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Castro Theatre: The epic history of a San Francisco and LGBTQ landmark

Shining a spotlight on the cinematic jewel of the Castro

Castro Theater signage at night. Photo by TITANIUM22

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in June 2016 and has been updated with the most recent information.

As the Castro Theatre celebrates 95 years in the neighborhood today—it's important to know that it's more than just a place for Frozen sing-alongs. The landmark theater was not only designed by a noted local architect, but its history is staggering. From striking orchestra angry at the influx of talking pictures to its reincarnation as one of the country's foremost repertory film houses, its history runs deep.

The Castro Theatre got its start thanks to the Nasser brothers, one of the oldest movie-business families in San Francisco. In 1907 the duo converted the family’s candy-making factory and grocery into a little theater by projecting movies onto the back wall.

While that seems an unlikely transition, the early 20th century and budding motion picture industry saw many ambitious young immigrants put their time and money into local movie houses in an effort to reap big bucks.

The Nassers’ small makeshift theater, at 18th and Collingwood streets, upgraded in 1910 to a 600-seat theater a few blocks away at 485 Castro (today the location of Cliff’s Variety).

Opening night at the second Castro Theatre, now Cliff’s Variety at 485 Castro.
Opening night at the second Castro Theatre, now Cliff’s Variety at 485 Castro.
Photo via Margaret Herrick Library

Business boomed at the new Castro Street address. And by 1922 the brothers expanded into the 1875-seat Castro Theatre at few doors up at 429 Castro. The sold-out grand opening on June 22, attended by Mayor Sunny Jim Rolph, screened Paramount’s race car flick, Across the Continent.

It can’t be overstated how important the Castro Theater was to the early 20th century development of the neighborhood. Newspaper articles dated before the theater even opened wrote about how it had aided the area’s progress, causing real estate values to skyrocket.

Opening night at the Castro on June 22, 1922.
Opening night at the Castro on June 22, 1922.
Photo via Castro Theatre

The June 22, 1922 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle featured a full-page spread on the opening, writing that the theater was an "indication of great progress" for the budding Eureka Valley neighborhood, calling it a "choice home area."

The Nassers grew an expansive movie house empire—they owned the Alhambra on Polk Street, the New Mission, and at one point Oakland’s grand Paramount Theater—but the Castro always remained their flagship theater.

June 22, 1922 ad in the San Francisco Chronicle.
June 22, 1922 ad in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Image via

The advent of talkies and subsequent transition from silent movies ushered in a bit of drama for the Nassers and their theater properties. In 1930, a theater war between movie house owners and musicians over the displacement of motion picture orchestras—essentially deemed obsolete once movie sound systems were installed—created a ruckus at the Castro.

When the talkies were installed at the Castro, the orchestra was given two weeks’ notice, but walked out early with other workers in a sympathy strike. Orchestra musicians and their union were accused of placing 35 odor bombs in the Castro, Alhambra, and Royal theaters; a dynamite bomb at the Royal that destroyed the roof; an undetonated bomb at the Alhambra; and intimidation and assault against patrons and employees. The lawsuit claimed the acid from the odor bombs damaged furnishings and asked for $300,000 in retribution.

In the end, the theater and the union struck a deal allowing a six-piece orchestra to play twice a week for ten weeks at the Castro, later dismissing the damages suit.

The family continued running the Castro from 1922 through 1976, when the operation was leased by Mel Novikoff’s Theater Company. Throughout the Nassers’ ownership, the theater was never a first-run operation, but instead showed second-run mainstream movies to neighborhood residents.

After the lease ended in the 1970s, the movies changed to repertory programming—foreign films, film festivals, and specialty first runs. It’s also the first time that the theater started showing LGBTQ films.

Castro Theater in 1927
Castro Theater in 1927.
Photo via San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Before construction began in its current spot, the Nassers selected then little-known architect Timothy Pflueger to design the new theater. Construction cost $300,000, which shakes out to approximately $4.3 million today. The Castro was Pflueger’s first theatre design, but he designed eight in total (the Alhambra and El Rey in San Francisco, Oakland’s Paramount, Alameda Theatre in Alameda, Tulare Theatre in Tulare, Senator Theatre in Chico, State Theatre in Oroville, as well as a 1932 renovations of the Nassers’ New Mission and New Fillmore theaters).

The 1920s saw an evolution in movie theater design. The architecture started to reflect the fantasy portrayed in the movies they showed, with exotic locales providing inspiration for Egyptian, Moorish, and Asian motifs. The Castro Theatre’s design is Spanish Colonial, a throwback to early California and meant to evoke a Mexican cathedral.

