SF's Castro aims to reboot Halloween with costume contest, films

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Monday August 7, 2023
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While there was no formal street party, revelers still gathered on Castro Street for Halloween in 2019. Photo: Steven Underhill
While there was no formal street party, revelers still gathered on Castro Street for Halloween in 2019. Photo: Steven Underhill

After years of not having organized festivities, plans for Halloween in the LGBTQ Castro neighborhood are moving forward — but it won't be the block party that was quashed by San Francisco leaders 16 years ago after violence marred previous events.

Instead, local merchants will be asked to activate their storefronts the weekend before — Halloween falls on a Tuesday this year — while the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence host on October 28 a costume contest at the Castro Theatre, which itself will be showing that Saturday a marathon of five films culminating in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

Manny Yekutiel, a gay man who owns an eponymously named cafe in the Mission and is a member of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board, and Sister Roma of the philanthropic drag nun group introduced the ideas for reviving the local Halloween observance at the August 3 meeting of the Castro Merchants Association. They stressed that there's a lot to be fleshed out — it's "all very up in the air," Yekutiel said — but that there will be no planned street closure.

Yekutiel, a former member of the San Francisco Small Business Commission, said that he could provide funding to merchants who want to activate their businesses and storefronts for the day through the Civic Joy Fund, a $2.5 million project he co-launched to energize the city's commercial corridors.

Yekutiel told the Bay Area Reporter August 7 that two-thirds of the funding comes from individual philanthropists, such as tech billionaire Chris Larsen. One-third comes from what he termed "institutional partners," whose identities are going to be announced next week. Larsen did not immediately return a request for comment Monday from the B.A.R.

'High queer holiday'

Halloween festivities in the Castro, which harken back to celebrations among queer people in the Tenderloin, North Beach, and Polk Gulch in the mid-20th century, became one of the premiere events of the year for the neighborhood by the 1970s, when it was known as an LGBTQ event.

But with the large crowds descending upon the Castro — including gay bashers — it became hard for the city to ensure public safety at the street party. In 2002, four people were stabbed on Halloween night in the Castro; but the death knell for the old-time Halloween festivities was in 2006, when nine people suffered gun-related injuries in a mass shooting while a 10th victim was trampled in the melee that marred the annual street party.

A heavy police presence stopped the event from occurring again, and by 2011 stakeholders agreed that the Castro shouldn't be the focal point of a region-wide celebration. Government policy became to direct people, as much as they'd listen, to diverse events in other neighborhoods, as well as to strictly enforce alcohol consumption and sale laws in the Castro.

Over the years, gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has spoken positively about bringing the old Halloween back — or something like it; he told the B.A.R. in 2021, "I've always felt it'd be great if we could figure out a way of how we can do these great parties," referring to Halloween and Pink Saturday. (The party held in the Castro on the eve of Pride Sunday in late June was also shut down after the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, which produced it, cited safety concerns and pulled the plug in 2015. An effort by the San Francisco LGBT Community Center to produce the event lasted one year.)

Yekutiel agreed; he told the merchants that he participated in a meeting at Queer Arts Featured, the gallery that is located at the site of gay slain supervisor Harvey Milk's camera store, where reviving the Halloween party was broached.

"The original idea was to bring Halloween back," Yekutiel said, adding that he sought advice from Mandelman, gay former District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty, the merchants' group, the Castro Community Benefit District, the GLBT Historical Society, and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District.

Mandelman is pleased with the plans being proposed for this year's holiday.

"I'm excited to welcome Halloween back to the Castro," Mandelman stated to the B.A.R. August 7. "This year's Halloween will focus on our Castro small businesses and family-friendly activities for all ages to enjoy. I want to thank the Civic Joy Fund, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Castro Merchants, the LGBTQ cultural district, and APE for their hard work and leadership."

Dufty declined a request to comment for this report.

Those at the business group's meeting last week agreed that "it'd be cool to bring something back," but Yekutiel acknowledged there wasn't an appetite for the Halloween block party of years past.

"There was a spirit of Halloween when it started in the Castro that was a community feeling, so we thought how could we bring that back," Yekutiel said. "And that is what we're talking about today."

