Every religion needs a church, and camp followers have worshipped regularly at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre for two decades.
John Lennon’s famous quote that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ begs for a queer re-reading. In some rareified quarters (i.e., my apartment), Joan Crawford and Bette Davis are deemed more worship-worthy than the prosaic Christian deities. At some point that historians have yet to determine, camp replaced Christianity for many of us. Since organized religion is based on repression, moralism, “family values,” and other tedious historical phenomena, it’s no surprise that modern queens have looked to the moviegoing experience for spiritual solace. (We will not belabor this blasphemy by mentioning that Christian sacraments of wine and wafer have obvious analogues in the Diet Cokes and jujubes available at your local theater.)
The Castro Theatre is the crown jewel of this new “religion.” San Franciscans have become so comfortable with this slightly dusty but still grand temple that they tend to take it for granted. But the Castro has been a crucial component of modern gay life in a way that extends far beyond the borders of the famous neighborhood in which it resides. This is generally considered the most successful independent theatre in the country.
Today’s Castro is actually the second version. The first was located a few doors down from the present location at what is now Cliff’s Variety Store. The Nasser family were nickelodeon owners who built the first Castro in 1910 with a mere 600 seats. The present version more than tripled the seating and opened twelve years later. Architect Timothy Pflueger, one of the stars of the Deco Theatre movement who also created Oakland’s Paramount and San Francisco’s Alhambra, designed the exterior to resemble a Spanish castle. The interior was envisioned as the inside of a vast (plaster) tent, with enormous tapestries, trompe l’oeil murals, and a gigantic chandelier. The first film shown was a Wallace Reid aviation epic, Across the Continent. (Devotees of dark Hollywood will recall that Reid became a junkie whose death was one of Hollywood’s great early cautionary tales.)
Before it was taken over by local rep impresario Mel Novikoff in 1976, the Castro was a typical, increasingly rundown neighborhood theatre, playing second runs and somehow limping along. But Novikoff’s takeover made the theatre a focal point — a mix of community center and cultural space — for the area’s transition from a working-class straight neighborhood to the present-day thrilling gay ghetto. Novikoff’s activism took many forms. He spent $20,000 refurbishing and updating the theatre. He resisted efforts by the owners to raze it and replace it with a commercial retail space, making it untouchable by gaining it historic landmark status. Programmer Anita Monga says the attempt to landmark the theatre was fraught with controversy because it was “perceived as a stumbling block to turning it into a successful retail space.” Novikoff, with allies like Harvey Milk, was key in saving the Castro from the fate of the legendary Fox Theatre. Most important for film buffs, Novikoff pioneered a particular kind of Hollywood studio-based repertory that distinguished the Castro from the more typical (and more easily available) art house programming at other rep houses of the time like The Strand, The Surf, and the Bridge.
Terry Bratcher, who did distribution and calendars for the theatre in the early days, remembers the Castro as the most successful of the many 1970s rep houses — a fact still true today. “The Castro always made the most money because it always had a walking neighborhood and Mel Novikoff had a theme … the Castro always seemed to have a life of its own.” Programming was bold at a time when there was still a lively counterculture, future thinking was considered de rigeur, and the “classics” had a faint reactionary aura. The Castro launched the first major commercial retrospectives to stars and studios — 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., among others — and accomplished the unthinkable in persuading studios to strike new prints of old movies long since abandoned as unprofitable.
Since it was quickly apparent that this was a cozy homo haven, audiences had no trouble expressing their appreciation or dislike of what was happening onscreen. Gary Meyer, founder of Landmark Theatres, remembers that when Stop Making Sensewas premiered there, the packed audience got up and started dancing, gleefully erasing the line between art and experience. “You could feel the floor dancing,” he recalls. This kind of spontaneous reaction was seen on a daily basis in the screams of approval, boos, and catcalls that routinely greeted the screenings, a tradition that continues today. If straight society forbade authentic gay self-expression, the Castro — both theatre and neighborhood — encouraged it. Perhaps Mel Novikoff set the tone at one of the theatre’s many ceremonial events, when he inadvertently referred to the new pipe organ as “the Castro’s greatest erection.”
Some of the bills have hit the outer boundaries of camp, with refreshingly little regard for the commercial potential. Local music maven Mike Mascioli remembers a “risky” show a few years back, when the theatre brought in “four ghost singers” from 1950s Hollywood. These were some of the women whose names were unknown, but whose voices were heard through the lips of Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, and Joan Crawford. “Each singer was preceded by a film clip and they came out and did a live set… and they still had their voices,” he recalls. Mascioli managed to get the legendary India Adams, the voice of Joan Crawford in Torch Song, to sign a copy of her rare album Comfort Me with Apples.
Film publicist Kathy Meyer recalls another masterful camp moment in the early 1980s when Les Blank did a live recreation of one of the tackier 1950s cinema breakthroughs: Smellovision. Blank’s version was “Aromarama” and consisted of the filmmaker himself walking up and down the aisle waving his hand over a working toaster oven to bring the “odor” of his film to startled audiences.
Camp and social consciousness are rarely seen in tandem, but the summer 1996 screening of The Poseidon Adventure with a live appearance by Carol Lynley typifies the Castro’s dedication to its community. This screamingly funny evening had its share of surprises — local San Francisco street musician Susan “The Space Lady” soulfully rendering “There’s Got to Be a Morning After” with accordion and electronic Viking helmet, Carol Lynley’s interviewer (a local critic) shrieking at the less-than-reverent audience, “Have some respect for the lady!” Proceeds from this sell-out went to AIDS charities.
Although too respectable a venue to feature the kind of balcony orgies that characterized its downtown counterpart the Strand, the Castro has been fearless in bringing America’s sexual underground above ground — at least onscreen. Lesbian vampire clip shows, forced female circumcision, sadomasochism and ritual murder (Frisk), and of course every permutation of drag have all had serious, in-depth and fun representation, the experience often expanded by the presence of filmmakers or commentators.
Vito Russo, author of Celluloid Closet and a regular presenter of clip shows based on his book, died a few years back. While he didn’t live to see the explosion of queer cinema over the past few years, the Castro, which has been instrumental in helping this happen, provided him with a last, posthumous venue. According to Rob Epstein, some of his ashes were put inside the walls of the theatre. This church takes care of its own.