Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Artful Presentation— San Francisco's Castro Movie Palace

On a recent visit to San Francisco, my host took me to the Castro Theatre to see a movie called The War Tapes. Wow, what an evening. First the Castro Theatre was an event in itself. Built in 1922 by the Nasser brothers, who brought the first nickelodeon to the Castro neighborhood in 1908, the elaborate movie theatre is one of the few movie palaces from the 1920s still in operation in the United States.

Designed by noted Bay Area architect Timothy L. Pflueger, the Castro was designated by the City of San Francisco as its 100th landmark in 1977. The opulence of the historic theatre begins on the outside with a Mexican influenced monumental façade, a glazed tile street foyer and ornate box office, with a large vertical marquee and neon sign that were added in the ’30s continue the architectural statement. We enjoyed taking the beautifully restored street cars down Market Street and then walking a short distance to the door. (Lesser known than the famed cable cars, the street cars, mostly from Europe and the Eastern Seaboard, these overhead trolleys are much less crowded with tourists than the cable cars.)

Inside the theatre, we continued our journey into the past. After buying too much buttered popcorn we slipped into our comfortable seats. On either side of the stage were organ pipes. I had already been forewarned that the organ music would be part of our treat. He came out with a slight ado, seated himself at the keyboard and as he began to play, the organ lifted dramatically out of the pit up to the level of the stage. I later found out from a relative that my own grandmother, a single mother at the time and a gifted concert pianist, had for a short time earned a living as an organ player at a theatre.

Up above the huge Art Deco chandelier loomed. I later found out that the original parchment fixture had been replaced in 1937 after being burned in a small electrical fire. Two winding staircases, adorned with large mirrors framed in gold twist their way from the lobby up to the mezzanine, which furnished with antiques and rare film posters, is often used for film-related receptions.

All this glamour was overshadowed by the reality of the moment, however. After about 20 minutes of vintage tunes, the organ along with its player, descended and the lights dimmed. Out walked our host, Executive Producer Chuck Lacy of The War Tapes. He shared with us the skinny on this groundbreaking film. In a nutshell SenArt Films, known for cutting edge films, put video cameras into the hands of six soldiers to follow their combat activities in Iraq.
The highlight of the evening was when Zack Bazzi, the most likeable soldier in the film, came out on the stage to answer questions. Our host advised us to please separate our feelings about policy from our questions, which the crowd, surprisingly heterosexual in the heart of San Francisco’s most flagrantly homosexual neighborhood, were for the most part abiding to do.
Not your typical soldier, Zack, born and raised until the age of eleven in Lebanon, was not even a naturalized citizen when he was sent off to fight in Bosnia, Kosovo, and most recently Iraq, by the United States Government.

This is not a film critique. I think I might have to watch it a couple of times before I got all the innuendo, but I do suggest you go see the documentary for yourself. It will be shown in many more metropolitan areas over the next few months, and if you get a chance to see it at the Castro, lucky you!—Ruth Mitchell

(c) 2006 - Ruth Mitchell - all rights reserved

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