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Arts & Entertainment

Castro Theatre hearing draws lively crowd, chants of ‘Save the seats!’

"Gaybraham Lincoln" was among the many locals who addressed the Historic Preservation Commission in San Francisco City Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2022. | Julie Zigoris/The Standard

The line of public commenters stretched out the door of City Hall’s Room 400 Wednesday afternoon, as San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission prepared to review an amendment to the landmark designation of the Castro Theatre—a century-old movie palace that John Waters once called “The Radio City Music Hall for gay people.”

Much of the assembled crowd was there to voice support for extending the city’s landmark designation to cover the interior of the theater—a move that would protect the raked floor and sloped seating inside the iconic cinema and further complicate the plans of Another Planet Entertainment (APE), which took over management of the venue in 2022. 

After more than five hours of public comment—the vast majority of which were in support of saving the seats and against APE's proposal—the Commission unanimously passed a motion to protect the interior, including the 1922 fixed upper seats, as part of the theater's historic landmark designation.

Since news of the Berkeley-based live entertainment promoter’s takeover broke, movie lovers have mobilized to form a formidable block of opposition to APE’s proposal to remove a chunk of the theater’s seats, which those against the plan see as intrinsic to the cinematic experience. Opponents of removing the seats penned 700 letters in support of extending the landmark designation inside the Castro.

APE has since unveiled a new plan—one that creates raked levels and includes motorized seating for a variety of uses. “This new revised seating arrangement, which would be done at considerable additional cost, shows APE’s deep commitment to film at the Castro and that APE has heard and listened carefully to input,” wrote David Perry, a spokesperson for Another Planet Entertainment, in a statement to The Standard.

“They’re not just seats,” said one speaker during public comment. “They represent the interior lives of the people who go there.” Supporters of the landmark designation amendment protecting the theater’s interior wore “Save the Seats” buttons and hissed at others who spoke in support of APE’s renovation plans. 

But not everyone shared that sentiment. 

“Those seats were installed in 2001,” said another speaker in public comment. “They have as much historical significance as American Pie 2.” 

APE’s initial proposal to remove the fixed seating and replace the raked floor with a flat one sparked outrage from the Castro’s many longtime fans, and cinephiles created the Castro Theatre Conservancy, whose supporters include Wes Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro and Ang Lee. The group set up a website, wrote letters and organized protests with the slogan “Save Our Seats.”  

The Castro Theatre Conservancy released a plan to operate the venue as a nonprofit organization, committing to raise $20,000,000 for upgrading the building while maintaining its historic features within the first two years of its proposed lease.  

The Castro Theatre Conservancy would then operate the Castro Theatre as a “multi-use entertainment venue hosting film festivals, comedy shows, concerts, drag performances and other events.” 

The Castro Theatre | John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images

“Gaybraham Lincoln,” who became a well-known figure during the recall of the school board, showed up at Wednesday's meeting in head-to-toe rainbow with a bucket of popcorn—and in favor of APE’s proposal. “Save my derriere from those chairs,” Lincoln said. “Take out the seats.”

APE issued a revised plan on Jan. 26, in advance of Wednesday’s meeting. The new proposal offered up something of a compromise that would keep the current upward-sloping floor in place and adding motorized seating for a variety of uses. Other proposed changes include removal of the lobby concession stand, to be replaced by mobile concession carts. 

Someone sporting a rainbow-hued mohawk—on the “save the seats" side—reminded the audience of their First Amendment right to clap during meetings. 

“Save the seats! Save the seats!” the crowd broke out in response.  

Representatives from Frameline, the queer film festival that is one of the prime users of the venue, championed APE’s plan and released a statement in support of the flexible seating plan. 

“The seats retain sightlines ideal for film and the prototype seats we sampled are comfortable and secure,” said James Woolley, executive director of Frameline, in a statement.  

“Frameline looks forward to screening at the Castro Theatre every June—it will always be our home,” Woolley continued. 

The Castro Theatre, a historic landmark designed by one of San Francisco’s best-known architects, is an iconic gathering spot, in particular for the queer community and also for popular film festivals that used to call the venue home. 

APE has argued that given the massive expense associated with renovating and updating the theater—which includes improving ADA accessibility and a new HVAC system—expanding the theater’s use is the only way to save the historic landmark. 

It’s a saga that has played out among other historic movie theaters across the city, with meager revenues unable to keep pace with staggering operating costs. And while a historic designation can preserve certain features of a building, it can’t necessarily prevent a change of use. 

Local concert promoter APE already operates the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, the Fox Theater in Oakland and the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. Some criticized APE’s redesign of the Fox in public comment, lamenting that such a future could be possible for the Castro, which is beloved by so many. 

“The Castro Theatre is a temple,” said one speaker during public comment, “and I worship at her shrine.”

Julie Zigoris can be reached at jzigoris@sfstandard.com