San Francisco’s Film Community Is Reeling

A Cliff-hanger for the Castro Theater.

castro theater

When the new Castro Theater opened on June 22, 1922, a capacity audience packed the house to watch Across the Continent, an auto-racing movie starring silent film actor Wallace Reid.

That day, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a full-page spread with photos and feature articles describing the new venue, which had replaced a smaller theater now occupied by the store Cliff’s Variety. Built for $300,000 (nearly $5 million in today’s dollars), the theater earned heaps of praise for the Nasser brothers, who went on to own and reconstruct the Royal and the Alhambra, both on Polk, and the New Mission Theater.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

A century later, when news broke that Another Planet Entertainment (APE) was working with the Nassers’ descendants to transform San Francisco’s 100th designated landmark into a live-event venue for music, comedy, and film, fewer than 30 people showed up to protest. The protesters were moved to action over concerns that the Castro’s repertory film program, which screened independent, foreign, and classic titles, might not return.

For film fans and many Castro residents, the announcement raised more questions than it answered: Would perennial sing-alongs for The Sound of Music and Grease continue? What about the Castro Organ Devotees Association’s yearslong effort to replace the Wurlitzer that once rose from the orchestra pit to entertain audiences before screenings?

Another Planet Entertainment CEO Gregg Perloff told the Chronicle that those worries were unfounded: “The intention is to have film and film festivals, along with music and comedy and lectures,” he said. “Ultimately, the public will tell us what they want to see.”

For decades, enthusiastic local filmgoers have been doing just that. Before the Castro Theater suspended regular operations in March 2020 due to COVID-19, its calendar was as eclectic as San Francisco itself: patrons could watch a double feature by South Korean director Bong Joon Ho on Wednesday, then come back on Thursday for a screening of Jesus Christ Superstar that included a live conversation with stars Yvonne Elliman and Ted Neeley.

Before the pandemic, the theater regularly presented performances by drag performer/impresario Peaches Christ, film festivals, comedy shows, and its vaunted repertory film program. The Castro still attracts big-ticket events: in December 2021, it hosted the U.S. premiere of The Matrix Resurrections, as well as a screening of West Side Story with star Rita Moreno.

“Under the old business model, a half-full theater was more than enough to cover the cost of most screenings,” says Brian Darr, a library technical assistant at City College of San Francisco who has volunteered with several local film organizations and who watched “more than 100” movies in theaters each year before the pandemic. Via email, he told me that APE’s management of the Fox Oakland theater, which it has operated since it reopened in 2009, has not benefited Bay Area movie fans.

“Their track record of showing film at the Fox is almost nonexistent,” Darr explains. “I’ve never heard of them partnering with film festivals at any of their other venues, much less run repertory film screenings with any frequency.”

Seeking clarification, members of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District sent an open letter to APE and the Nassers’ Bay Properties Inc. on January 20 asking both companies for “collaborative engagement.” One of several cultural districts recognized by the city, the group works directly with the city and the local community to promote and preserve neighborhood character.

Their letter included multiple requests, such as asking the venue’s operators to share renovation plans before filing permits, hire an event programmer knowledgeable about the LGBTQ community to work directly with the LGBTQ community, ensure that local event producers could obtain “a low-cost rental option,” and resume repertory film screenings.

After receiving blowback for its handling of the announcement, an APE executive met virtually with members of the Castro Merchants Association that same day to apologize, according to the Bay Area Reporter. The trade group holds a great deal of sway: supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the area, was on the call as well.

As of this writing, however, APE still has not directly responded to the cultural district’s inquiry.

Despite “occasional hiccups,” Darr says that the Castro Theater is a great place to watch a movie. It’s one of just a handful of Bay Area theaters capable of projecting films in 35-millimeter and 70-millimeter formats, but “compared to the Grand Lake, Alameda, or Stanford, it’s in rather shabby physical condition and could definitely use some TLC,” he acknowledges.

I haven’t been inside in more than two years, but my memories of the theater are as vivid as the films it projected: watching movies like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Singin’ in the Rain on the big screen for the first time since childhood, being dosed with déjà vu during San Francisco–set movies when characters visited familiar places, and the time I felt my heart catch in my throat during a Grease sing-along when I realized I was in a room filled with hundreds of strangers and we were all in unison.

Economically, it follows that APE and Bay Properties would be more responsive to the Castro Merchants Association than the area’s cultural district: theater patrons spend money in neighborhood shops, bars, and restaurants, but on any given night, it’s likely there are many more people in the Bay Area who would rather see live music than watch a pristine 35-millimeter print of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

According to APE, the refurbished venue will reopen next year, but given the sudden closure of three Landmark Cinema theaters (most recently, the Embarcadero Center Cinema); the end of SFMOMA’s film program, which began in 1937; and the deaths of film archivist Stephen Parr in 2017 and experimental local filmmaker Paul Clipson in 2018, the Bay Area’s film community has taken a series of body blows.

“It’s a very bad sign for the survival of anything but the most heavily marketed tentpole releases involving spandex-clad vigilantes in a ‘free’ market,” Darr says.

Like faded silent film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, the Castro Theater’s most fervent supporters would move heaven and earth for a comeback. Unfortunately, for those of us who want to see the movie palace used for its original purpose, “it’s the pictures that got small.”•

Walter Thompson is a journalist who lives in San Francisco and hosts The Golden City, a podcast about the city’s past, present and future.
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