Coming soon?
A shake-up at the Castro Theatre brings change – and perhaps big trouble – for movie lovers in San Francisco.

By Johnny Ray Huston

castro
Photo by Mirissa Neff
THE CASTRO. Those two words reflect a neighborhood central to gay history – and an embattled present moment, when right-wing "family values" are once again claiming power. For San Franciscans, those two words also spark passion for the Castro Theatre, a prized movie palace seen by many as a quintessential example of what makes the city unique. While other cultural aspects of the neighborhood have been on the wane, and chain stores on the rise, the Castro has fostered an international reputation by remaining steadfast in its dedication to film as an art.

The Castro has screened and sometimes premiered first-run restorations of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief, and Alfred Hitchcock's masterful Bay Area-set suspense work Vertigo. When the rerelease of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg enjoyed success at the Castro, it was a fitting tribute to the late Demy, who loved the theater. Lengthy retrospectives devoted to R.W. Fassbinder and Yasujiro Ozu have made the theater a home away from home for cinephiles.

The Castro has helped launch the reputations of a newer wave of directors, such as Todd Haynes (with screenings of the now-outlawed Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) and Gus Van Sant (with Mala noche). The San Francisco International Film Festival, the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival are just three of more than a dozen renowned locally based events with strong Castro bonds. The theater also has a deserved reputation as a host to one-night-only and only-in-San Francisco celebrations, including Marc Huestis's signature tributes to actors and directors ranging from Jane Russell to John Waters.

Film programmer Anita Monga's 16 years of work for the Castro have been central to many of the above achievements. Monga took over the theater's programming in 1988 from Mel Novikoff, whose dedication to international film led the SFIFF to designate an award in his name. News of her dismissal Oct. 26 shook a local film community already dismayed by a widely circulated Oct. 11 e-mail plea by filmmaker and Castro assistant manager Christian Bruno (urging filmgoers to write to the theater in support of Monga), and at least one article (in the Oct. 21 issue of the Bay Area Reporter) stating that the Castro's owners were looking to make programming changes.

This discord officially went public when Monga's and Bruno's dismissals and the resignations of general manager Stacey Wisnia and office manager Kelly Rausch were reported on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle's "Datebook" section Nov. 3. By that time, the Castro ownership's official story had shifted into denials that a theater obviously torn asunder would undergo any fundamental change. The picture that emerged from that article – of battles between an esteemed programmer (with a dedicated staff) and an uninformed ownership – left readers worried about the fate of a treasured place many San Franciscans consider the heart of Bay Area cinema. Would Castro owner Ted Nasser and his wife, Karen Nasser, bring a corporate model to a theater that had recently premiered The Corporation?

The battle over the Castro goes far beyond a simple employment dispute. Nearly every major film festival in town calls on the theater as a desired venue for opening nights and regular programs. At a time when multiplexes dominate the city's movie house landscape, and small, single-screen theaters and rep houses are already endangered by home video, the theater is essential to those who view film as an art worth preserving, not as a mere moneymaker. If the Castro falls apart due to cost-cutting measures and poorly judged programming decisions, San Francisco's – and the nation's – big cinematic picture will be decisively smaller, less colorful, and not so pristine.

One through the heart

Five days after Monga's departure, on Halloween, one side of the Castro's marquee carried a message: "No on Prop. L." "Certain members of the staff wanted to put [that sign] on our marquee and take down the Manchurian Candidate sign that we had up there," Ted Nasser says. Nasser disagreed, though the Castro owner still claims he was against the misleading measure, which would have endangered local theaters and arts funding. "I want our theater to be politically neutral," he says.

Built in 1922, the Castro was designed by Timothy Pflueger, the architect behind more than a handful of the Bay Area's most beautiful theaters and concert halls, including Oakland's Paramount Theatre, Bimbo's 365 Club (previously the Bal Tabarin), and the late Alhambra (which now houses a gym). Novikoff, a mentor to both Monga and Balboa Theatre operator (and Landmark Theatres cofounder) Gary Meyer, took over the theater's lease in 1976. It was Novikoff's repairs and selective repertory approach to programming that helped the theater achieve registered landmark status in the city a year later.