But the interior of the theater is where all the magic happens. Anyone who’s ever been inside can’t miss the stunning ceiling—cast in plaster, it’s made to look like a leather tent complete with swags, ropes, and tassels.

The extravagant stage and Art Deco details of the Castro Theatre, as it appears in the darkened movie hall while the organist plays.
The extravagant stage and Art Deco details of the Castro Theatre, as it appears in the darkened movie hall while the organist plays.
Photo by Dave Glass

The Castro Theatre’s iconic Wurlitzer organ, built from 1979-82 to replace the old Conn organ, became synonymous with movie viewing at the Castro, offering a musical introduction to every film.

However, the Wurlitzer organ is privately owned by its builders, and when they decided to move out of the area a few years ago, they took the organ with them. Now the non-profit SFCODA is raising money to install a digital organ in its place to continue the tradition.

Left, Castro Theatre in 1927; right, Castro Theatre post-1937.
Left, Castro Theatre in 1927; right, Castro Theatre post-1937.

Sure, there were other larger theaters in the city from which to choose, but the Castro was always the most grand, the most ornate. A small fire in the 1937 allowed Pflueger to make some decorative changes to the interior (like adding the art deco chandelier to replace a destroyed parchment fixture) and some art deco tweaks to the marquee and famous neon vertical sign.

Up until the 1970s, the theatre remained relatively untouched. The box office kiosk, the wooden doors, and even the tile in the foyer are all original.

"Castro Theatre Belongs To Peaches Christ"
Image via via Drag Queens Galore

When Novikoff took over operations of the theater back in 1976 and changed the programming, the theater’s role in the neighborhood changed too. The Castro by that time had become the cultural, economic, and political center for the LGBTQ community in San Francisco.

By shifting programming to turn the Castro Theatre into a repertory house, it also became a community center and cultural space. It earned the theater a counterculture reputation, showing retrospectives and persuading studios to re-release unconventional old movies.

Novikoff spent thousands updating and refurbishing the theater, much of which hadn’t been touched since the 1930s. The community rallied around the building to get it designated as a city landmark in 1976.

It was during this time—the perfect storm of new programming and community engagement—that the audience participation element began in earnest. From dancing to booing to the now-famous sing-alongs, the 1970s started the tradition of cinematic camp that continues today. Look no further than Peaches Christ’s legendary shows to see how the tradition continues.

In 2001, the Nassers took back operations of the Castro Theatre and made some additional renovations. They replaced chairs and upholstery, and upgraded the technologies for the sound and projection systems. The stage was expanded to make more room for live performances.

The first gay film series was organized by Bern Boyle in the 1970s. Though originally held at the UC Extension’s theater at 55 Laguna Street, the theater discontinued renting to the organizers. The series was moved to the Gay Community Centers at 32 Page Street and 330 Grove Street, and the first official gay film festival in the country was held at the Page Street center in 1977.

It was so successful that the festival was held again at the Grove Street center a month later. According to filmmaker stories, they developed their films at Harvey Milk’s camera store. In 1981 a non-profit called Frameline was created to support the LGBTQ film industry, and the same year the Castro Theatre became the main venue for the festival.

Opening of “Milk” premiered at the Castro Theatre in 2008.
Opening of “Milk” premiered at the Castro Theatre in 2008.
Photo by strangedejim via Flickr

It went on to continue feature LGBTQ-themed films year round. "Even before the Castro showed gay movies, they were catering to gay audiences with movies starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford," said theater manager Allen Sawyer in a 7x7 interview. "That evolved into showcasing films by gay directors like Andy Warhol, John Waters, [Jean] Cocteau, and [Pier Paolo] Pasolini.

One of the biggest gay film events in the Castro’s history was the 1985 world premiere of Arthur Bressan’s Buddies—it was the first dramatic movie about AIDS." Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, also had its premiere at the theatre in 1984.

In 2008, the theatre held the world premiere of Milk, the Oscar-winning biopic of late supervisor Harvey Milk directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn. The sold-out one-night-only world premiere, which hosted various real-life participants from Milk’s career and the actors who portrayed them, benefited the Hetrick Martin Institute, which is home of Harvey Milk High School, Larkin Street Youth Services, the Point Foundation, and the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center.

The theatre itself was featured in the film, with its marquee backdated to its 1970s appearance.

The Castro Theatre was listed as San Francisco city landmark #100 in 1976. Though it was listed for its architectural significance as a Timothy Pflueger design and its association with the Nasser family, it is likely the first listed city landmark with an LGBTQ association. When the city commissioned a city-wide LGBTQ historic context statement, there were recommendations to revise the landmark designation (along with several others) to include queer history in the significance statement.

Photo by David Lebech