Conservationists and leaseholder disagree about Castro Theatre renovations Conservationists' objections to proposed renovation plans for the 100-year-old Castro Theatre in San Francisco illustrate an ongoing debate about the future of historic theaters.

A fight over seats could define the future of an iconic San Francisco movie theater

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What is the best way to keep using a historic theater in San Francisco? The Castro Theatre has an illustrious past and a much debated future. NPR's Chloe Veltman begins with a person for whom this story is personal.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: If the Castro Theatre didn't exist, then neither would Sophia Padilla.

SOPHIA PADILLA: I always joke that I was conceived at the Castro Theatre.

VELTMAN: The San Francisco resident happens to be passing by the theater. She's standing on the very spot where she says her parents first met in line to see a movie.

PADILLA: And both of them were on dates with other people, actually. And they just, like, fell in love right here. And I've been coming to the Castro to see movies for my entire 26-year life.

VELTMAN: The theater has long been a hub for LGBTQ cinema. The 2008 movie "Milk," about one of the country's first openly gay politicians, played here publicly for the first time ever.


SEAN PENN: (As Harvey Milk) My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you.

VELTMAN: Padilla says the venue, in part, forged her queer identity.

PADILLA: The Castro really helped me find who I was.

VELTMAN: But a live entertainment company acquired the lease for the Castro recently.

PADILLA: We're worried that movies won't be a big part of the Castro anymore and that it'll start to become just, like, a concert venue.

VELTMAN: Several local groups have the same fear. They've been pushing back hard against Another Planet Entertainment's plans. The company wants to refocus the venue's programming and make sweeping renovations. Peter Pastreich is the executive director of the Castro Theatre Conservancy. He's standing under the Castro's marquee.

PETER PASTREICH: This is a hundred-year-old theater, and you can't just change it any way you want.

VELTMAN: Thousands of people, including many celebrities, have signed the Conservancy's petition. The building is already in part protected. In the 1970s, the city of San Francisco gave landmark status to the exterior. Now these activists are trying to get the city to expand the designation to include the building's interior. If that happens, it will be much harder for the leaseholder to make the one change that's really upsetting Pastreich and his group.

PASTREICH: To take out the seats and to level the floor, which would make the theater no longer appropriate for movies.

MATT LAMBROS: Changing the seating is a big deal. You could ruin the sight lines.

VELTMAN: Matt Lambros has written several books about historic movie theaters in the U.S. There are a couple of thousand theaters like the Castro still in operation. Lambros says in order for these cinemas to survive, the seating has to do more than accommodate movie goers.

LAMBROS: There's interest in restoring these places. You have to find something that will bring people to it. For the most part, unfortunately, a 1,500-seat theater showing films - that's just not viable.

VELTMAN: Those who want the theater seating plan to remain intact point out that the Castro has long hosted all kinds of nonmovie events with the old seating. The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performs here regularly.


SAN FRANCISCO GAY MEN'S CHORUS: (Singing inaudibly).

VELTMAN: Alex Tourk represents the lease holder, Another Planet. He says regardless of the seating, preserving the theater's legacy is important to the company.

ALEX TOURK: They absolutely want to continue to show film. They committed to making sure that 25% of programming would be dedicated to the LGBTQ community.

VELTMAN: Back at the theater, movie fan Sophia Padilla recalls one of her favorite memories here, catching the 25th anniversary screening of "Purple Rain." She got to meet Prince's co-star Apollonia Kotero.

PADILLA: And the line to meet Apollonia was, like, out the door even after the movie started.

VELTMAN: Padilla says she's glad the Castro is still open, but she doesn't want it to stray too far from the place it was when her parents fell in love.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News, San Francisco.

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