If the Castro Theatre didn't exist, then neither would Sophia Padilla.
"I always joke that I was conceived at the Castro Theatre," said the San Francisco resident, who happened to be passing by the iconic, 100-year-old movie palace on a recent afternoon while out walking her dog.
Padilla said her parents first met in line to see a movie at the theater, 27 years ago.
"Both of them were on dates with other people, actually," Padilla said. "They fell in love right here. And I've been coming to the Castro to see movies for my entire 26-year life."
Padilla also said the Castro Theatre played a role in recognizing her queer identity.
"The Castro really helped me find who I was," she said.
Located in the heart of one of the country's most high-profile LGBTQ neighborhoods, the Castro Theatre has long been a bastion of queer cinema and community events.
Highlights include the first ever public screening of the 2008 movie Milk about the pioneering openly gay politician Harvey Milk, the annual Frameline queer movie festival, and an abundance of drag performance nights.
"The Castro Theatre is like a sacred temple for the community," said Castro LGBTQ Cultural District board member Jesse Sanford. "It's where we gather to laugh together, cry together, learn our history and mourn our losses."
The venue has also hosted major film festivals like the San Francisco International Film Festival and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
But the recent purchase of the theater's lease by Another Planet Entertainment — which operates a handful of mostly music-oriented venues and festivals around the San Francisco Bay Area — has led to a struggle for the theater's future.
"Another Planet's plan will mean that films rarely get shown, and community events rarely happen," said Sanford.
Conservationists push back
The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District is one of several local groups pushing back against Another Planet's plans to refocus the venue's programming and make sweeping renovations.
"This is a hundred-year-old theater. You can't just change it any way you want," said Peter Pastreich, executive director of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, a group that was formed three years ago to address concerns about the increasingly dilapidated state of the building.
Pastreich said his group welcomes some of the proposed upgrades, such as putting in wheelchair access and a new HVAC system — as well as touching up the interior's grand mural'd walls, chandeliers and leather-effect ceiling. He estimates renovating the theater would cost $20-30 million.
"We aren't opposed to Another Planet or anybody else who will renovate the theater and keep it open," Pastreich said.
It all comes down to the seating
The activists' primary point of contention is the leaseholder's plans for the theater's seating.
"The plans are to take out the seats and level the floor, which would make the theater no longer appropriate for movies," Pastreich says.
Thousands of people — including many celebrities like Francis Ford Coppola, Alice Waters and Tilda Swinton — have signed the conservancy's petition to prevent Another Planet's renovations from going ahead.
The building is already in part protected. The City of San Francisco gave landmark status to the exterior in 1977. 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 rip out the theater's 1,400 seats and flatten the floor.
"Changing the seating is a big deal," said Matt Lambros, a Boston-based photographer of historic movie theaters who has written several books on the topic. "You could ruin the sight-lines."
There are a few thousand old, single-screen movie palaces like the Castro still in operation in the U.S. today, down from tens of thousands in their pre-World-War-II heyday.
Lambros said in order for these cinemas to survive, the seating has to do more than accommodate movie-goers.
"There's interest in restoring these places," he said. "The issue is, you have to find something that will bring people. For the most part, unfortunately, a 1500-or 2000-seat theater showing films, that's just not viable."
Those who want the theater's seating plan to remain intact point out that the Castro has hosted all kinds of non-movie events over the years.
"It is possible to have the theater be conducive to movie-going and concert-going and comedy and spoken word presentations and community meetings," said San Francisco Silent Film Festival director Anita Monga. "All of that is possible with the existing seats and same configuration."
Another Planet pushes ahead
Another Planet spokesman, Alex Tourk, said, despite its plan to remove the movie-style seating, the company is committed to honoring the theater's legacy. "They absolutely want to continue to show film," Tourk said. "They committed to making sure that 25% of programming would be dedicated to the LGBTQ community."
He said the company has been shocked by the effort these groups have mounted to preserve the theater, given the company's solid reputation as a concert and festival producer. Its plan is to invest $15 million in renovating the theater.
"Another Planet will continue to work with the city to find consensus and move the vision forward," said Tourk. "Another Planet did expect some opposition," he said. "But the level of vitriol has been beyond the pale."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "2008")
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.