Public will be able to purchase much-debated SF Castro Theatre seats

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday April 5, 2024
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Scaffolding has been erected over the orchestra level of the Castro Theatre as renovation work begins on the ceiling. Photo: John Ferrannini
Scaffolding has been erected over the orchestra level of the Castro Theatre as renovation work begins on the ceiling. Photo: John Ferrannini

Later this month the public will be able to purchase the orchestra-level seats that once adorned the Castro Theatre in San Francisco's LGBTQ neighborhood. The seating has already been removed as preservationists work up high above on scaffolding to save century-old paintings in the historic movie palace.

Another Planet Entertainment, which took over management of the theater two years ago and announced a controversial renovation and restoration project, gave reporters and others a tour of the venue April 3-4. After a lengthy process of getting approval from various city governmental bodies to move forward with the project, the theater temporarily closed to the public February 4.

Landes Dixon, venue manager for Another Planet Entertainment, led a hard-hat tour of the Castro Theatre this week. Photo: Steven Underhill  

"The scaffolding took a week and a half," said Landes Dixon, APE's venue coordinator. "The seats came out first, the seats took three days, and then the chandelier came down next, and the scaffolding went up immediately after that."

Mary Conde, APE senior vice president, said those seats will be available for purchase on the group's website April 15; the proceeds will go to Oasis Arts and the Castro Organ Devotees Association. The organ group has long been working to raise the funds needed for the installation of a new organ, which it claims will be the largest hybrid (pipe/digital) organ in the world.

Oasis Arts was started in 2022 by D'Arcy Drollinger, who last year was named San Francisco's inaugural drag laureate. Drollinger previously told the B.A.R. that the nonprofit supports local LGBTQ artists, drag performers, filmmakers, and others. Roughly $300,000 has been donated to the organization, with much of the funding coming from the San Francisco Film Commission and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, Drollinger said last year.

Drollinger told the B.A.R. April 9 that "the goal of Oasis Arts is to elevate our community, so that has been my goal," and that "I do believe they [APE] are trying to make space for the community."

The organ committee did not return a request for comment by press time.

Mary Conde, right, APE senior vice president, talks with people on a hard-hat tour of the Castro Theatre April 3. Photo: Steven Underhill  

The orchestra seats were a flashpoint in the debate over the theater. 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 in San Francisco's Civic Center area, was announced as the new operator of the 101-year-old Castro Theatre. It had heretofore been both owned and run by the Nasser family.

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 APE's proposed plans.

Among the changes are the removal of the orchestra-level seats and their replacement with motorized, raked seating, so that the venue can be used for cinema as well as concerts.

Last year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved the prerequisite ordinances allowing APE's vision to move forward. The crucial vote, which passed 6-4, rejected an amendment that would have required the orchestra seating to be fixed. More recently, the supervisors approved allowing second-floor alcohol sales throughout the Castro Street Neighborhood Commercial District last October 24, as the B.A.R. reported. The seats on that mezzanine level are slated to remain, having been designated as historical during the protracted approval process.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro on the Board of Supervisors and authored the resolution landmarking the interior of the theater, told the B.A.R. April 5 that he has no comment at this time on the status of the renovation project, but "we're going to go take a look later this month." (The exterior of the theater was designated a city landmark in 1977.)

Conde confirmed that the project is still slated to finish in 2025, and at a cost of $15 million.

The movie screen has also been removed — part of it was given to Queer Arts Featured at 575 Castro Street. Conde said APE wants to preserve "anything we can upscale and prevent from going to a landfill."

Queer Arts Featured is an art gallery located at the site of slain former supervisor Harvey Milk's Castro Camera shop.

Devlin Shand of Queer Arts Featured told the B.A.R., "I'm really grateful to APE. I'm excited they reached out." The screen will be part of an interactive community exhibition at Queer Arts Featured starting June 7. Community members will have the opportunity to create art for several months, at which point different parts of the screen will be auctioned off to support further community exhibitions.

"It's such a beautiful furthering of our ethos," Shand said. "I love this combination of something from the past: making it new."

The Castro Theatre's ceiling has been badly damaged over the years. Photo: John Ferrannini  

Original ceiling art being restored
Atop the scaffolding, Conde pointed to the work that architect Timothy Pflueger had painted on the ceiling, featuring figures drawn from various Asian cultures. He may have been making a political statement, she said. While Orientalism gripped American popular culture, it was also a time of heavy restrictions on immigration, including a complete ban on Chinese immigration via the Chinese Exclusion Act.

"In 1922, the movie theaters were trying to create a place to escape," Conde said. "They wanted to create a fantasy land. We're not 100% sure; he may have been trying to make a political statement that these were beautiful cultures."

A previous effort to save the art, however, has helped facilitate its demise.

"When things shifted after the [Loma Prieta] earthquake in 1989, they were trying to help it stay in place," Conde said, leading to polyurethane being added to the ceiling. The paintings — as well as fixtures such as gold leaf-flaked cherubs suspended on the wall — had already long been caked with soot from cigarette smoke and run-of-the-mill dust.

That polyurethane is visibly peeling.

"It was too heavy," Conde said, then pointing to the ceiling, "It was the wrong product — so that's the plaster falling apart."

To restore the paintings, "they are going to have to do tracings of the detail and replicate" the parts that have been damaged, Conde said. "All of this artwork is hand painted. ... They're [the restorers] going with a microscope and really analyzing what the colors in the 1920s were."

The restoration work is being done by EverGreene Architectural Arts, Conde said, which has worked in 48 of America's 50 state capitol buildings.

