Preserving the Castro Theatre

April 1st, 2022 No Comments »

The exterior of the landmark Castro Theatre featuring its historic neon blade sign, in March 2022. SF Heritage photo.

This piece will be published in the April-June 2022 issue of Heritage News.

By Woody LaBounty

On January 19, 2022, news broke that the Nasser family, who had built and owned the Castro Theatre for 99 ½ years, had signed an agreement to turn over operations of the iconic movie house to concert promoter and producer Another Planet Entertainment (APE).

The Castro Theatre, advertised as “one of the finest monuments to the motion picture art in America,” opened at 429 Castro Street on June 22, 1922. Master-architect Timothy Pflueger, who would go on to be responsible for the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, the Mayan-inspired 450 Sutter Street building, the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph skyscraper at 140 New Montgomery Street, and other beloved Bay Area buildings, was just 28 years old when he designed the Castro. The rich, baroque interior exudes the old-world “exoticism” so popular in movie palaces of the 1920s. Even in low light the gilded walls and ceiling shimmer. At its opening, Motion Picture News described the Castro auditorium as “suggestive of the Roman Amphitheatre.”

For its architectural merits, the Castro Theatre was designated city landmark #100 in 1977. Since that time, it has arguably grown in equivalent significance as a center of film appreciation and as a cultural icon for the LGBTQIA+ community. The theatre is host to the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus each holiday season and the Frameline Film Festival, the oldest LGBTQIA+ film festival in the United States. The Castro’s blade sign has become a symbol of queer culture, a beacon of perhaps the world’s best-known gay neighborhood. Renowned drag artist Peaches Christ, who has hosted the popular “Midnight Mass” series for years, had perhaps the most apt quote about the theatre in an article on The Guardian’s website: “Cinema has been my religion, and the Castro is our Vatican.”

The day of the change-of-management announcement, many people anxious for the theatre’s preservation reached out to San Francisco Heritage. As an important work by master-architect Timothy Pflueger, a historic icon of LGBTQIA+ life, and one of the last single-screen movie theatres in San Francisco, the Castro has an energized and engaged constituency that reaches around the world.

Representatives from Another Planet Entertainment also contacted SF Heritage that first day, introducing themselves and requesting a meeting to discuss their preliminary plans.

Neighbors, arts groups, film fans, and LGBTQIA+ leaders are very concerned over possible changes in the use of the theatre, specifically the ratio of films and film festivals to live entertainment, how welcome local productions will be compared to large-scale touring events, the affordability of rentals, and the continuance of the theatre’s longtime role as a safe space for the LGBTQIA+ community. San Francisco Heritage is equally invested in the cultural importance of the Castro Theatre’s programming, but as the city’s oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to architectural preservation and advocacy, our first meeting with Another Planet Entertainment focused on the building itself.

On February 25, 2022, Another Planet Entertainment and its design team met with the Projects and Policy committee of SF Heritage’s board of directors to review preliminary plans for restoration and renovation of the century-old theatre. Another Planet Entertainment has contracted CAW Architects and Page & Turnbull to guide the project; representatives from both firms led the presentation.

The meeting covered immediate conservation needs — stabilization of the massive chandelier, delaminating ceiling details—as well as ideas for upgrading operational infrastructure. Another Planet Entertainment has publicly expressed an intention of expanding the Castro Theatre’s programming to host a greater number and variety of live events. How to sensitively incorporate new light, sound, and ventilation systems was a focus of discussion and advice from SF Heritage committee members, as was the importance of Pfleuger’s design being respected and complemented by any replacement or required additional fixtures, carpeting, or guard rails.

Preliminary evaluation of conservation needs inside the Castro Theatre included revealing and inspecting the original procenium. Andrew Rosas/Another Planet Entertainment. 

All were excited to see images of the theatre’s original proscenium, which was covered over for widescreen movie projection in 1954. Ornately gilded and elaborated, it appeared to be in remarkably good condition, and APE expressed a desire to bring it once more into public view. The rear theatre curtain also appears to date back to the 1920s; a conservation analysis of it is underway.

Members of the SF Heritage Projects and Policy committee offered specific design and technical suggestions to the APE team and forwarded research material on the style and methods of Timothy Pflueger to help guide the project, which is still in its early stages. Another Planet Entertainment has submitted a request to the city’s Planning Department for a Project Review Meeting and will return to SF Heritage as the plans evolve.

All recognize that the Castro Theatre is one the San Francisco’s undisputed treasures. We thank the team from Another Planet Entertainment for reaching out to us early in the process and for a very productive first conversation. We look forward to future collaboration and review as plans proceed. San Francisco Heritage takes seriously its responsibility to advocate for a site of such architectural and cultural importance, to ensure the Castro Theatre serves San Francisco for another hundred years.

Disclosure: A SF Heritage board member is connected to the project mentioned in this article. As per our board members’ Code of Conduct Policy, the individual member is recused from any SF Heritage discussion or activity related to the project.

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