DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO: The Castro Theatre

By Josh Eliot

 

“Deep Inside” is a series in four parts that Will Seagers and myself are writing. The first in the series focuses on San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, where Will and I both spent a lot of time during the 1980’s. Although Will Seagers and I have never met formally, I am convinced that he sold me my first VCR at Eber Electronics in 1984. I can’t say for sure, but that photo of him at Eber’s from his blog “The Stereo Maven of Castro Street” convinced me, because he looked very familiar. After purchasing the VCR on a payment plan I remember running across Market Street to Captain Video to rent a couple of VHS tapes, most likely a horror movie and a porn.

In 1984 my friends and I were incredibly lucky when we found and rented our flat at 629 Castro Street. It had three bedrooms, was located just above the corner of 19th and we paid $750 per month. Our landlord Marlene got sole ownership of the three level building and a nearby house in her divorce settlement. Our unit was located on the middle floor with an artist (painter) and his roommate above, and a leather couple below. The neighborhood had so much to offer with bars and restaurants on every block. 18th and Castro was the main intersection; to the right was your coin-operated laundry and Cala Foods Supermarket, to the left was The Midnight Sun video bar and Moby Dick (where Will Seagers was known to DJ).

 

Will Seagers and Eber Electronics

Will Seagers and Eber Electronics

 

Near the Corner of Castro and Market Street was The Castro Theatre, which is my focus for this blog as it was truly the heart and soul of the neighborhood. This landmark represented a place where the gay community could come together and show appreciation for their favorite films and icons. They hosted premieres like Milk, the story of Harvey Milk, and more recently The Matrix Resurrections, complete with cast and crew appearances. There was a constant array of new releases as well as classics that were shown, providing quite a wide variety of constant entertainment for the neighborhood. Inside this majestic palace the architecture was astounding and much was coated in gold leaf. There was a balcony, of course, and the main level consisted of three sections, the right side being the “smoking area.”

 

Milk and The Matrix Resurrections premieres at The Castro

Milk and The Matrix Resurrections premieres at The Castro

 

Suddenly Last Summer was the first movie I saw there. I was surprised and delighted when, prior to the beginning of the movie, the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ rose from the floor on a platform. The sound quality was amazing and when the player finished his performance with the song “San Francisco” (open your golden gate) the crowd sang along from the top of their lungs. What was this place? This experience was already so much more than just going to a movie house. Suddenly Last Summer was my first “real” introduction to Montgomery Clift and Katharine Hepburn, but it was Elizabeth Taylor with her 22” waist and pointy bra that stole the movie for me. I’d only ever seen her in films like Night Watch where she was, what?, late forties? Well in Suddenly she looked stunning from the moment she graced the screen in her insane asylum uniform. Even though the gay undertones in the movie were “way over my head,” just being in the packed house with a mostly gay audience was a thrill. The place exploded in applause when the real nut, Katharine Hepburn, rode up the private elevator in her gothic mansion at the movie's end. I’m sure they could hear the cheers and applause down the block!

 

Suddenly Last Summer and the Castro Theatre interior

Suddenly Last Summer and the Castro Theatre interior

 

There was always something going on at the Castro Theatre. We saw the premiere of Lust in the Dust with Divine and Lanie Kazan, and though the audience was every excited, the movie was a bit disappointing as we really expected a John Waters classic, but he didn’t direct it, Paul Bartel did. Joan Collins came there in person for An Evening with Joan Collins, a live on stage interactive event. I’m not sure if she was pushing a book or just riding the Dynasty wave, but it was incredible and we all thought that her head looked too big for her body. When her car drove off after the event, the street was so packed with queens screaming her name and banging on her car it could barely move down the road.

I even sat through four consecutive nights of Berlin Alexanderplatz (A 15 ½ hour , 14-part West German crime television miniseries, set in 1920s Berlin and adapted and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder) with Fritz, my boyfriend at the time (though he never admitted it). I thought he would see how invested I was in our relationship by showing my commitment to his viewing choices, since none of his other friends would sit through 15 hours with him. It didn’t really work, as you might have read in my recent blog, “Everybody’s Free To Feel Good.” I actually was blown away by Fassbinder’s work and became a fan, seeing a lot of his movies.

