Trouble for Another Planet Entertainment, as the SF Historic Preservation Commission just recommended landmark designation protections for the Castro Theatre’s seats, at a six-hour meeting where both “Save the Seats” and “Change the Seats” factions turned out in force.
More than a year into Another Planet Entertainment’s taking over operations of the Castro Theatre, the Berkeley-based concert promoter has failed to overcome enormous community outrage and distrust that their management would abandon film screenings and LGBTQ programming and just turn the place into a generic, cookie-cutter concert venue. The currently most contentious aspect to all this is Another Planet Entertainment (APE) moving forward with plans to remove the Castro Theatre seats, transitioning to a hybrid model where the orchestra area is standing-room for concerts, and would have temporary seats on tiers for film events. That all seems like cultural sacrilege to many longtime fans of the theater, like “John Waters, who referred to the venue as the ‘Radio City Music Hall for gay people,” according to Planning Department senior planner Alex Westhoff.
Castro Merchants Association board member Terry Beswick argued at a Wednesday meeting that APE’s plans would “basically gut the interior of the Castro Theatre.”
“They plan to add a couple cocktail bars within the auditorium,” Beswick noted. “Their largely straight audience that they expect for nighttime shows doesn’t want to patronize the gay bars in the neighborhood. So APE needs to take out the seats to make room for their in-house full bars while maintaining the venue capacity.”
“The neighboring LGBTQ bars and restaurants will continue to lose business and all neighboring businesses will continue to suffer due to the many dark days APE plans for the theater,” Beswick said.
One obstacle SF City Hall could place in APE’s way is a protective landmark designation. While the Castro Theatre already has a landmark designation, that designation only applies to the Castro’s iconic neon sign and the exterior features of the Timothy Pfleuger architecture. And so on Wednesday, the SF Historic Preservation Commission considered a revised landmark designation that would extend landmark protections to the theater’s interior, and notably the seats and sloped floor, as “character defining features” of the historic structure.
And after six hours of often-angry discussion from the public, the commission voted 6-0 to recommend that landmark designation. But this is not a final determination, and the ultimate deciding vote will eventually go before the SF Board of Supervisors.
“This is the Castro,” commissioner Kate Black said before Wednesday’s vote “The theater is an extraordinarily revered and beloved movie palace in its own right. For decades, it has been the central feature and organizing element of San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ neighborhood. And it’s been a not-so-silent litmus to community activism related to the AIDS epidemic, gay rights,and marriage equality.”
“Movies are not APE’s business, music is,” Black added. “My biggest concern gets down to a specific commitment, whether it’s APE or any other operator, to show movies in a significant way.”
I’m in commission meeting room 400 where the Historical Preservation Commission is preparing to meet on the future of the Castro Theatre.— Christopher J. Beale (@realchrisjbeale) February 1, 2023
Save The Seats advocates are here in large numbers, and the room has reached capacity.
The meeting starts at 12:30. @KQEDnews pic.twitter.com/gliN1aRW8S
The vast majority of this meeting was nearly six hours of public comment (which featured many local notables, like Jello Biafra, DJ Bus Station John, and Donna Sachet).
Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra (who now looks like a Goldman Sachs middle manager?) said during his comment period, “The Castro Theatre, it’s a movie theater, It is not a rock venue, it is not a disco. It is not an EDM, you know, all kinds of weird drugs in you place that they turned Slim’s into or anything like that either. It was built to be, not just any movie theater, but a beautiful and great movie theater.”
@Jello_Biafra_ says the @Castro_Theatre is not a music venue or a disco. There's a reason film festivals host their events there ... "it is an atmostpheric magical place," where the audience dresses as Joan Crawford and yells "No wire hangers ever!" pic.twitter.com/Tqe089DTCT— The Frisc (@TheFrisc) February 1, 2023
DJ Bus Station John said that the Castro has “languished in a perpetual state of disrepair for over a year now,” He asked, “Why would we trust any promise APE makes to preserve any aspect of the theater's interior if they can't even perform basic maintenance on its exterior?,” and added that “APE is not the only game in town.”
But local drag legend Donna Sachet spoke in support of APE “I find the current debate over the Castro Theatre puzzling,” Sachet said. “Another Planet Entertainment is willing to make major and expensive improvements while preserving the most important historical elements of the building, and yet they’re met with objections.”
Attorney for the Nassers asks the commission to "very carefully" consider the family that has operated the Castro, which has operated mostly at a loss for the last 3 years. He shares some audience data that shows paltry attendance numbers. pic.twitter.com/dleCCGuwlu— The Frisc (@TheFrisc) February 1, 2023
And the Castro Theatrer’s owners, the Nasser family, sent their attorney Jim Abrams to point out what a massive financial flop then theater’s 100th anniversary had been. “No more than 35 people attended these showings, with as little as 10 people attending the afternoon matinee.” Abrams said Wednesday.
Noir City producer and host Eddie Muller pushed back on that. “For 18 years I filled that theater, all 1400 seats in the theater, on Friday and Saturday nights.” Muller said. “The success of the festival at the Castro Theatre is known nationally and internationally. And that is a perfectly viable motion picture theater.”
“The Nasser family is being very disingenuous when they said that they cannot possibly show movies there,” Muller added. ”I have done it successfully for 18 years, packing that theater with lines around the block.”
Castro Theatre Conservancy executive director Peter Pastreich pointed out that his nonprofit could make a financially competitive counteroffer. “I’ve been responsible for fundraising for well over $100 million in endowment campaigns and capital improvements on three concert halls,” Pastreich said, as the public comment section of the meeting went on to its sixth hour,
“This has gone much longer than expected,” commission clerk Jonas Ionin said. “As a result, we’ve gone past our allotted time in this chamber.” The commission had to reconvene in another room elsewhere in City Hall before finishing public comment and holding the vote, because a Police Commission meeting was scheduled in their room.
APE offered new plans last week for a “motorized raked floor,” which is shown in the Instagram animation above. (It all looks very high-tech, though it may be more manual than depicted.) “This is not only the best, but the only way to keep the Castro open,” APE spokesperson David Perry told the Chronicle.
But the commission’s vote Wednesday puts this revised floor plan very much in doubt.
Not everyone was opposed to APE’s plans. Many supporters of APE’s plans were folks who feel they have a financial stake here, like nearby businesses who hope for more foot traffic, or event producers who think they can make bigger bucks at a modernized Castro Theatre. Notably, Hoodline reported last week the Frameline LGBTQ film festival endorsed APE’s remodeling plans.
“Midnites For Maniacs” host and producer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, who’s presented 130 events at the Castro, said that “The soul of the Castro Theatre is not the set-up of the seats," and that "The soul of the Castro Theatre is an audience who actually attends the theater for films and special events.”
And disability advocates argued the current layout of the Castro Theatre was simply unacceptable. “The Castro Theatre, with fixed seating, is not accessible,” Sarah Hoffenberg pointed out. “If someone uses a wheelchair and they’re hard of hearing, or they have limited sight, they aren’t able to access this community space in the way that everyone else can.”
Nonetheless, the commission expanded the landmark protections.
This vote does not change APE’s management involvement in the theater, nor will it affect their programming in any way. Wednesday’s vote simply recommends applying landmark protections to the Castro’s interior seating arrangements. And again, this is not a final call, it’s a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, who will make that final call on the landmark designation.
But it's certainly a sign of momentum going against Another Planet Entertainment’s plans for the Castro Theatre, and this movie probably has a few more big plot twists coming before the final curtain.
Image: Steven Bracco, Hoodline