When Novikoff passed the programming torch to Monga, the Castro was under the lease of Blumenfeld Theaters; three years ago, when Nasser took over, extensive renovations began. Though some regular patrons questioned certain aesthetic choices, the majority of the changes – new seating and a Dolby sound system – appeared to be geared toward improving, or at least modernizing, the Castro as a movie house. But were those the main motivations?

The Castro's Web site (www.thecastrotheatre.com) explains the theater's origins and its recent refurbishment in greater detail than it does past film programming, though it notes that the venue's famed Mighty Wurlitzer organ was installed during the decade that Novikoff was manager, before Blumenfeld Theatres assumed the lease upon his death in 1987. One name missing from this official history is Monga's, though she effectively carried on a part of Novikoff's legacy when she took over programming duties the same year.

Monga's and Wisnia's departures were markedly different, but the pair are united in their claims of poor treatment by Ted and Karen Nasser. "With limited resources and a committed and engaged staff, we managed to make [the Castro] the equal of any arts organization," Monga says. "I'm not sure they ever really understood that or valued it."

"They basically have no respect at all for the people who work there," Wisnia agrees. "For the last three years, Anita and I have been going back and forth, thinking, 'We can't leave the theater because [Ted] is going to destroy it, but it's horrible to stay too' – and that was before it really got bad."

The truly bad period, according to Monga, began earlier this year, when Nasser hired an "efficiency expert," who suggested the theater adopt thumbprint-recognition time cards to monitor the staff's work schedules. Conflicts peaked during the early dates of the Classic Children's Film Festival, an irregularly scheduled Sunday matinee event featuring films such as National Velvet, along with special guests and performances. Different sources allege the children's festival was put together by Karen Nasser. (The Castro's calendar notes that the event is presented by KAN Productions.)

Events that might appeal to children aren't new to the Castro – the theater's programming has included films such as The Wizard of Oz – but a film festival specifically directed at children was a departure. Around the same time, Monga says, she was being repeatedly "grilled" by Ted Nasser about films with gay content, such as Tarnation, that she'd programmed. Monga's assertion would seem to be canceled out by the theater's longtime associations with gay and lesbian first-run films and one-night or extended-run events. Nonetheless, a Dec. 17, 2001, letter from Nasser to Monga first praises a Bruce Weber cover photo on that season's Castro calendar, before stating that the Castro's owners don't want "the theater to cater or be perceived as catering to only one segment of society nor to slowly slip into a perception of being a sexploitation house."

"We've had numerous posters over the years in our window cases of attractive gays and lesbians, and I support that," Nasser says in response. In our interview, he's quick to emphasize that Monga, by his definition, wasn't an employee of the Castro: "She was an independent contractor for our former tenants [Blumenfeld]. That's what she told us: 'I'm an independent contractor for them, and I can be one for you.' "

In the wake of Monga's dismissal, Nasser has contracted with three organizations to handle the Castro's programming, publicity, and calendar design. Information is scarce regarding Exhibitors Service, the Los Angeles-based company hired to book films and special events for the theater, and its Los Angeles-based "principal," Richard Blacklock.

The Balboa Theatre's Meyer finds it odd that the Castro has hired someone who doesn't live in S.F. to book films. But in fact, Monga notes that before she was dismissed, Nasser called former Roxie Cinema manager Elliot Lavine to offer him her job. "He most certainly did," Lavine says. "It was sometime in October. This was before he had any conversation with Anita about her future there, though Anita was becoming increasingly aware about the situation. Ted called me at home and in no uncertain terms offered me the job. He indicated I was highly recommended. I said I had to categorically turn the job down because Anita is a friend of mine. It was unbelievably disrespectful of him to do something like that, given the relationship she had with the theater and the community."

Responses to the upheaval at the Castro in the film community have been far from uniform. "I think after the Marc Huestis event on Dec. 17, which is effectively when Anita's programming ends, people shouldn't patronize that theater and let Ted Nasser fail," says former assistant manager Bruno, who codirected Pie Fight '69 with Weather Underground director Sam Green and who has been working on a long-term project about the rise and demise of San Francisco's movie theaters. Meyer begs to differ. "[Christian's] passionate, and he intends to be positive," he says. "But he's not thinking about the big picture."

