With disgruntled patrons holding up signs that read “Save the Seats,” the century-old Castro Theater was the site of a rowdy town hall on Thursday night as hundreds of filmmakers and members of the LGBTQ+ community filled the orchestra and the balcony to voice their opinions on Another Planet Entertainment’s planned changes to the venue.
Basically, the issue was with the seats, specifically the proposed removal of the front rows and the changes that would bring to the Castro. APE, the local developer that runs the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the Fox Theater in Oakland and the Greek Theater in Berkeley, as well as festivals like Outside Lands, took over management of the theater from its original and current owners, the family Nasser. The company hope to transform one of the last working 1920s movie palaces in America in a multi-purpose hall that emphasizes live music, with repertory film screenings and LGBTQ+ community events reduced to a smaller percentage and not specified from the global programming.
Thursday’s town hall came in response to a fiery open letter from the Castro LGBTQ+ Cultural District in January, which alleged a lack of sensitivity to community concerns about the theater’s position, not just as a focal point of queer culture in San Francisco, but as the crown jewel of Bay Area movie theaters. A panel, led by Mary Conde, senior vice president of Another Planet, heard from several dozen speakers, whose opinions ranged from qualified support to vehement opposition.
Indeed, the three-hour town hall was filled with disruptions, boos, accusations of bad faith and shouted interruptions from a largely older, gay, male and predominantly Caucasian audience. Moderator Bevan Dufty, BART manager and former neighborhood supervisor, who is now on Another Planet’s payroll as a consultant at $7,500 a month – as he volunteered himself – intervened several times to keep the tone civil.
A pre-recorded film featuring Another Planet CEO Gregg Perloff touted the proposed renovation of famed architect Timothy Pflueger’s masterpiece, from removing polyurethane slapped on the faded ceiling murals to restoring the chandelier. James Woolley, executive director of Frameline, the country’s oldest LGBTQ+ film festival, also appeared on screen to lend his support.
Access, broadly defined, remains the main point of contention. The APE and its supporters pointed out that a softer ramp and a multi-level floor structure with “a series of elevators” and removable seats would make the theater more welcoming to people with disabilities. Condé did not provide details on the eventual seating capacity (currently 1,407), except to say that a definitive number had not been determined. However, a man who identified himself as an architect claimed that APE’s own renderings suggest up to 250 seats could be ripped out.
Opponents cited architectural integrity, with many seeing the seemingly benign alterations as a workhorse for a radically revamped venue, which charges unaffordable ticket prices for events that would largely attract, as one commentator put it, “rock ‘n’ roll bros.”
“There must be a reason there isn’t a movie theater anywhere with portable chairs sitting on risers,” said Peter Pastreich, executive director of the Castro Theater Conservancy, to applause.
Asked about continuing repertory film screenings, Conde said Another Planet is planning a “diversity of programming, including podcasts and comedy shows – it won’t be just a music venue.” She refused to commit to educating patrons about the neighborhood’s queer culture and history. In response to concerns that the APE will only partner with Ticketmaster, known for its steep surcharges, Conde declined to specify a ticketing partner. But in fairness, the Independent, another venue run by the APE, contracts with Ticketweb.
For fans of Peaches Christ Productions and other staples of Castro’s programming camp, Conde answered a question about honoring longstanding, albeit less lucrative, partnerships with a sharp answer: “Rental rates of this space have been undervalued for some time. (Approached for comment after the forum ended, Condé declined.)
Sometimes people seemed to evaluate the project less on its merits and more on whether they felt sufficiently consulted about the changes, despite having no financial stake in the outcome. In movie anthems, the fact that many weekday screenings in the Hulu era are played to dwindling audiences, sometimes barely more than a dozen people, has largely gone unaddressed. And concerns that the audience for live music consists of “bros” ignores the fact that people who identify as gay also enjoy live music, let alone how a desolate neighborhood with many commercial vacancies could benefit from significantly increased foot traffic.
Nonetheless, many people have expressed confusion over why San Francisco needs another music venue, let alone one that threatens the best example of what LGBTQ+ historian Gerard Koskovich has called the “intangible cultural heritage”.
“No company will do the right thing. We still don’t matter, even as gay people in San Francisco, we don’t matter when it comes to dollars and cents,” said Elizabeth Benson, who has worked with longtime partner Lesbians Who Tech. Castro Theatre. “The last two minutes of speaking for his life were the best two minutes I’ve had here. It’s where we could hold hands in the dark and not be afraid to die.
Peter-Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected].
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