The Castro Theatre (also known as “the Castro”) is a venue for movies and live performances on 429 Castro Street in San Francisco. In LGBTQ material culture and geography, the Castro Theatre is an iconic building within an historic Gay neighborhood.
The Castro (with approximately 1400 seats) was built in 1922, the second and larger version of an earlier Castro built in 1910 on 479 Castro Street (approx. 600 seats). The Spanish colonial façade resembling a Mexican cathedral and ornate art deco interior were part of the original design created by architect Timothy Pflueger. The marquee and vertical neon sign were added in the late 1930s.
Until 1976, the Castro showed first- and second-run movies. By the 1970s, competition from multiplex theaters made the Castro unprofitable, and plans were made for its demolition. But the neighborhood around the theater had shifted from general working class to predominantly Gay. The vintage status of the Spanish colonial exterior and art deco interior theater saved the theater. Its large neon sign, pipe organ (currently a Wurlitzer), tile work, sgraffito (Italian for “scratch” in which wet plaster is carved) murals, ornate tent-like ceiling, and chandeliers inspired locals including Harvey Milk, whose camera shop was on the same street, to demand that the site be recognized as an historic San Francisco landmark.
Church of Camp
The commercial rebirth of the Castro was due to the efforts of Mel Novikoff, who restored the interior and revamped the movie line-up in 1976. The theater was officially declared the city’s one hundredth registered landmark in 1977.
The restored Castro typically features vintage movies rather than first-runs. In a neighborhood of LGBTQ people who shared a fondness for camp classics (movies with plots and dialogue that were unintentionally funny to a Gay audience), the old movies and obscure films made the theater a success, especially since a large part of the clientele could walk to the venue from their homes. In “The Church of Camp,” Gary Morris states that the Castro became something akin to a Gay house of worship, reiterating Esther Newton’s observation that theater took the place of organized religion in the lives of many Gay people.
Folk Performance in the Castro
There is a tradition in the Castro Theatre that the audience can be vocal during movies, sing along with musical numbers, dance in the aisles if so inspired, cheer their heroes, boo their villains, recite dialogue, and talk back to the actors on the screen. The pipe organ is played before shows, typically ending each set with Jeanette McDonald’s “San Francisco.”
Live Performance, Film Festival, Milk
The Castro may also feature live performances. Presentations and stage performances may accompany movies or movie clips. Sylvester, the flamboyantly Gay disco singer, sang there in 1984 with a fourteen-piece orchestra and backup singers Jeanie Tracy, Martha Wash, Daryl Coley, and Lynette Hawkins.
Director-writer Vito Russo, a fan of the Castro who had presented his work there, was given a memorial service in the theater when he died. Local legend states that some of his remains have been installed in the walls of the building. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus gives concerts in the theater.
The Castro is one of the sites for the annual Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (the oldest such festival in the USA) since its fifth year in 1981. In October 2008, the theater was the site of the world premier of Milk, a movie about Harvey Milk that features the neighborhood, including the Castro. Many of the cast members of Milk attended its Castro debut.
Morris, Gary. “The Church of Camp: San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.” Bright Lights Film Journal, September 1996. www.brightlightsfilm.com/17/06_castro.html, accessed 2010.
Poletti, Therese and Tom Paiva. Art Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2008.
Tillmany, Jack. Theatres of San Francisco. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2005.