Head-on

If the Castro can be saved from a wrong turn (at best) or dead end (at worst), a major part of the solution could come from the programmers and staff involved in San Francisco's multitude of film festivals and organizations. They may be weary from recent successful efforts to defeat Proposition L, but many are once again galvanized. This time, it's by an urgent desire to make sure the Castro's owners understand the value of the festivals. In particular, they want the owners to understand the care and expertise required to make certain their films are presented properly. "We have contacted Ted Nasser and expressed to him our expectation that, in spite of his recent changes in theater management and operations, the theater will continue to be a hospitable and appropriate venue for our programs and communities," reads a Nov. 14 statement by the San Francisco Film Festival and Special Events Coalition.

"We want to stay at the Castro, and we want to make it work," says Ingrid Eggers, program coordinator at the Goethe-Institute San Francisco, whose 10th annual Berlin and Beyond festival is slated for the theater's next calendar, beginning in mid-December. "The real problem at this point is that it hasn't been proven yet that Ted [Nasser] can [run the theater] without Anita." Eggers says she's been told the Castro's next calendar will include Fatih Akin's award-winning Head-On, an engagement that might counter rumors that the ownership wants to move the programming toward mainstream fare. "There's no proof yet that the Castro will go down the drain," she says.

Berlin and Beyond's placement in San Francisco's beyond-busy film fest schedule makes Eggers's decision to stick with the Castro a tentative signpost of consensus among certain festivals. "There's nowhere else to go," Eggers says. "There is nowhere else to find a theater of this quality and distinction."

Gail Silva, president of the Film Arts Foundation, has been faced with a different challenge: carrying out the Film Arts Festival of Independent Cinema's November Castro engagements, an element of Monga's final calendar of programming. She views Monga's absence as a severe blow to the Castro's ability to secure archival prints, a situation that might force distributors and retro-based festivals to move elsewhere.

Indeed, some film distributors with longtime ties to Monga aren't just worried about her dismissal – they're angry. "It's outrageous and absurd that Anita was fired," says Gary Palmucci, general manager of New York-based Kino International. "Anita should be reinstated, and until that or something palatable occurs that people are satisfied with, we don't want to play our pictures there." Palmucci says Kino enjoyed its biggest box-office success with a Castro run of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, but the company's revival of Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild has been pulled from the theater's next calendar – a decision that might benefit the Landmark Theatres chain or a smaller local independent movie house.

The latter possibility is a seismic shift that could affect film in San Francisco. The Castro's shake-up raises questions about potential programming changes at other venues, and the detrimental effect of home video on revival screenings in particular. "To have ongoing repertory or an old film changing every day or two constitutes an enormous expense," says former Roxie manager Lavine. "People get older, and they've seen these films – the idea of seeing them at home is just too easy. People think, 'Why should I go to On the Waterfront? – I own it.' And younger people really don't care about older films. God, I didn't find my parents' swing records until after the fact."

After the fact may prove to be too late if classic films from the world outside of Hollywood, and current films devoted to San Francisco, lose their largest showcase. According to Amy Heller, cofounder of Milestone Films, a planned Castro booking of Mikheil Kalatozov's 1964 masterpiece I Am Cuba is "on hold" because of Monga's dismissal. "I don't think [the Castro's owners] have any idea how much art there is to what a good programmer does," Heller says, adding that she considers Monga one of the top five programmers in the country.

The art to Monga's programming is a major reason the Castro has had a crucial role in screening the film restoration efforts of Martin Scorsese and Coppola; she's also provided a grand avenue for newer filmmakers working outside the Hollywood system. It could be argued that the Castro's closest New York aesthetic equivalent is Film Forum, billed as "New York's leading house for independent premieres and repertory programming." But Film Forum is a nonprofit three-screen house with a third of the Castro's seats. It's crucial for the owners of the Castro to get the big picture about what kind of big pictures this theater has presented to the city and the world, and what it takes to present them properly. "When the people of San Francisco think about the Castro, they don't think about Ted, and they don't think about me," Monga says. "They think it's their Castro Theatre. They run the place too – the community has a huge stake in this place."

Assistance by Cheryl Eddy and Max Goldberg.