Yekutiel said that Another Planet Entertainment, which manages the Castro Theatre, proposed having a five-film "long, queer Halloween marathon" October 28, with tickets costing $5. Yekutiel said the proceeds will go toward the merchants association so it can host more events.

APE spokesperson David Perry, a gay man, told the B.A.R. that the costume contest run by the Sisters will be held inside the theater at 8 p.m. that Saturday, followed by 'Rocky Horror' at 9, with further "details and specific films will be announced in the coming days."

"October 28 will be a wonderful day in the Castro," Perry stated August 7. "Another Planet is working with the Castro Merchants, the Civic Joy Fund, Sister Roma, and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District to produce a day of community-focused activities and film and 100% of the proceeds will benefit the local Castro Merchants."

Tickets are $5 per film, while attendance at the contest is free with a costume, according to Roma.

As for the Sisters, they had initially planned on hosting the costume contest atop a flatbed truck outside near the theater but that has now changed. Sister Roma stated August 7 that half of the proceeds would benefit the Sisters.

"Anyone in a fabulous costume will get into the theater for free, and the Sisters will be walking around the Castro with a golden ticket to entice people in," Roma stated. "Dress fabulously: there will be prizes!"

"We really wanted to make sure this goes back to our roots — queer people coming together to celebrate Halloween — high queer holiday," Roma said August 3. "We want to keep it contained while still welcoming people."

Ideas for merchants

Ideas Yekutiel suggested the merchants could participate in included pop-up drag performances, face painting, and dry ice.

"You can do whatever you want," Yekutiel said August 3.

Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is president of the Castro Merchants Association and co-owner of Cliff's Variety, suggested specialty cocktails.

"If you're a bar and want to do over 21, that's in the realm too," Asten Bennett said.

Pumpkin carving, bobbing for apples, a petting zoo, sidewalk chalk, and drag queer ghost story hour were also proposed, potentially for a family-friendly Sunday event October 29.

Patrick Batt, a gay man who owns Auto Erotica on 18th Street, questioned the marketing strategy — how was it possible, he asked, to get the word out without drawing a crowd? Castro Halloween had been a "victim of our own success," he said.

"The only events we are actually going to plan are the costume contest and the Castro Theatre, opening the doors of the Castro Theatre for a movie marathon," Yekutiel said. "The beauty of this is that it's going to be by the people in this room."

Yekutiel and Roma said they were not planning to speak to the media to promote the event.

"There's a lot of events going on that weekend," Yekutiel said. "We're not doing big interviews, paid ads, or anything like that."

Yekutiel said there will be paid security, and advised merchants who want to request funds from Civic Joy to do so by mid-September. He told the B.A.R. August 7 that Civic Joy Fund is willing to spend $100,000 to $150,000 on the project, and said Asten-Bennett would be a liaison to individual merchants.

"There is so much excitement about this activation," Asten Bennett told the B.A.R. Monday. "It is really taking Halloween back old-school, and we think it will create positive buzz in the neighborhood without being overwhelming. We think we noted concerns in the meeting and want to keep it positive, upbeat and safe."

Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who is the executive director of the Castro Community Benefit District, is also supportive.

"I hear from residents all the time that they want Halloween to come back on a small neighborhood scale," she stated to the B.A.R. on August 7. "The idea for Halloween proposed by Manny Yekutiel and the Castro Merchants just might work. People come out for experiences. What better holiday to celebrate with unique experiences be it retail, food or drink than Halloween in the Castro! Keeping it small but busy is the key. It's time we step our toes back into a fun and celebratory Halloween."

Tina Aguirre, director of the cultural district, told the B.A.R. that "it promises to be a fun day in the Castro."

"We acknowledge that Halloween has a long history in the Castro as a time to celebrate, dress up, and have fun," Aguirre stated to the B.A.R. August 7. "I look forward to the Halloween costume contest ... and will work with Sister Roma on how to make sure that underrepresented groups are centered at the contest."

Yekutiel said he hopes it harkens back to the Castro's early days.

"It really was an opportunity for folks in this community — merchants, families, the LGBTQ community — to come together as a community to celebrate itself," Yekutiel told the B.A.R. August 7. "The idea is to go back to that original spirit of being a community gathering while meeting the moment."

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