FFor years, San Francisco’s underground transvestite artist and cinephile peaches christ has packed the city’s renowned Castro Theater with its Midnight Mass series, juxtaposing cult film screenings with live skit reenactments and onstage interviews. These loving yet irreverent nightly events have been a staple of LGBTQ+ culture at the city’s preeminent arthouse theater, one of the most visible landmarks in San Francisco’s most famous gay neighborhood.
As Peaches Christ says: “Cinema has been my religion, and Castro is our Vatican.”
And now, a 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 have announced that it could soon become primarily a live entertainment venue. and won’t be showing many movies at all anymore.
Wednesday’s news shocked the city’s arts and film communities, revealing a partnership between 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 that normally takes place in Golden Gate Park each August, APE said it plans a major renovation of the interior and famous marquee, as well as a dramatic change in the types of events the Castro will host.
“We want to present all types of programming in the theater: comedy, music, film, community and private events and more,” said the promoter in a break free.
The news shocked local filmmakers and festival programmers, who urged APE to solicit input from the community, so much so that the promoter was quick to appease the reeling town, saying nothing bad would happen overnight.
Centuries-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 struck. But as a cultural institution, the Castro Theater is unique. It’s home to numerous festivals and premieres, as well as morning screenings of Hollywood classics like Gray Gardens and Auntie Mame. A destination for American filmmakers, it’s where you can watch a meticulously restored 1940s film noir, witness director Peter Bogdanovich trash-talk Cher during a question-and-answer session, or simply sing along to Grease.
The Castro had already been 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 long tradition of preceding each film with live music from the internal organ, it is no longer a “Mighty Wurlitzer” but possibly the largest Hybrid pipe and digital organ around the world: The return of theater embodied last summer’s burst of optimism, when California briefly relaxed its pandemic restrictions on indoor gatherings. It’s also very, very upbeat: 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 queer fan base was particularly saddened by the prospect of losing it forever.
“We know there won’t be the same volume of film showings at the venue and of course we’re very sad about that,” said James Woolley, CEO of Frameline.
However, he confirmed that the festival’s 46th iteration, an anchor of San Francisco’s Pride Month festivities, was still underway in June.
Although Peaches Christ was initially dismayed, a call with APE put her at ease.
“They assured me that the programming would be well thought out. They’re not going to book it the way they would Bill Graham or take the seats away,” he said, referring to a much larger venue that hosts EDM DJs and more mainstream music artists.
While she was concerned that Castro might pursue live performance exclusively, Peaches noted that comedy festivals like Sketchfest had long since broadened the scope of what theater did. Second-run movie screenings weren’t his bread and butter.
“As much as I would hate to see the calendar disappear from the repertory, if you went to screenings, nine times out of 10 it was less than half full,” he said. “I have run a movie theater and been in 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 like LiveNation. Promising to honor her existing contract, they also assured her that they would install a new movie screen, improve accessibility for people with disabilities, and make other necessary repairs.
“What the general public doesn’t see is that Castro needs a major electrical upgrade,” he said. “The old wiring caused the breakers to trip sometimes. It was stressful.”
Still, the underlying economics are what they are, which is why many San Francisco theaters are now abandoned (or repurposed as gyms).
“Theatre business is tough, and I think it’s especially tough for single-screen independent historic arthouses. You can only charge so much for a movie ticket,” said Lex Sloan, filmmaker and CEO of the 110-year-old, single-screen Roxie Theatre, the oldest such venue in San Francisco. “We are more than movie theaters. We are places where people make memories and find new friends. Places like the Castro and its programming are the quintessence of what makes San Francisco strange and wild.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism