Our Lady of Exalted Exhibition
Updated: Mar 21
Religious experiences come in many places.
Going to the movies was my church. The year that I arrived in San Francisco, one of its most magnificent temples had just been designated an historic landmark. That was certainly a big deal, but I was new in town and the city was awash with choices for a young cinephile. So it took awhile for me to actually visit this particular house of worship.
As a film student on a budget, I gravitated to The Strand on Market Street, where you could catch three flicks for $1.50 if you got there before 2pm. It was also a haven for many street-dwelling residents, so a triple feature of Hitchcock classics might include an extra soundtrack of snores and drunken yelps from the audience. It was still safer than the St. Francis down the street, where the establishment would change the titles on the marquees (like Rosemary’s DEVIL Baby or All the President’s KILLERS) to attract thrill-seekers of questionable tastes.
I got to know all of the neighborhood screens and have very specific memories with each one. Discovering the sensational but sensitive films of Samuel Fuller at the York on 24th street. Seeing ’50s sci-fi classics on the big Balboa screen before it was split down the middle. Laughing through tears at Buster Keaton in an alley theater off of Polk Street. And of course, lining up for an hour or more at the ginormous Coronet or the Northpoint to see Star Wars (again).
When I turned 35 I ditched my TV and saw two movies a week, in the dark, with strangers. It was better than prayer. Eventually, I found the Castro Theatre.
You can’t grow up Catholic like I did without getting a taste for spectacle and ritual. Entering Castro’s auditorium, with David Hegarty playing organ music (as he has for 40 years!) audiences were transported. The gilded interior, sparkling in the half light, promised a spiritual experience. Is it coincidence that the facade pays homage to the nearby basilica of Mission Dolores?
Compared to other movie houses, they didn’t always have the best repertory lineup, leaning into crowd-pleasers mixed with international and art films. We surely didn’t come for the brutally hard seats, the brassy sound system, or indifferent air conditioning — but we love our friends for their flaws, isn’t that how the saying goes? And we loved the appreciative, respectful congregation of the faithful. Church is community.
Appropriately, my first memory at the Castro is seeing The Celluloid Closet. An early and influential doc about the history of homosexuality in the cinema, the movie awoke my consciousness for decades to come. I was doubly schooled by the chorus of cheers and jeers from a fully LGBTQIA audience that hadn’t found their consonants yet. Midnight Mass with Peaches Christ and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence would follow a few years later.
Film festivals at the Castro brought me closer to some of my most revered saints. Special guests always entered stage left, so we were sure to sit on the farthest aisle to catch a close-up view of Rita Moreno or Spike Lee. Charlize Theron’s goddess-like poise was blinding to mere mortals, but the surprisingly diminutive Martin Scorsese was a flirt with a wink and a smile for my wife who was standing in the aisle as he exited the stage.
Three decades after graduating, I actually began to make movies with an amateur film collective. And god bless us, we would rent the Castro Theatre three times a year and show our latest productions to a paying audience. At our peak, we screened 22 short films in a single four-hour marathon. I’ve had my work projected on movie screens from Comic-Con to Tribeca, but I was never prouder than standing before the neighborhood congregation.
Movies change us and they change with us. I credit 2001: A Space Odyssey for launching my career in filmmaking. As a child, I didn’t quite understand it but with subsequent viewings and years of study, Kubrick’s opus expanded my worldview beyond the infinite. It became a truly religious experience. Seeing it for the last time in the Castro, as a mature artist with a full house of true believers, I entered the promised land.
Alas, the Journey ended there. 100 years after it was christened, the Castro Theatre as we knew it has closed. The details don’t matter. The sadness will fade. What remains is the spirit that resides in each of us who saw the flickering light within—and were transformed.
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