A History of the Castro Theater in San Francisco

Table of Contents

1899

Abraham Nasser immigrates to San Francisco from Lebanon, moving his family up from their grocery store on 18th Street and Collingwood Street into what later became known as the Castro District.

1907

A year after the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, a customer asked Nasser if he would like to expand his business by projecting moving images onto a blank wall at the back of the store. The shopkeeper agrees.

1908

With more people coming to watch movies than to buy groceries, Nasser puts his seven sons in charge of a Nickelodeon called the Liberty Theater. The burgeoning film empire would soon include the Alhambra on Polk Street and the New Mission, along with its crown jewel, the Castro Theater just a few blocks away.

1910

The Nasser brothers move their business to a 600-seat theater at 485 Castro St., which became Cliff’s Variety in 1971.

1922

The 1,407-seat Castro Theater opens June 22 at 429 Castro St. Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph attends the screening of Paramount’s silent racing car film, Across the Continent, starring Wallace Reid (on morphine, the star dies in a sanatorium the following year trying to kick the habit). A full-page article in The Chronicle praises the $300,000 theater designed by architect Timothy L. Pflueger. In Spanish Baroque style, with an ornate stucco facade and large auditorium, it’s been hailed as “an indication of great progress.” Pflueger would later design the Paramount Theater in Oakland, as well as the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange in San Francisco, the Pacific Telephone Building in SoMa, and the Top of the Mark in Nob Hill.

Castro Theater on opening night, June 22, 1922. Provided by Anita Monga

1930

A dispute ensues between theater owners and orchestra musicians, who are given two weeks’ notice that they will be replaced by a sound system at the beginning of the sound film era. The cast and their union are accused of planting 35 scent bombs in the Castro and the Alhambra and Royal theaters, also run by the Nassers.

1937

The Castro’s famous neon sign and art deco marquee are installed in the theater after a small electrical fire. Pflueger also makes other decorative upgrades as he works, such as adding the sunburst chandelier to replace the original parchment fixture that was destroyed in the fire.

1963

The Fox Theater at 1350 Market St. in San Francisco, the largest movie theater on the West Coast with 4,650 seats, is demolished.

The Fox Theater was demolished in 1963. Ken McLaughlin / The Chronicle 1963

1976

The Castro Theater is designated as the No. 100 San Francisco Historic Landmark despite falling into disrepair and struggling financially. The Nassers leased the theater to Mel Novikoff’s Surf Theaters Company, which converted the format to repertory cinema and initiated special premieres, foreign films and festivals. The theater, which has so far survived from second edition blockbusters, is also introducing LGBTQ programs.

The Castro Theater in 1971. Joe Rosenthal / The Chronicle 1971

1977

The organizers of the San Francisco International Film Festival announce the schedule for the 21st annual event, which will take place from October 5th to 16th. Director Sydney Pollack’s “Bobby Deerfield” will open the festival at the Masonic Auditorium. Festival director Claude Jarman said films would be shown for a second night at the newly renovated Castro Theater in response to a request from Mayor George Moscone that films be shown at a neighborhood theater.

1979

Ray Taylor and his sons begin construction of Castro’s signature Wurlitzer pipe organ, a project that will take three years to complete. Once installed, the organ will provide a musical prelude to “San Francisco” before community events and film screenings. But it remains privately owned by Taylor.

Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ being played in 2013. Sean Havey / The Chronicle 2013

1981

The nonprofit Frameline, formed to support the LGBTQ film industry, makes the Castro Theater their home base. The opening night of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Film Festival marks the world premiere of “Greetings From Washington, DC,” about the 1979 March on the Capitol. The theater also becomes home to festivals such as the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFilm), Noir City and the Silent Film Festival.

1985

The Castro hosts the world premiere of Arthur Bressan’s Buddies, the first film to address the AIDS crisis. David Hegarty is appointed chief organist at the theatre.

1988

After Novikoff’s death a year earlier, Blumenthal Theaters took over the lease with programmer Anita Monga, maintaining the eclectic booking policy he initiated.

1989

The chandelier falls at 5:04 p.m. on October 17 as the Loma Prieta earthquake shakes the Bay Area. The theater is empty but suffers structural damage to the back wall.

The chandelier before it fell over during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Steve Ringman / The Chronicle 1984

1990

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus presents their Home for the Holidays concerts at the Castro on Christmas Eve.

