Weekly Photo Challenge: Unique – San Francisco’s Castro Theater

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Good Afternoon:

San Francisco’s Castro Theater is one of America’s oldest motion picture palaces and as of 1976, our city’s 100th Historic Landmark (the architect Timothy Phlueger also designed Oakland’s stunning Paramount Theater). Opened in 1910, the Castro has resided in its current location since 1922 (the original home now houses Cliff’s Variety), and might be the only one left in the country that still has a working “The Mighty Wurlitzer,” a huge pipe organ that musicians still play before the evening’s first showings.

So that part of “unique” is easy. The hard part is the photography.

Castro Theater 1 020213

If you are not a Photoshop wizard, the subject presents tons of challenges, as this picture (which I know is pretty bad) reveals: traffic, overhead wires, a distracting sign, contrasts of very bright light and very dark shadows. It just isn’t a very easy subject at all. I used my Nikon D40 DSLR and set the speed to 1/60.

The next photograph is almost good: the wires don’t interfere too much (a photo-editing expert would simply erase them); interesting foreground; bright lights tones down to make the lettering crisp and sharp; no traffic or distracting signs; the shadows have been lighted to reveal detail. The big problem? Only the C-A-S is illuminated. Sigh. I had to grab the snap or lose the foreground.

Castro Theater 2 020213

The Castro hosts a number of great film festivals each year. Next up is the Silent Film Festival, but this weekend marks the annual Noir City festival. As I’ve written before, my hometown is ideal for black and white film noir scenery, and has served admirably as the setting for classic hard-boiled private eye flicks. Film buffs from as far away as Europe come to San Francisco to see these gems, and since this is San Francisco, America’s 365-days-a-year costume party, many filmgoers come dressed in Forties and Fifties vintage clothing. Or in simple English, there’s always something to see, even between shows.

Ironically, the festival shuns the well-known classics in favor of obscure, long-lost, underrated gems. The best rediscovery this year in my opinion is a 1953 color 3-D neo-Western noir thriller called Inferno (have you seen Red Rock West? Bad Day at Black Rock? No Country for Old Men? That’s what I mean by “neo-Western Noir thriller”). Robert Ryan plays a spoiled city tenderfoot who wife (a gorgeous redhead named Rhonda Fleming) and her lover abandon to die in the desert after he accidentally breaks his leg. 20th Century Fox might do something with a re-release, and if they do, try to rent it or see it in a theater.

One more picture:

Castro Theater 3 020213

Anyway, if you love film and the classic old film palaces, San Francisco’s Castro is one of the great ones and belongs on your list of must visit landmarks.

Vonn Scott Bair

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7 responses »

  1. According to Vonn:
    “Opened in 1910, the Castro has resided in its current location since 1922 (the original home now houses Cliff’s Variety), and might be the only one left in the country that still has “The Mighty Wurlitzer,” a pipe organ that musicians still play before the evening’s first showings.

    So that part of “unique” is easy.”

    Except when the facts disagree. One has merely to glance across the Bay to Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater to find another Mighty Wurlitzer still alive and thrilling theater crowds. That’s not even getting to Wikipedia’s entry on Wurlitzer, which lists no fewer than 25 U.S.-based Mighty Wurlitzers in living modern theater action, including another here in California closer to yours truly (California Theatre in San Bernardino). And i seem to recall one or two others in our fair state, covered by the late Huell Howser on one or more of his historic places and things television series.

    Unique? Mmmm… not so much, at least in terms of the organ. Iconic place in an iconic city? Sure.

    • Sonic Purity: Thanks for the additional research and corrections. Sloppy writing on my part; should have written more carefully, something like “one of the oldest movie theaters” plus “one of the few Wurlitzers” plus “some of the best annual film festivals” showing “some of the rarest” films *plus* “knowledgable hard-core fans who like to come in costume for something other than The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the combination of which might be extremely rare if not unique. Vonn Scott Bair

  2. Great theater. Many years ago I got to introduce Anno Hideaki’s live action Cutie Honey movie to the audience at a film festival. The crowd was mainly a mix of snappily dressed for an artistic evening out and art school students. When the credits kicked in after the opening action sequence. they were clapping and stomping their feet.

    • Gilles: Castro audiences can be extraordinarily knowledgeable. It’s the only theater where I saw a movie in which the biggest applause during the opening credits erupted for the soundtrack composer (Ennio Morricone, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly); and it’s the only theater where I saw a movie in which the biggest applause during the opening credits erupted for the screenwriter (Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe). Vonn Scott Bair

    • David! Nice to hear from you again. Another Mighty Wurlitzer, and Oakland is home to the Paramount–how curious that one of the more forward-looking and innovative corners of the planet can also become obsessed with historical preservation. Vonn Scott Bair

  3. Pingback: Phoneography Challenge: My Neighborhood – 2 Hours in San Francisco on a Saturday Afternoon « The San Francisco Scene--Seen!

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