FFor years, San Francisco underground drag performer and cinephile Peaches Christ has filled the city’s famed Castro Theater with his Midnight Mass series, juxtaposing screenings of cult films with live re-enactments, parodies of drag and on-stage interviews. These affectionate but irreverent late-night events have been a staple of LGBTQ+ culture at the city’s prominent arthouse theater, itself one of the most visible landmarks of the most famous gay district. from San Francisco.
As Peaches Christ says, “Cinema has been my religion, and the Castro is our Vatican.
And now, a month after hosting the US premiere of The Matrix Resurrections and months before its 100th anniversary, the owners of the opulent 1,400-seat movie palace have announced that it may soon become primarily a venue for entertainment in live and no longer show many films at all.
Wednesday’s news sent shockwaves through the city’s arts and film communities, revealing a partnership between the Castro and Another Planet Entertainment (APE), a Bay Area concert promoter. Known for preserving other historic sites – and for producing Outside Lands, a three-day music festival usually held in Golden Gate Park each August – APE said it is planning a major interior renovation and the famous marquee, as well as a radical change. in the types of events that the Castro will host.
“We want to bring all kinds of programming to the theater – comedy, music, movies, community and private events and more,” the promoter said in a statement.
The news stunned local filmmakers and festival programmers, who urged the APE to solicit community input – so much so that the promoter rushed to appease the shocked town, saying nothing wrong with it. wouldn’t happen overnight.
Century-old movie theaters 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 hit. But as a cultural institution, the Castro Theater is unique. It hosts numerous festivals and premieres as well as matinee screenings of camp Hollywood classics such as Gray Gardens and Auntie Mame. A destination for American filmmakers, it’s where you can see a painstakingly restored 1940s noir, see director Peter Bogdanovich speak ill of Cher during a Q&A, or just sing along to Grease.
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.
Continuing a longstanding tradition of prefacing each film with live music from the in-house organ – no longer a “Mighty Wurlitzer” but arguably the world’s largest digital hybrid pipe organ – the theater returns epitomized the surge of optimism last summer, when California briefly eased its pandemic restrictions on indoor gatherings. It’s also very, very cheerful: San Francisco, the theme, taken up by Judy Garland, from the 1936 disaster film of the same name, is always the last song before the curtain goes up. Consequently, the theater’s large queer fan base was particularly saddened by the prospect of losing him for good.
“We know there won’t be the same volume of film screenings on the site, and of course we’re very sad about that,” said James Woolley, executive director of Frameline.
However, he confirmed that the 46th edition of the festival, an anchor of San Francisco’s Pride Month festivities, was still underway in June.
Although Peaches Christ was initially dismayed, a call with APE soothed her.
“They assured me that the programming would be very thoughtful. They’re not going to schedule it like they would with Bill Graham or take the seats away,” she said, referring to a much larger venue that hosts EDM DJs and more traditional music 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 theater did. Second-run film screenings were hardly his bread and butter.
“As much as I would hate to see the repertoire calendar disappear, but if you went to the screenings, nine times out of 10 it was less than half full,” she said. “I ran a movie theater and I’ve been in the business for a long time. I knew it was not a sustainable model.
Peaches is optimistic about APE as a local entity, much smaller than national companies such as LiveNation. Promising to fulfill his current contract, they also assured him that they would install a new cinema screen, improve accessibility for people with disabilities and carry out other necessary repairs.
“What the general public doesn’t see is that the Castro needs a huge electrical upgrade,” she said. “Old wiring sometimes caused circuit breakers to trip. It was stressful. »
Yet the underlying economy is what it is, which is why many San Francisco theaters are now abandoned (or converted into gymnasiums).
“The theater business is tough, and I think it’s especially tough for single-screen independent historic arthouse movie theaters. You can’t charge that much for a movie ticket,” said Lex Sloan. , filmmaker and executive director of the 110-year-old single-screen Roxie Theater, the oldest venue of its kind in San Francisco. “We are more than just movie theaters. We are places where people create memories and make new friends Places like the Castro and its lineup are the epitome of what makes San Francisco weird and wild.