plans to restore, renovate and revitalize the Castro Theatre," gay APE spokesperson David Perry stated to the B.A.R. "Our plans have greatly benefited from their wise counsel and input. Thank you. We are committed to being good neighbors, and look forward to not only providing a rich, diverse and sensitive mix of programming, including a robust schedule of film and LGBTQ content, but to making sure our fellow Castro businesses benefit, economically, from those events."

Joe Sangirardi, a gay man who is co-chair of the pro-APE group Neighbors for a Restored Castro Theatre, stated to the B.A.R., "The Castro Merchants have a great vision for the future of the neighborhood and they're excited to have APE as a part of its bright future. The groundswell of support for APE's plans continues to grow."

Torres was at the meeting to speak to the other side of the issue. The merchants made the vote after a pitch by APE's Mary Conde and Dan Serot.

"We felt it was important today to make sure that the Castro Merchants Association, who are members of the coalition, understood the full breadth of APE's proposals on the 8th," Torres stated, referring to the scheduled joint hearing of the historic preservation and planning commissions — after the supervisors' June 6 decision — on the company's request for a certificate of appropriateness from the city.

Mandelman told the B.A.R. that the decision may have an impact.

"The merchants' support for APE's project is important and will likely factor into consideration as the project works its way through the City's approval processes," he stated. "It certainly matters to me."

The conservancy didn't respond to a request for comment.

During the meeting, Conde was asked about the conservancy's proposal to operate the theater as a nonprofit. The conservancy has pledged to raise $20-40 million for capital renovations, if the theater is sold or leased to it.

"The proposal we got from the conservancy was not a legitimate proposal," Conde said.

Auto Erotica owner Patrick Batt, a gay man, asked Conde how much the theater will be activated during the daytime.

"When people show up at the theater at 8 [p.m.], my store closes at 6," he said. "The bulk of the merchants close at 7-8."

Conde said that "yes, the majority of the shows that we book will be nighttime entertainment," but that potential shows with queer artists Sam Smith and Lil Nas X should draw big crowds to the neighborhood's businesses that are open later.

Torres, who also works at Twin Peaks, questioned that assertion, saying that after Heklina's memorial — hosted at the theater May 23 — "the neighborhood cleared out, and that was also inside the bars."

Conde countered that it was a weeknight.

New Castro Theatre group

Terry Beswick, a gay man who was on the merchants' board until last month, told the B.A.R. he and genderqueer dyke M Rocket have formed a new group, San Franciscans to Save the Castro Theatre.

This was the group that co-sponsored a Zoom town hall meeting the B.A.R. reported on. The group has 255 members on Facebook as of June 1.

Beswick wrote in an email that he and Rocket see the group, which is part of the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition, "as supporting the work of the coalition and amplifying the coalition's work and messaging, creating an avenue for more grassroots engagement."

The group's Facebook page states that it is "allied with the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition and the Castro Theatre Conservancy" and that it questions "the stated plans and claims of Another Planet Entertainment (APE) in their proposals to change the function and internal configuration" of the theater.

"I'm encouraged by the outpouring of support from the community to preserve our beloved theater, and so disappointed in some of our district leaders who are unable to see the value in preserving Queer cultural heritage sites such as the icon known around the world as the Castro Theatre," Rocket stated.

Updated 6/2/23: This article has been updated with comments from Supervisor Mandelman.

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