The best time ever was seeing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, it would play there a few times a year and we would always go again and again and again. All those classic lines, which of course the audience all knew and yelled out! And that face, those Bette Davis eyes surrounded by all that white make-up on that giant screen! Nothing could beat that movie with a live audience!

 

Lust in the Dust, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane & Berlin Alexanderplatz

Lust in the Dust, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane & Berlin Alexanderplatz

 

Today I just so happened to go to the Castro Theatre’s website to see if they are still going strong and I am happy to report that they are! It looks like APE (Another Planet Entertainment) was chosen to partner with the owners of the Castro Theatre to implement significant improvements to the sound, lighting, customer and artist experience. They acknowledge the Castro Theatre is an icon of the LGBTQ+ community and a treasured space for film, music and live performance. It looks like they’ve got An Evening with Elliott Gould, a screening of A Mighty Wind (got to love Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey!) and a performance by Shangela, made famous from RuPaul's Drag Race. The diverse schedule of events is in full swing. It’s great to see some things never change, they only get better!

 

 

Bio of Josh Eliot:

At the age of 25 in 1987, Josh Eliot was hired by Catalina Video by John Travis (Brentwood Video) and Scott Masters (Nova Video). Travis trained Eliot on his style of videography and mentored him on the art of directing. Josh directed his first movie, Runaways, in 1987. By 2009 when Josh parted ways with Catalina Video, he'd produced and directed hundreds of features and won numerous awards for Best Screenplay, Videography, Editing, and Directing. He was entered into the GayVN Hall of fame in 2002. 

 

You can read Josh Eliot's previous blogs for Bijou here:

Coming out of my WET SHORTS
FRANK ROSS, The Boss
Our CALIGULA Moment
That BUTTHOLE Just Winked at Me!
DREAMLAND: The Other Place
A Salty Fuck in Saugatuck
Somebody, Call a FLUFFER!
The Late Great JOHN TRAVIS, My POWERTOOL Mentor
(Un)Easy Riders
7 Years with Colt Model MARK RUTTER
Super NOVA
Whatever Happened to NEELY O’HARA?
Is That AL PARKER In Your Photo?
DOWN BY LAW: My $1,000,000 Mistake
We Waited 8hrs for a Cum Shot... Is That a World Record?
Don't Wear "Short Shorts" on the #38 Geary to LANDS END
How Straight Are You Really?
BEHIND THE (not so) GREEN DOOR
The BOOM BOOM Room
CATCHING UP with Tom DeSimone
Everybody’s FREE to FEEL GOOD
SCANDAL at the Coral Sands Motel

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Is That AL PARKER In Your Photo?

By Josh Eliot

 

My spouse Tony Fontana and I are super-organized. We keep the place spotless. All things of importance have their own binders. The filing cabinet folders get edited yearly, and our desk calendar is always up to date. One thing we did during the initial Covid-19 lockdown was go through our photos and separate them into categories inside manila envelopes. A bit much? All that aside, the other day I was going through the envelopes to pull pictures for a recent blog about my past partner, Mark Rutter. Tony worked with Mark Rutter at the Gold Coast Bar and they shared a history as well, so I was looking to see if there were any shots in his envelopes with Mark. I didn’t find Mark, but I came across this one shot that kind of blew my mind. I pulled it out and went up to Tony and said: “Is that AL PARKER in your photo?”

 

Al Parker and friends at a Renaissance Fair, 1980s

Al Parker and friends at a Renaissance Fair, 1980s

 

It was, in fact, Al Parker in the photo. Al and his group of friends were photographed at a Renaissance Fair in the 1980s. My partner Tony is standing in the photo facing the group of friends, which included the woman wearing the blue outfit. Probably a Fred Segal outfit, as she loved to shop there. Her name was Nancy Cole Sawaya, and she was the “glue” that united this large group of friends.

 

Al Parker's friends at Ren Fair

Al Parker's friends at Ren Fair

 

Nancy lived in a mansion off of LA’s infamous Mulholland Drive. A typical weekend for the group would be to start Saturday night off at Greg's Blue Dot, a Hollywood gay hot spot, whose clientele was the crème de la crème of the best looking studs. Around 1 a.m., the group would walk a few doors down to the members only disco Probe and stayed there until well past dawn. The Probe would feature “A-list” divas like Viola Wells , Angela Clemmons (“Give Me Just a Little More Time”), Fun Fun, Linda Clifford, Madleen Kane and many more. When Nancy and the boys showed up there, the staff would see to their quick entrance. After dancing the night away they would all end up at Nancy’s place poolside, where the party would go on throughout the day; even the DJs from Probe and Blue Dot would follow and spin records.

