‘Cinema is my religion and the Castro is our Vatican’: shakeup at landmark San Francisco venue stuns locals

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA</span>
Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA

For years, the San Francisco underground drag performer and cinephile Peaches Christ has filled the city’s renowned Castro Theatre with her Midnight Mass series, juxtaposing cult film screenings with live, drag-parody re-enactments and onstage interviews. These loving but irreverent late-night events have been a staple of LGBTQ+ culture at the city’s pre-eminent arthouse theater, itself one of the most visible landmarks in San Francisco’s most famous gayborhood.

As Peaches Christ puts it: “Cinema has been my religion, and the Castro is our Vatican.”

And now, one month after hosting the US premiere of The Matrix Resurrections and a few months before its 100th anniversary, the owners of the opulent, 1,400 seat movie palace announced that it may soon become primarily a venue for live entertainment and no longer screen many films at all.

Wednesday’s news sent shockwaves through the city’s artistic and cinematic communities, revealing a partnership between the Castro and Another Planet Entertainment (APE), a Bay Area concert promoter. Known for preserving other historic venues – and for producing Outside Lands, a three-day music festival typically held in Golden Gate Park every August – APE stated that it plans a major renovation of the interior and the renowned marquee, as well as a dramatic shift in the types of events the Castro will become home to.

“We want to present all sorts of programming in the theater – comedy, music, film, community and private events and more,” the promoter said in a release.

cast stands outside castro
Cast members stand at the premiere of The Matrix Resurrections on 18 December. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

The news stunned local film-makers and festival programmers, who urged APE to solicit community input – so much so that the promoter rushed to mollify the reeling city, saying nothing untoward would happen overnight.

Century-old movie houses and single-screen theaters have been disappearing from San Francisco for years, victims of rising operating costs and the popularity of streaming services long before the pandemic struck. But as a cultural institution, the Castro Theatre is unique. It’s home to numerous festivals and premieres as well as matinee screenings of the camp Hollywood classics such as Grey Gardens and Auntie Mame. A destination for American cineastes, it’s where you might see a painstakingly restored 1940s noir, witness the director Peter Bogdanovich badmouthing Cher during a Q&A, or just sing along to Grease.

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The Castro had already gone dark for 15 months during Covid, reopening in June 2021 to host the 45th edition of Frameline, San Francisco’s long-running LGBTQ+ film festival.

In continuing a longstanding tradition of preceding each film with live music from the in-house organ – no longer a “Mighty Wurlitzer” but arguably the largest pipe-digital hybrid organ in the world – the theater’s return embodied last summer’s burst of optimism, when California briefly relaxed its pandemic restrictions on indoor gatherings. It’s also very, very gay: San Francisco, the theme, revived by Judy Garland, from the 1936 disaster movie of the same name, is always the last song before the curtain goes up. Consequently, the theater’s large and vocal queer fan base was particularly saddened by the prospect of losing it for good.

“We know that there won’t be the same volume of film screening at the venue, and of course we are very sad about that,” said James Woolley, Frameline’s executive director.

However, he confirmed that the festival’s 46th iteration, an anchor of San Francisco’s Pride Month festivities, was still on for June.

Although Peaches Christ was initially dismayed, a call with APE eased her mind.

“They assured me that the programming would be very considered. They’re not going to program it the way they would Bill Graham or remove the seats,” she said, referring to a much larger venue that welcomes EDM DJs and more mainstream musical artists.

While concerned that the Castro might become exclusively dedicated to live performance, Peaches noted that comedy festivals such as Sketchfest had long since broadened the scope of what the theater did. Second-run film screenings were hardly its bread and butter.

“As much as I’d hate to see the repertory calendar disappear, if you went to the screenings, nine times out of 10 it was less than half full,” she said. “I’ve run a movie theater and I’ve been in the business a long time. I knew it wasn’t a sustainable model.”

Peaches is optimistic about APE as a local entity, far smaller than national enterprises such as LiveNation. Promising to fulfill her existing contract, they also assured her they would install a new movie screen, improve accessibility for people with disabilities, and make other needed repairs.

“What the general public doesn’t see is that the Castro needs a huge electrical upgrade,” she said. “The old wiring led to sometimes tripping breakers. It was stressful.”

Still, the underlying economics are what they are, which is why many San Francisco theaters are now derelict (or repurposed as gyms).

“The theater business is hard, and I think it’s especially hard for single-screen independent historic art house cinemas. You can only charge so much for a movie theater ticket,” said Lex Sloan, a film-maker and the executive director of the 110-year old, single-screen Roxie Theater, San Francisco’s oldest such venue. “We’re more than just movie theaters. We’re places where people make memories and find new friends. Places like the Castro and its programming are quintessential to what makes San Francisco weird and wild.”