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San Francisco commissioners recommend landmark status for interior of historic Castro Theatre

The battle over San Francisco's historic Castro Theatre saw a small victory for opponents of proposed renovations to the theater, which includes removing its orchestra seats.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — In meeting room 400 on the top floor of San Francisco's spectacular beaux arts City Hall, the seven-member Historic Preservation Commission met Wednesday to consider two items: its own budget and to recommend to the Board of Supervisors whether to extend landmark status to the interior of the Castro Theatre (the exterior was landmarked back in the 1970s, making it San Francisco Historic Landmark #100).

It would be six hours before they finally got to the budget.

San Franciscans, despite the onslaught of money-focused tech over the past 20 years, still love flamboyance and the flamboyant — and plenty of those with less flamboyant inclinations — showed up to voice their opinions about that proposal. Easily more than 100 people, including a couple of celebrities, addressed the commission, taking the meeting well past its slated end time, and forcing the commissioners to move the meeting to another room once its 5 p.m. deadline passed.

Turner Classic Movies’ Eddie Muller spoke in support of the landmarking, noting that he had organized successful showings of noire films in the Castro, drawing crowds that stretched around the block. Eric Reed Boucher, better known to fans as Jello Biafra, told commissioners “The Castro was built to be not just any movie theater, but a great theater.”

“There’s a reason all the other [film] festivals choose to hold their festivals there,” Boucher said. “It’s magical.”

Some addressed the board a little more memorably than others. Susan Englander, a cheerful old lady sporting a San Francisco Giants cap and dressed in red like many of the others in the audience who showed up to show their support for extending landmark status to the interior of the historic Castro Theatre, began by singing her testimony to the commission.

“I just want to testify what the Castro me-e-eans to me-ee!,” she sang, before going on to recount her first date as a bisexual woman at the beloved movie palace. In fact, her testimony was similar in that regard to the testimonies of many others. For a couple generations of LGBT San Franciscans, the Castro’s place in the community, and their own lives, is iconic.

At stake is the interior of the 100-year-old Castro Theatre, a fabulous movie palace, widely beloved, and which is definitely showing its age. Like the neighborhood around it, long beset by the issues of skyrocketing rents and increased homelessness, the Castro Theatre has seen better days and efforts to revitalize the grand old cinema have been tumultuous at best. After 100 years, the movie house is showing its age and the effects of delayed renovations.

One year ago, San Franciscans were surprised by the news that management of the cinema had been contracted to Another Planet Entertainment, a concert promoter based across the bay in Berkeley. Already the manager of numerous esteemed venues throughout the Bay Area such as the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, the Fox Theater in Oakland, and both Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and The Independent in San Francisco, the addition of the Castro was a big deal for the company.

Another Planet’s plans for renovations, devised by CAW Architects of Palo Alto, California, called for extensive renovations of the entire building, including the installation of an HVAC system and heating (the theater is notorious for its lack of heat), restoration of the murals and decorative features, and numerous other details throughout the building. Recent torrential storms in California flooded the basement, said David Perry, spokesperson for Another Planet, and the roof leaks as well.

One item in particular, however, stood out. Another Planet wanted to remove the theater’s raked floor and orchestral seating to make way for tiered platforms which would allow event producers to remove the seats for standing audiences, as well as accommodating other types of events. When the theater showed films, Another Planet insists, the seats could be replaced.

Many disagreed, and the most vocal of them showed up for Wednesday’s meeting. To be sure, this was not the first time large, noisy meetings have been held over the matter but it marks the first real step on the path to starting renovation work.

Like Englander, many of those who spoke out recalled first dates, and many more recalled finding a sense of themselves as gay men and lesbians. The Castro Theatre, they said, provided community in the shared experiences of watching campy old films, participating in sing-alongs, and simply being around others like themselves, many of whom had fled to San Francisco from their hometowns around the country, to live their lives openly.

“Inside the Castro we discovered our stories and defined our community," Robert Gray said, recounting randy memories in the balcony of the theater, which is also home to live organ performances before the movies begin. “The organist wasn’t the only fan of big organs in the Castro,” Gray quipped.

Some find the Castro Theatre to be magical.

“San Francisco natives are called unicorns and that’s just what the Castro Theatre is,” said Serafina Miller, interim president of the California Art Deco Society. She recalled the numerous sing-alongs to which she’d taken her daughter and said, as a Black woman, she was sensitive to the impact the potential loss of the theater would have on a marginalized community.

Lesbian filmmaker Monica Noland recalled meeting her partner at the showing of a Barbara Stanwyck movie. “Here in San Francisco,” she said, “we have bragging rights to one of the best theaters in the world and that’s worth saving.”

But while the majority of those who showed up to speak in person opposed Another Planet’s proposals, there were plenty who felt otherwise. The majority of the calls that came in, for example, were in support of the proposal. One of the commissioners later commented on the fact that it was the supporters of landmark status who actually showed up in person.

Six hours later, after making their own comments and recalling their own memories of the Castro, the commission voted 6-0 to recommend landmark status for the theater’s interior. The issue next goes to the planning commission and then, finally, the Board of Supervisors. There will be, a few commissioners noted, more meetings ahead.

A 6:30 p.m., six hours after their meeting had begun, they finally moved on to the budget.

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