 

Nancy at Probe and a backyard pool

Nancy at Probe and a backyard pool

 

In October of 1982, Nancy and her friends Matt Redman, Ervin Munro and Max Drew attended an emergency meeting featuring a presentation from the San Francisco Kaposi’s Sarcoma Foundation about Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease. Stunned by what they learned, these four friends set up a telephone hotline to answer questions from the community, because fear about the new disease was rampant. Over the holidays, Nancy and her small group of friends threw a Christmas party at her place called “A Christmas Present,” where guests were asked to donate money in the spirit of the season. Shortly after, Nancy took Tony to a small office in Hollywood on Cole Avenue she was thinking of renting to get his opinion. With the funds earned from the Christmas party, around $8000, she leased the office with her team of friends and offered counseling services to about twenty people known to have Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, making it a first in Los Angeles County to do so. This small office, through it’s hard work and dedication to the gay community, became APLA, AIDS Project Los Angeles. APLA’s early fundraisers were held in gay bars and discos and they went on to raise millions of dollars over the next few years with the help of such celebrities as Joan Rivers and Elizabeth Taylor. Nancy served on the Board of Directors for nearly two years while continuously offering one-on-one counseling to the members.

Co-founders Nancy Sawaya and Max Drew tested positive for the disease and by August of 1986. Nancy had been hospitalized six times. Nancy and her husband Lou adopted a baby girl named Morgan who was two years old when her mother passed away in October 1986 at age 40. This was the same year Al Parker lost his partner of eleven years, Richard Cole aka Steve Taylor, with whom he started Surge Studios. Surge Studios was one of the first studios to mandate safe sex practices. Al Parker passed away on August 17th 1992, also at the age of 40, and his ashes were scattered near the nude section of San Gregorio State Beach. Seeing both Al and Nancy in this random photo and hearing these stories about them was really quite extraordinary. They both became icons of gay history, giving so much of themselves to the gay community. Such a tragedy to lose them both so early in life.

 

Al Parker and Richard Cole (Steve Taylor); Nancy on Newsweek cover

Al Parker and Richard Cole (Steve Taylor); Nancy on Newsweek cover

 

As I started to put away the photos, I saw a manila envelope labeled “Tony and Friends,” so I thought I would look in that one to see if there were any more shots of Al or Nancy. I carefully scanned each and every photo, checking to see if I could recognize any faces when suddenly... I saw another one! Tony was facing the camera making a silly face, but it was the person who was to the right of the shot that again blew my mind. I took the photograph, marched down the hallway to the office, went up to Tony again and said : “Is that ESTELLE GETTY from GOLDEN GIRLS in your photo?”

 

Estelle Getty at a West Hollywood party, 1980s

Estelle Getty at a West Hollywood party, 1980s

 

Thank you to Josh Eliot for use of his photos.


Bio of Josh Eliot:

At the age of 25 in 1987, Josh Eliot was hired by Catalina Video by John Travis (Brentwood Video) and Scott Masters (Nova Video). Travis trained Eliot on his style of videography and mentored him on the art of directing. Josh directed his first movie, Runaways, in 1987. By 2009 when Josh parted ways with Catalina Video, he'd produced and directed hundreds of features and won numerous awards for Best Screenplay, Videography, Editing, and Directing. He was entered into the GayVN Hall of fame in 2002. 

 

You can read Josh Eliot's previous blogs for Bijou here:

Coming out of my WET SHORTS
FRANK ROSS, The Boss
Our CALIGULA Moment

That BUTTHOLE Just Winked at Me!
DREAMLAND: The Other Place
A Salty Fuck in Saugatuck
Somebody, Call a FLUFFER!
The Late Great JOHN TRAVIS, My POWERTOOL Mentor
(Un)Easy Riders
7 Years with Colt Model MARK RUTTER
Super NOVA
Whatever Happened to NEELY O’HARA?

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