The Castro Theater must regain its former glory, but how?

Among the things that make urban buildings so important is that over time they become part of our memories and our lives. They are not just works of architecture, they are part of our common cultures.

There may be ethnic ties or associations with ancient labor and religious movements. A building can be a neighborhood hub, or a space that welcomes people who feel unwanted elsewhere.

Which brings us to the Castro Theater in San Francisco, and why the debate over its restoration cannot be limited to the intricacies of historic preservation.

The new operator’s proposal to modernize the century-old movie palace designed by legendary architect Timothy Pflueger shows the meticulous attention to detail that this truly beloved landmark deserves. But a key aspect of the plan – removing most fixed seating – signals a future for the Castro that could be very different from the past.

This does not mean that the plans proposed by Another Planet Entertainment violate the integrity of the theater, as the rhetoric of some naysayers suggests. But this management company known for hosting rock concerts has to accept that the people who are sounding the alarm aren’t just nostalgic naysayers. Theater has endured because it’s idiosyncratic, and that’s a strength that can’t be ignored.

Both sides agree on one thing: the building at the center of the impending conflict cannot be replaced.

“This theater is an iconic treasure – it has meaning for people,” says Gregg Perloff, CEO of Another Planet, which he co-founded in 2003 after running Bill Graham Presents.

Peter Pastreich, who runs the Castro Theater Conservancy, remembers countless evenings spent in “an incredible venue with a giant screen and people around me clearly paying attention and enjoying the show”.

A chandelier is lit with red lights above seats inside the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
Jessica Christian / The Chronicle
The theater's original 1922 proscenium, or stage surround, is seen with peeling paint and layers of dust after it was first discovered this year at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, August 3, 2022.
The theater’s original 1922 proscenium, or stage surround, is seen with peeling paint and layers of dust after it was first discovered this year at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, August 3, 2022.
Jessica Christian / The Chronicle
Paint is peeling off the original 1922 painted ceiling surrounding the chandelier seen from the upper mezzanine of the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
Paint is peeling off the original 1922 painted ceiling surrounding the chandelier seen from the upper mezzanine of the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
Jessica Christian / The Chronicle
Paint is seen peeling off the armrests of theater seats inside the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
Paint is seen peeling off the armrests of theater seats inside the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
Jessica Christian / The Chronicle


From top to bottom: a chandelier is illuminated with red lights above the seats; the original 1922 proscenium; theater seats; a detail of the painted ceiling. Photos by Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

They also both say that the wear and tear of a century has not been favorable to the structure opened in 1922 by the Nasser family, who still own it.

The most distinctive feature of Pflueger’s design, the ceiling adorned with his 16 Asian-influenced medallions, is unnaturally darkened by a protective layer of then-clear varnish applied after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The side walls with their Greek murals that were carved directly into wet murals are not only dull, they’re marred by several theater speakers installed decades ago.

Another Planet has even discovered the original proscenium that framed the movie screen before a larger canvas was placed several feet in front of it in 1954 – but the elaborate woodwork is chipped and cracked.

For the renovation, Another Planet hired a design team led by CAW Architects — a Palo Alto firm that revamped Stanford University’s Frost Amphitheater and UC Berkeley’s Hearst Greek Theater — and the venerable Page & Turnbull of San Francisco, specialists in historic preservation.

The Dowager would receive full seismic upgrades, an improved sound system and a full electrical overhaul. Pinched slides would be improved. Perhaps most importantly, the ground floor of the theater would finally become fully accessible.

Besides the credibility of the architects, Another Planet has a track record of treating historic structures with respect: the firm’s portfolio includes San Francisco’s Warfield, which was restored when Perloff was at Bill Graham Presents, and the Fox Oakland Theater in Oakland that was dormant for 42 years before Another Planet helped revive it in 2008.

The Castro Theater emblem sits above a door leading to the main theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
The Castro Theater emblem sits above a door leading to the main theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
Jessica Christian / The Chronicle
Dust is gathering on the details of the theater's original 1922 proscenium, or stage surround, after it was first discovered this year at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday August 3, 2022.
Dust is gathering on the details of the theater’s original 1922 proscenium, or stage surround, after it was first discovered this year at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday August 3, 2022.
Jessica Christian / The Chronicle
Original 1922 chairs are set up in the upper mezzanine of the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
Original 1922 chairs are set up in the upper mezzanine of the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
Jessica Christian / The Chronicle
An original fire hose rack and an antique fire hose stand on the upper mezzanine of the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
An original fire hose rack and an antique fire hose stand on the upper mezzanine of the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
Jessica Christian / The Chronicle


From top to bottom: the Castro Theater emblem sits above a doorway leading to the main theater; dust collects on original proscenium details; an original fire hose and bracket; original chairs on the upper mezzanine level. Photos by Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

“A lot of what I’ve done in my career has been bringing old buildings back to life,” says Perloff.

So what’s the problem ? The seats.

The steep concrete rake on the ground floor would remain. But the 800 seats at the top would be replaced by four bleachers which would allow for standing room during concerts and more flexibility in general; for movies, theoretically, moving seats would be deployed.

Instead of an experience like Pflueger’s stately Paramount Theater in Oakland, where the seats are always locked, you’d have a convertible space like the Fox – which gives Another Planet more leeway when it comes to booking. And the company’s goal, he says, is to have the Castro active five nights a week.

“It’s not flexible enough if you have (standard) events, banquets or weddings,” says Perloff, who is nothing if not direct.

This is where simple notions of historical integrity become murky.

The seats are not part of the city building’s historic designation. The seats themselves are not particularly old. But the vibe of a venue that has served as a communal space for classic moviegoers, festival crowds and queer patrons from the neighborhood and beyond, would be profoundly altered.

“The essence of this building, as people have loved it for generations, is under threat,” says Pastreich, whose conservation was launched in June with the support of cinematic legends such as George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. “We’re not saying the only audience should be for the movies, but that would change the historical value of the building.”

The reserve wants to keep fixed seats, although Pastreich admits it could be a good idea to add a floor space near the stage. It also suggests “there needs to be reasonable access to groups that have used it in the past,” such as film festivals or organizers of LGBTQ-themed events, though how that would be determined be vague.

Another Planet is adamant that diverse programming is central to Castro’s identity. Perloff talks about bringing in “line-of-sight consultants” to make sure that replacing stiff fixed seats with flat angled bleachers won’t hurt the movie’s mood.

Maybe. But when the company presents its plans to the public at a community meeting at 6 p.m. on August 11 at the Castro, the more details, the better. The theater is a powerful reminder that San Francisco has survived and thrived in part by retaining aspects of the past while adapting to profound change. That’s why people care.

John King is the urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @johnkingsfchron

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