Friday, December 09, 2011

Castro Theatre's Deep Throat Revealed


(An extreme example of what goes wrong if you don't see films in theaters. When was the last time you saw a movie at the Castro Theatre?)

Bill Longen, who formerly worked at America's cherished Castro Theatre in many capacities from programmer to technical director, deserves cheers for starting a long-needed public discussion about the future of this movie palace. He is the Deep Throat for my post on Tuesday about changes comes to the Castro.

Before getting to the statement he emailed me today, I wish to point out we were all reminded this week about the national and global affection folks have for the theatre, and the concerns about its future.

Our cultural and civic landscape has been altered by the demise of single-screen cinemas and rep art houses. I'm old enough to recall getting film fixes at the Park Theatre in my hometown Caldwell, New Jersey, New York City's Bleecker Street Cinema, the Regency and Thalia, Center for Living Cinema and Theatre 80 St. Marks, and San Francisco's Cento Cedar, Surf, Strand, York and the recently shuttered Red Vic.

It was never too early to sound an alarm about the problems of dwindling attendance and profits at those lost venues.

I spoke with friends about my ideas to enhance the Castro's engagement with its audience in the new year, and asked for their suggestions to present to the Nasser family. Here a short list of ideas:

1. The Nassers should speak directly to concerned supporters at an open forum. They would also hear the concerns and ideas of people who see movies at the theatre, and what better place to hold such an open dialogue but at the Castro! Let the forum be the first step of an expanded outreach effort. The Nassers need to step up providing constant communication.

2. There is a new booker/general manager coming on board and he should take this opportunity to introduce himself to us. Tell us what his plans are for upcoming shows, both cinematic and live performances, and hear how he plans to work with audience and give us what we want.

3. Let's start a Castro Film Society and hold salons in the upper lobby on the mezzanine. Invite Bay Area film scholars,critics and bloggers, movie buffs to facilitate chats bringing forward words expressing cinema love. Get three film queens in a room, get nine opinions. Offer memberships and include benefits like salons, a discount on tickets and at the candy counter.

4. Regardless of membership, find ways to reward frequent patrons. Might also have a separate discount card like the Roxie offers, for people who don't want to join the society.

5. Start merchandising the famous marquee on clothing, mugs, hats, etc. Not only would this bring in revenue, having lots of people wearing Castro apparel equals free advertising and reminds everyone to see a flick at the venue. Create a glossy booklet on the Casto's history, ask Armistead Maupin to write an introduction. Hire someone to run a movable lobby stand hawking the booklet and Castro kitsch, just like at Broadway shows.

6. Collaborate with our wonderful local historic preservation and cultural experts to create dynamic weekly tours of the Castro Theatre. Charge a few bucks, educate locals and tourists about its history and significance.

7. Pick a night when the audience gets to decide on what will be shown. Select a slow night, announce the choice of two films, say, "The Last Picture Show" or a recent new film, and have everyone vote on which one they would come and see.

8. Can something be done about structural issues beyond redesigning the stage areas? The current bathrooms are inadequate to the needs of patrons, particularly when Frameline or the San Francisco Film Society or the Silent Film Festival are thronged with movie mad people. A single disabled toilet that also serves as a women's toilet is not enough to meet the needs of our disable and senior patrons. I'd love to hear from architects about ways in which they would improve the number of toilets and urinals, and access to them.

9. Castro Street is so windy and standing in front of the theatre when one needs to herbally medicate can be near impossible. How about a 420 smoking area in the alley next to the parking lot?

10. I extend my deepest cineaste gratitude to the Nassers for their stewardship of this phenomenal gift - the Castro Theatre. It is the living embodiment of diverse audiences who adore the place and have saved it as an operational venue. Beyond keeping the doors open, on most nights, I'm not aware of how the Nassers give back to the community, and I'm sure they do. In whatever form they are involved with the neighborhood and our very diverse constituencies, details about their giving back and civic engagement should be explained on the Castro's site.

And now, Deep Throat Bill Longen's message:

Let me try to clear up the issues before everyone's head explodes into atoms.

I came on board the Castro in early 2005 and worked with a small group of dedicated professionals. Through creative programming and lots of hard work we brought the theatre from a money hemorrhaging mess to the peak of success, with 2009 and 2011 having the biggest incomes in the 90 year history of the theatre. I am very proud to have been involved.

The facts are:

As technical director/community liaison of the Castro Theatre, over the last 18 months, at Mr. Nasser's request I initiated many meetings, some including Mr. Nasser. Topics discussed included sound design and installation, stage lighting and design, and structural engineering.

I spoke with a restoration specialist, the Taylor family (owners of the Wurlitzer organ) and theatre equipment installation companies, about converting the Castro stage for live entertainment use.

This involved removing the screen, speakers, moving organ pipes and structural reinforcing. I participated in many weekly meetings where future live stage events were discussed at length. The Castro Theatre was designed and built to show movies and at the time small vaudeville acts, it was never intended for large stage presentations.

Major changes in management brings with it major changes in programming and the way of doing business. Mr. Nasser should take this opportunity to step forward and explain in detail to the community, his plans for future programming at the Castro.

The Castro Theatre should do what it does best and what it was built for: movies. The best screen presentations possible, that was my job and what I continually attempted to achieve.
A ten dollar double feature evening of classic films at the Castro Theatre is a joy, for all lovers of movies, don't let that experience disappear!

The Castro Theatre building may belong to the Nasser's, but the Castro Movie Theatre belongs to all of us!

I am off to other challenging movie theatre restorations.
I hope this blog has rattled a few heads and caused some rethinking. If it has, then my work is done.

5 comments:

Tour Jetes said...

Thanks Michael for the innovative suggestions to encourage attendance at the Castro Theater. A film society would be such a boon to movie lovers and would surely draw a dedicated crowd. Also celebrating the history of the building thru tours, merchandise and a booklet is great too.

Obviously there are a number of creative, viable ways to support this theater. One thing is for certain, there is nothing like seeing a film at the Castro and people want to see that continue.

Hopefully the Nassers will welcome the community's involvement in keeping films at the Castro.

Michael said...

thanks, tours jetes, for liking some of the ideas to enhance the castro movie-going experience. i am convinced folks have lots of their own ideas about what to show and how to keep the castro theatre viable and meeting the pleasures of its diverse audience.

JustMeee said...

Alas, is there no definitive word from either the publicist or the owner?

sfmike said...

I'm confused. Is your original story bunk claiming that "Live Acts Replacing All Movie Shows at the Castro," or is it true?

And what exactly is your Deep Throat trying to say? "I am off to other challenging movie theatre restorations. I hope this blog has rattled a few heads and caused some rethinking. If it has, then my work is done." Misinformation seems to have rattled a few heads, but that's not what you're trying to promote on this particular blog, I assume.

Please clarify.

Michael said...

hi sfmike,

i'm trying to get a detailed clarifying statement from the nassers. have also pushed for them to hold an open meeting at the theatre, along with having the new booker introduce himself to the local audience. hope to have a full explanation from the castro's owners soon enough.