If the Castro Theater didn’t exist, neither did Sophia Padilla.
“I always joke that I was conceived at the Castro Theater,” said the San Francisco resident, who passed by the iconic century-old movie palace on a recent afternoon while walking her dog.
Padilla said her parents first met online to see a movie at the theater 27 years ago.
“In fact, they were both on dates with other people,” Padilla said. “They fell in love here. And I’ve been coming to the Castro to see movies for my entire 26-year life.”
Padilla also said the Castro Theater helped shape her queer identity.
“The Castro really helped me find who I was,” she said.
Located in the heart of one of the most prominent LGBTQ neighborhoods in the country, the Castro Theater has played a leading role in the cultural and social evolution of San Francisco for decades.
In addition to hosting major film festivals like the San Francisco International Film Festival and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the venue has long been a stronghold of queer cinema and community events. Highlights include the first-ever public screening of the 2008 film Milk about pioneering openly gay politician Harvey Milk, the annual Frameline queer film festival, and an abundance of drag performance nights.
“The Castro Theater is like a sacred temple to the community,” said Castro LGBTQ Cultural District board member Jesse Sanford. “It’s where we come together to laugh together, cry together, learn our history and mourn our losses.”
But the recent purchase of the theater’s lease by Another Planet Entertainment, which operates a handful of mostly music-focused venues and festivals in the San Francisco Bay Area, has led to a fight over the theater’s future.
“Another Planet’s plan will mean that movies will rarely air and community events will rarely happen,” Sanford said.
Environmentalists push back
The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District is one of many local groups opposing Another Planet’s plans to refocus the venue’s programming and carry out sweeping renovations.
“It’s a century-old theater. You can’t change it any way you want,” said Peter Pastreich, executive director of the Castro Theater Conservancy, a group that was formed three years ago to address concerns about the state. dilapidated building.
Pastreich said his group welcomes some of the proposed upgrades, such as the installation of wheelchair access and a new HVAC system, and the retouching of the large walls, chandeliers and leatherette ceiling of inside. He estimates that the renovation of the theater would cost between 20 and 30 million dollars.
“We’re not opposed to Another Planet or anyone else renovating the theater and keeping it open,” Pastreich said.
It all comes down to the seat
The main point of contention among activists concerns the tenant’s plans for the theater seats.
“The plans are to remove the seats and level the floor, which would make the theater more suitable for movies,” Pastreich said.
Thousands of people, including many celebrities like Francis Ford Coppola, Alice Waters and Tilda Swinton, have signed the conservation petition to stop Another Planet’s renovations from taking place.
The building is already partly protected. The city of San Francisco gave the exterior landmark status in 1977. Now these activists are trying to get the city to expand the designation to include the building’s interior. If this happens, it will be much more difficult for the tenant to tear up the 1400 seats of the theater and level the floor.
“Switching seats is a big deal,” said Matt Lambros, a Boston-based photographer of historic movie theaters who has written several books on the subject. “You could ruin the lines of sight.”
There are a few thousand former single-screen movie palaces like the Castro still in operation in the United States today, down from tens of thousands at their pre-World War II heyday.
Lambros said that for these theaters to survive, the seats must do more than accommodate moviegoers.
“There is an interest in restoring these places,” he said. “The problem is you have to find something that will bring people in. Unfortunately most of the time, a 1,500 or 2,000 seat cinema showing movies, that’s just not viable.”
Those who want the theater’s seating plan intact point out that the Castro has hosted all sorts of non-cinematic events over the years.
“The theater may be conducive to film screenings, concerts, comedy and spoken word presentations, and community gatherings,” said San Francisco Silent Film Festival director Anita Monga. “All of this is possible with the existing seats and the same configuration.”
Another planet advances
Another Planet spokesperson, Alex Tourk, said that despite its plan to remove theater-style seating, the company is committed to honoring the theater’s heritage. “They definitely want to keep showing movies,” Tourk said. “They are committed to ensuring that 25% of programming is dedicated to the LGBTQ community.”
He said the company was shocked by all the pushback, given its strong reputation as a concert and festival producer, and its plan to invest $15 million in renovating the theatre. “Another planet expected some opposition,” he said. “But the level of vitriol has been beyond pale.”
Tourk said that even if the historic naming of the theater’s interior takes place next year, Another Planet would not be discouraged, at least for now.
“Another Planet will continue to work with the city to build consensus and move the vision forward.”