1994

Filmmaker and events producer Marc Huestis presents his first celebrity program at the Castro, the disaster film The Poseidon Adventure, in the presence of star Carol Lynley. Huestis will welcome stars like Debbie Reynolds, Justin Vivian Bond, Patty Duke, Jane Russell, John Cameron Mitchell, Tony Curtis, Kim Novak and others to popular events over the next three decades, earning the nickname “The Impresario of Castro Street.” In 1996, Huestis presented John Waters’ first Christmas performance at the theater, a performance with which the artist tours annually.

Marc Huestis in 2003. John O’Hara / The Chronicle 2003

2001

The Castro undergoes another round of renovations while the Nasser family resumes theater operations. Upgrades include new seats, projectors and a sound system. The stage will also be expanded, allowing for more diverse live programming, including comedy shows, community events and drag queen-hosted screenings of classic camp films. The closed Alhambra reopens as a Gorilla Sports fitness center.

Sing-along events are launched in the spring with Joe Wicht and Connie Champagne leading ‘The Sound of Music’ in what becomes an annual tradition. Laurie Bushman and Sara Moore eventually handle the sing-alongs, adding more big-screen musicals and animated Disney favorites to the rotation.

2008

The facade will be repainted and the neon sign restored for the filming of Gus Van Sant’s biopic “Milk,” which features the Castro Theater and surrounding neighborhood prominently. The film about California’s first openly gay elected official, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, has its world premiere at the Castro in November in the presence of star Sean Penn.

A set designer repaints the Castro Theater marquee to match its appearance in the 1970s when filming of “Milk” began on January 24, 2008. Paul Chinn / The Chronicle 2008

2011

Keith Arnold is appointed general manager of operations, bringing film reservations back in-house and expanding the theater’s programming. Drag performer Peaches Christ is moving her popular cult film series ‘Midnight Mass’ from the closed Bridge Theater to the Castro to present ‘Mommie Dearest’. Christ becomes another popular theater presenter, frequently bringing the biggest figures in San Francisco’s drag scene and contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race to the stage to perform films from Death Becomes Her and fan-favorite Showgirls (starring a free lap dance with every big popcorn) to the acclaimed documentary Gray Gardens.

2012

The Castro Theater is celebrating its 90th anniversary weekend with two classics, Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind, preceded by Mary Poppins and a double noir show presented by Noir City Film Festival director, writer and television host Eddie Muller: “The Big Sleep” and “Where Danger Lives”.

2015

The Wurlitzer organ is removed at the request of house organist David Hegarty as the necessary repairs are becoming too costly. It is temporarily replaced by an electronic organ with two keyboards.

David Hegarty sits at the Castro Theater’s Wurlitzer organ on March 5, 2013. Sean Havey / The Chronicle 2013

2017

The theater is the site of the funeral of Gilbert Baker, creator of the iconic rainbow gay pride flag.

People hold a broad rainbow flag that reads “Rise and Resist!” during a march and memorial in the Castro for Gilbert Baker on March 31, 2017. Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle 2017

2019

It is announced that the theater will install the world’s largest hybrid organ – a custom instrument that uses both traditional and digital organ technology to reproduce orchestral sounds.

2020

The Castro Theater is closing due to the coronavirus pandemic. This spring, artist Mace is covering the boarded-up coffers with murals celebrating key workers.

People walk past the boarded up Castro Theater on June 20, 2020. Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

2021

The Matrix: Resurrections makes its US premiere in theaters with director and part-time San Francisco resident Lana Wachowski alongside stars Keanu Reeves, Neil Patrick Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss walking the green carpet. Castro Street is closed to traffic between 18th and Market Streets.

A red pill is on display in front of the Castro Theater for the premiere of The Matrix: Resurrections. Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

2022

Berkeley concert marketing company Another Planet Entertainment announces that it will acquire operations of the Castro, which remains owned by Bay Properties Inc., controlled by Elaine Nasser Padian and Steven Nasser. CEO Gregg Perloff told The Chronicle his first task is to modernize the theater after years of vandalism and neglect. He also assures fans that the company hopes to continue hosting the events that defined the venue — and then some.

Mary Conde, vice president of production at Another Planet Entertainment, points out damage caused by vandalism at the ticket office. Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

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