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Going to a movie theater was once a common weekend activity. One would check the local listings, select a start time for the movie of choice, figure out transportation, purchase tickets and, of course, make the pre-movie-watching stop by the concession stand for the tub of popcorn, the box of Goobers/M&Ms/Sno-Caps/Junior Mints and the jumbo (diet) soda.

Then came Blockbusters, Redboxes and movie-streaming options via platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, all offering the unmatched comfort of sitting on the couch and using the “pause” button to take however-many breaks. 

And then came a widespread, highly contagious virus — and, subsequently, the concept of sheltering in place — and everyone became that much more accustomed to at-home movie viewings out of sheer necessity. 

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San Francisco theaters have not been immune to the circumstances of decreased moviegoer attendance and costs too steep to justify keeping the film reels spinning. Take, for instance, the pre-COVID-19 permanent closing of the Haight’s Red Vic Movie House — now The Booksmith — in July 2011 and more recent pandemic-influenced closings of Pacific Heights’ the Clay Theatre in 2020, CineArts at the Empire in 2021 and Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in 2022.

The majority are still in operation, though — a testament to the remaining public interest in going out rather than staying in to watch a flick. The city’s open theaters span districts, including Japantown’s AMC Kabuki 8; the Mission’s the Roxie and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema; Outer Richmond’s Balboa Theater; Pacific Heights’ the Vogue; South of Market’s AMC Metreon 16; Van Ness Avenue-situated CGV San Francisco 14 (formerly AMC Van Ness 14) and Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema; Valencia Street’s avant-garde Other Cinema; Westfield San Francisco Centre’s Century SF Centre 9 and XD; and the esteemed Castro Theatre

Nestled on the same street as other iconic fixtures such as Twin Peaks Tavern, Orphan Andy’s and Missouri Mule, the theater looms high above other businesses on the east side of Castro Street. (J.L. Odom/Bay City News)

Built in 1922, the Castro Theatre is iconic due to its sheer longevity in San Francisco. As a city landmark, many have flocked to the theater throughout the years and sat in one of its uniform burgundy chairs to watch a featured movie on its big screen or for a special event, like a movie sing-along. In early 2022, the theater’s longtime owner, Bay Properties Inc., announced it was partnering with the Bay Area’s Another Planet Entertainment in a concerted effort to maintain and improve the popular venue.

Some locals have expressed concern that this partnership will result in unwanted changes to or an overhaul of the theater’s usual programming. But as David Perry, the public relations/media relations contact for the Castro Theatre project, shares, “The plan is for the classic film festivals for which the Castro Theatre is famed to continue.” These festivals include the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILM Festival) and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

As was the case with many public venues, the Castro Theatre closed in 2020 for an unprecedented amount of time because of COVID-19. (J.L. Odom/Bay City News)

With the best interest of the theater in mind, the Bay Properties Inc.-Another Planet Entertainment partnership will involve some new events, such as music concerts, as well as structural changes and improvements to the theater. 

Explains Perry, “Although the exact schedule is still in flux, roughly we believe that the Castro will close sometime in late fall of this year to undertake the needed renovations and upgrades, so as to be ready for the 2023 season of events. Right now, programming is actively planned for now through mid-October of this year.”

For tourists and locals alike, a key aspect of the Castro Theatre is its connection to, and significance for, the LGBTQIA+ community. Its longstanding existence on Castro Street — the hub of the Castro District — is as synonymous with queer culture as the district itself.

Online LGBTQIA+-friendly travel sites and articles commonly list the theater as a “must visit” destination when touring San Francisco. And, historically, the theater has been a safe, inclusive space to gather within for events like Frameline, San Francisco’s international LGBTQ+ film festival, and outside for Pride-themed marches and celebrations.

San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride 2022 kicks off this month, as does Castro Theatre’s official 100th anniversary. According to Perry, According to Perry, “There are a number of special events planned … In May, for instance, [we showed] ‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ documentary in commemoration of what would have been Harvey Milk’s 92nd birthday.” Then for LGBT Pride Month, the theatre will host Frameline46, marking the 46th year of the queer-focused festival.

During 2020, when Castro Theatre was forced to close its doors because of the pandemic, murals depicting essential workers lined the gate that blocked off the theater’s entrance. (J.L. Odom/Bay City News)

Comments Perry, “As a longtime Castro resident, openly gay man and founder of the LGBT Rainbow Honor Walk, I am delighted and proud to partner with Another Planet on the renovation and revitalization of the Castro Theatre. As someone who started my business at 18th and Castro in a small office above Harvey’s Bar (then the Elephant Walk), it thrills me to know that a small, local business such as Another Planet Entertainment, long-known for architectural sensitivity and a commitment to the LGBTQ communities, is spearheading this effort.”

A promising Pride-themed schedule, the continuation of movies and other popular features, the addition of new events and thoughtful structural upgrades are all signs of good things to come for the Castro Theatre. And, most importantly, this beloved San Francisco fixture will continue to open its doors on Castro Street, its marquee announcing upcoming shows rather than being empty or displaying the word “CLOSED.”

Castro Theatre celebrates 100 years and San Francisco LGBT Pride

The theater’s vertical “C-A-S-T-R-O” sign is as visible and symbolic as the enormous, often billowing-in-the-wind Pride flag at the corner of Market and Castro streets, near SoulCycle and Harvey Milk Plaza. (J.L. Odom/Bay City News)

Gus Vant Sant’s “Milk,” the 2008 feature film about the life and assassination of San Francisco’s Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected to public office in California, screens at 8 p.m. Thursday. The event benefits LGBT Asylum Project & Rainbow Honor Walk. Tickets, $25-$100, are available at https://apeconcerts.com/events/milk-220602/.

“Castro Theatre 100th Birthday Celebration” kicks off with 10 days of iconic films on Friday that run through June 12. Each day will focus on a different decade of the Castro’s history up through the 2010s. Then on June 22, the 100th year anniversary of the theater’s opening date, the celebration will feature five movies filmed in San Francisco spanning from 1936’s “San Francisco” to 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Tickets, $10-$18, are available at https://apeconcerts.com/events/castro-100th-birthday-220603-22/.

The “Happy 100th Birthday, Judy!” concert features British vocal impressionist Debbie Wileman performing the songs of the beloved gay icon, Judy Garland. Tickets, $45-$99.50, are available at https://apeconcerts.com/events/happy-100th-birthday-judy-220614/.

Frameline46: The San Francisco International LGBT+ Film Festival, “The Coast Is Queer,” featuring more than 100+ queer narratives, docs and short film, runs June 16-26. Besides the Castro, venues include the Roxie Theater, AMC Kabuki 8, SFMOMA Phyllis Wattis Theater, Proxy Walk-In Theater, Terra Gallery and Oasis in San Francisco and the New Parkway Theater in Oakland. Tickets for most films are $17.50. Tickets to the opening night event featuring Prime Video’s “A League of Their Own” at 6:30 p.m. June 16 are $35 for the film and $90 for the film and gala. Tickets to the “Last Dance” Centerpiece on June 23 are $23 for the film and $55 for the film and party. Tickets to the closing night film, “Peter von Vant,” on June 26 are $35. Castro Passes are $280 for Frameline members only. Proof of vaccination is required. Tickets to streaming Frameline films are $10.50 per film or $120 for a festival pass. For more information, visit https://www.frameline.org/.

Castro Theatre is located at 429 Castro St., San Francisco. For more information, visit https://www.castrotheatre.com/.