"They are all-pro," she said.

The New York-based company did not return a request for comment by press time.

A new screen and chandelier will also be added. The screen will be able to show 35mm film, 70mm film, and digital projection, Conde said.

"The chandelier was first installed in 1937 and it was a Phoenix Day — which is still in business, in Richmond — and it's the great-grandson of the person who installed the [original] chandelier," Conde said. "They are doing all the light fixture renovations."

Phoenix Day General Manager Clarence Calzada stated, "We're very excited to be working on the Castro Theatre restoration. Especially as Phoenix Day worked on the original chandelier."

Tony Brenta, owner of Phoenix Day, said that the company is in the process of making the new fixtures.

"We had a meeting with the lighting consultant folks from APE last week," Brenta said April 8. "It looks like they'll go with color-changing LEDs to upgrade the theater."

Brenta said that Phoenix Day was also utilized for work on the War Memorial Veterans Building and the Legion of Honor museum.

Brenta, 66, started at the company at age 20. The company was brought in to make a chandelier for the Castro Theatre in the 1930s because "the original chandelier was paper and someone flicked a cigarette onto it and burned it down." He believes it was his aunt's uncle who built it.

Also getting replaced is the organ, which will be "taller, bigger, and badder" and "the largest symphonic organ in the world," Conde said.

The B.A.R. asked the organ association its comment on the matter, but has not heard back.

Theater remodel opponent bemoans loss of seats
Gerard Koskovich, a queer public historian, was extensively involved in the efforts to fight APE's plans. He had also submitted comprehensive information on the theater to city planning staff for its Landmark Designation Fact Sheet and consulted with Planning Department staff and community members, in addition to reviewing and editing the draft document, as noted in the report given to the historic preservation commission.

While his research was included in the final statement of significance for the theater's history, it didn't prevent the removal of the seats, which he vehemently opposed.

Koskovich, who has not taken a tour, told the B.A.R. on April 5, "It's splendid that the historic ceiling of the theater will be restored, but that shouldn't distract us from the fact that a key character-defining feature that makes the Castro Theatre a historic movie palace and a site of international importance for LGBTQ culture is at the same time being destroyed, being demolished by APE and the Nassers and what is being destroyed is the movie palace configuration of the orchestra, the main auditorium.

"It's an aspect of the space that defines it as a historic movie palace and it's a part of the space that's central to the production of the unique LGBTQ public and to the queer and trans community building that has taken place at the Castro Theatre over the course of 50 years," he added.

Koskovich talked about what he means by a "queer public" at a town hall meeting last year. He said watching films as an LGBTQ community together taught people "how to respond to a culture that sometimes oppressed us."

"We've gone to countless films and sing-alongs and drag shows [at the theater]. ... We've formed a unique queer public at the Castro Theatre — what sociologists call a counter-public — against the grain of the culture. ... The amazing thing about the Castro Theatre is that it has an audience like nowhere else in the world — that's us: a unique queer public that does not exist at all anywhere else and will not if APE has its way."

When asked about the forthcoming seat sales, Koskovich likened it to saying, "We've just committed a massacre and are now selling the body parts for profit," because, he said, Oasis Arts is a "separate shell" to give money to APE.

"No one should be mistaken — that is an utterly self-serving act typical of APE," Koskovich said. "Oasis Arts was started up as a nonprofit to help community-based artists and organizations rent the Castro Theatre from APE, so it's a way people can donate money to a nonprofit that will be given to APE."

According to Oasis Arts' 2022 IRS Form 990, which covers May-December of that year, it received $98,642 in grants. It had assets of $45,762, while $50,583 was distributed by the organization. () Specific funding sources were not identified on the document.

In APE's community benefits package for the theater, the company created a grant program to be administered Oasis Arts to allow LGBTQ artists, filmmakers, and community groups who otherwise might not be able to afford it to utilize the space.

David Perry, a gay man who is a spokesperson for APE, responded to the B.A.R.'s inquiry about Oasis Arts.

"Another Planet Entertainment is honored and grateful that an esteemed queer nonprofit such as Oasis Arts has chosen to partner with us to continue the long legacy of LGBTQ+ programming for which the Castro Theatre is rightly famous," he said via phone April 5. "Because of our partnership with Oasis Arts we will continue to serve new generations at the Castro Theatre and for the queer community at large."

Drollinger told the B.A.R. that "we started back in 2022."

"Honestly, I came into this with all good intentions," Drollinger said. "They [APE] reached out and wanted to see if I could underwrite other queer organizations so they could use the space. ... I have gone into this with an open heart and only to uplift my community."

Grant Miller, left, Joe Sangirardi, Mike Murray, and Bret Hendry took a hard-hat tour of the Castro Theatre renovations April 3. Photo: Steven Underhill  

Joe Sangirardi, a gay man who is the co-chair of pro-APE group Restore the Castro Theatre and who recently took a tour, told the B.A.R. that he's excited about the progress of the renovations.

"The Castro Theatre is finally receiving long-overdue love befitting its cultural and historic significance for the neighborhood and the LGBTQ community," stated Sangirardi, who was recently elected to the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee. "As Castro residents, we are thrilled with the progress of the restoration, paving the way for the Castro's Second Act!"

The Castro Theatre Conservancy did not return a request for comment by press time.

Updated, 4/5/24: This article has been updated with comments from APE.

Updated, 4/6/24: David Perry and Gerard Koskovich's quotations were clarified.

Updated, 4/9/24: This article has been updated with comments from D'Arcy Drollinger and Queer Arts Featured.

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