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How a 100-Year-Old Movie House Became the Gayest Theater in America

The site of historic moments in queer cinema and queer rights alike, San Francisco's Castro Theatre is one of a kind.

by Alex Suskind
13 October 2016, 4:00am

Crowds celebrate the historic Obergefell Supreme Court marriage equality ruling on June 26th, 2015, outside San Francisco's Castro Theatre. Photo via Flickr user Bhautik Joshi

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The audience began to howl as soon as the first penis appeared. "That's mine!" someone shouted. "That's mine!" said another. This went on for 13 minutes: thousands of flaccid, hairy, small, long, circumcised and uncircumcised penises projected before a sold-out audience in a San Francisco theater in 1989. As director Jo Menell later admitted, the aptly titled film Dick had a simple premise: "What is wrong with the limp willy?"

A decade earlier, a similarly enthralled group could be found at the same location. That evening, writer Armistead Maupin protested Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign by reading a letter by Michael Tolliver, a character in Maupin's book series Tales of the City:

"My responsibility was to tell you the truth, that your own child is homosexual, and that I never needed saving from anything except the cruel and ignorant piety of people like Anita Bryant..."

When Maupin finished, people were crying—and then they stood up, and they roared. Cleve Jones, a renowned AIDS and LGBTQ rights activist who was there that evening, told me, "I thought the fucking roof was going to come down."

"REVELATORY."

"THE BEST PLACE TO SCREEN QUEER FILM."

"A CATHEDRAL FOR THE COMMUNITY."

If you wanted to sell someone on San Francisco's Castro Theatre, you'd have no shortage of pull quotes from those who loved it best—these alone came from those interviewed for this piece. Built in 1922, the magisterial 1,400-seat venue is as much a part of the city as street cars and sourdough. For most of its existence, it ran first- and second-run fare—until 1976, when it switched to the repertory and live event programming it's known for today, with a schedule that includes everything from David Lynch double features to Little Mermaid sing alongs.

But the theater has always been more than an old-movie palace. While it has never specifically touted itself as a "gay movie theater," it is located in the heart of the Castro District, a mecca for San Francisco's gay and lesbian population. As the neighborhood transformed into a political, cultural, and economic hub of queer life in the 1970s, the building changed along with it, playing both witness to and participant in the burgeoning gay rights movement. Simply put, over the last four decades, the Castro Theatre has become one of America's most historic queer cinemas.

"In terms of queer film—the people who have not only been up on the screen, but also who have been in that space—it's just magical," says Frances Wallace, the executive director of Frameline, which hosts the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival at the Castro each summer. "I want to say it's in the walls; you walk in there, and it gives you this sense of presence."

Part of that might have to do with LGBTQ activist, Celluloid Closet author, and theater regular Vito Russo, whose ashes are embedded in the building's sound batting. During the month I spent reporting this story, I heard dozens of emotional tales such as his: memories of memorials, friendships, movie premieres, political rallies, and spontaneous hookups all occurring at this big, bright totem.

A panoramic view of the Castro. Photo via Flickr user Benson Kua

But no moment had a greater impact at the theater than the West Coast premiere of Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, which chronicled the rise and assassination of the self-proclaimed Mayor of Castro Street.

"That evening was unlike any other I had in my life," says Epstein. (The eponymous Gus Van Sant biopic on Milk would get its own premiere there in 2008.) "People were pounding the floor, crying, it was a catharsis for everyone there to see the experience we all lived through and knew in our hearts, to know that it was going to go out in the world and be understood and felt in a way in which we experienced it."

Epstein moved to San Francisco in 1975 and spent his early days working the theater's candy counter. The manager at the time was Mel Novikoff, who would help usher the facility into a new era, leading the charge on renovations, fighting for the theater's San Francisco landmark status (which it received in 1977), and programming a curated set of events.

"Mel was a gay man, and he had a vision for the theater; he did these really wonderful repertory programs during the summer," says Anita Monga, who took over programming duties after Mel passed away.

Adds Epstein, "Mel started programming this series Great Ladies of the Silver Screen. I didn't know all these classic Hollywood movie stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who were all great gay icons."

Poster for "A John Waters' X-Max" at the Castro Theater. Photo courtesy Marc Huestis

Old Hollywood starlets would take on a new life at the theater in the years to come thanks to Marc Huestis, who has his own powerful history with the venue. "I came out to my dad directly because of the Castro Theatre," he said. "I went to see East of Eden, and I was so moved by the movie –– it's all about father-son relations –– that afterward I wrote my dad a letter."

Huestis, a co-founder of the LGBTQ Film Festival, would start organizing his Castro Theatre Extravaganzas in 1995, which featured a screening of a classic film and a live performance.

"The first event I did was The Stepford Wives, with a group called the Second Twisted Players, and it sold out a week in advance," says Huestis. "People were thirsting for that kind of stuff. They wanted trash and camp. [Anita Monga] was surprised it sold out, so she said, 'Why don't you try and get a star?'"

In came Barbara Eden, Carol Lynley, Ann Blyth, and more to revel in the Castro magic. There was the night John Waters hosted a naked cha cha heels contest, another where Jane Russell witnessed a drag queen performance.

Then there was the performance where moderator Bruce Vilanch explained to Patty Duke why gay audiences adored her: "You had your own television show, where you got to play two people. Then you cracked up and wrote a book about cracking up, and did a TV movie in which you played yourself cracking up. So you had to bring all of that back as an actress, and it was at that point I think gay people said, 'This is my life'... There was this deep bond. Nobody had to say anything. You were just gotten by gay people."

That last line hit a note with the crowd that night, as they screamed and whooped in appreciation of Duke. Which, really, is the Castro in a nutshell: More than just a "gay movie theater," this was a place that accepted gay filmgoers, knew how to program queer and non-queer cinema for a queer-leaning audience, and gave older stars a venue to thank their gay fans, like Debbie Reynolds did at an event in 2005.

"She usually did gigs in casinos, and they'd mostly have senior citizens, so she was so fucking thrilled to have an audience of queens," says Huestis. "Her opening line was, 'I've never been in an audience with so many men who didn't want me. But you love me!'"

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