The Nassars and Cliff's Variety Store
Interesting early Castro history, courtesy of the Castro Star
75th Anniversary of the Castro Theatre
Pictures and story by the Castro Star
Story by Bob Burnside, courtesy of the Castro Star
gather in Mission-Dolores Park.
photo from the Greg Gaar collection, courtesy the Castro Star
The earthquake, measuring 8.25 on the Richter scale, was bad enough. The fire that followed was worse.
The inferno moved from east to west until flames penetrated the Mission. Officials attempted to stop the fire at the wide expanse of Dolores Street. Buildings along the eastern side of the street were dynamited or pulled down to create a fire break. Cinder and ash fell upon individuals carrying their belongings to Mission Park.
Stopping the fire was no easy task with the city's water mains ruptured by the quake. John Rafferty, a blacksmith who lived at 1714 Church St., tried the hydrant at the corner of 20th and Church streets. To everyone's wonder, it worked. (Survivors of the '06 quake gather at "the fire hydrant that saved the mission" every year on April 18 to give it a new coat of paint. This year Cora Luchetti, 97, was the first to use the spray can. "The one in 1906, it was an honest-to-goodness earthquake," she told the crowd. "Not like that little nothing earthquake in 1989!")
On the morning of Saturday, April 21, the conflagration-after burning for three days-was under control. Approximately 500 city blocks had burned with more than 20,000 buildings. Over 500 deaths were reported (some historians think this figure was substantially below the actual casualty toll).
Little is left today to remind us of the catastrophe, but there do remain a few humble and often undetectable memorials tucked away in our streets. The disaster left thousands without homes; many had few or no resources with which to reconstruct a dwelling. Relief camps were established all over the city. The military issued tents to those in need, but as winter approached it became apparent that more substantial shelter was needed.
In September, 1906 the Department of Lands and Buildings began to replace the rows of tents with rows of cookie-cutter cottages. By the following spring about 5,600 of these cottages covered nearly every public open space in the city. Most of these structures were no more than 15 feet wide by 25 feet long. All were painted a drab green. Occupants paid about 2 dollars per room per month, which went toward the purchase of the house. Within about a year the occupant owned the cottage. Then, because it was illegal to own a private structure on public park land, the new owners had to remove their cottages immediately.
photo from the Greg Gaar collection, courtesy the Castro Star
Two refugee cottages are open to the public, free of charge. One of them is furnished as it might have been in its heyday, sitting perhaps smack in the middle of what we today call Dolores Park. These cottages, located behind the Presidio Museum, are open Wednesdays through Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. The museum is at Lincoln Boulevard and Funston Avenue. The simple cottages offer a fascinating glimpse into how people lived almost one hundred years ago, after the city burned.
by Tim Kelley -- reprinted from the Castro Star -- June 1997
The Nasser family immigrated, in 1901, from the city of Tyre, in what is now Lebanon--then part of Syria. Actually, one uncle, Albert, was here in 1894. But Albert had all daughters, and, sorry to say, his branch of the family was somewhat eclipsed by the side that had the sons.
The patriarch of that branch was, appropriately enough, named Abraham. Abraham's sons were William, Elias, Richard, George, Henry, Nathan, and James. Only James was American born. The others ranged in age from one year old to 17 when they came to this country. They settled first in the South of Market neighborhood, where the whole family worked as fruit peddlers--all but uncle Albert, who was a candy maker.
By 1905, they had moved to Eureka Valley. Abraham and his sons ran a fruit store at 4129 18th Street, now the site of a laundromat. Albert's confectionery business was nearby on Market Street. Soon, the two family businesses had blended, or overlapped, with various sons of Abraham being involved in the candy making, as well as the fruit store.
In 1907, the Nassers came up with a great idea for boosting candy sales--one of those new nickelodeons--where people watched moving pictures in the dark--and gorged on sweets. Their first venture into this field was to open the Liberty Theater, a small, converted space at the corner of 18th and Collingwood. That was the beginning of a motion picture empire.
The building that housed the Liberty is no longer standing. But the next Nasser operation, opened the same year, again in converted space, is still wit h us. It was housed where Rolo is today, at 450 Castro--and it took the name of the street--the Castro Street Theater at first, later shortened to The Castro.
photo from the Greg Gaar collection, courtesy the Castro Star
But the Nassers were on to a good thing. Those little rented spaces couldn't hold them or the future for long. In 1910, they built their own state-of-the-art 400 seat theater, The Castro II--better known to us today as Cliff's Variety Store. Opening night was a gala event, attended by Mayor Patrick H. McCarthy, the Nassers' next door neighbor on Collingwood Street, along with most other members of the Union Labor Party city administration.
Although the new theater was an instant success, the Nassers did not abandon the candy business. In fact, in the 1910 Federal Census they identified themselves only as confectioners. One brother also operated a cigar store in the new theater building.
Meanwhile, they were acquiring other movie houses all over the City. At various times, they owned the Alhambra on Polk Street, the New Mission on Mission, and the Victoria at 16th and Mission, all full of people sitting in the dark munching Nasser candy. But we all know what the crown jewel of the empire was.
The "New Castro", 2000 seats, now known world-wide as one of the great movie palaces, opened on June 22, 1922. On opening night--attended by the new mayor, Sunny Jim Rolph, who was himself attended by a bevy of Castro Usherettes, in blue and white uniforms--it was announced that the name would be shortened to The Castro.
The old Castro "went dark" that same night, and work began the very next day to convert it into a variety store. The floor was leveled, and the old projection booth became an office. From 1922 until 1971, when Cliff's took over the space, it housed the Bon Omi Variety 5c & 10c store, one of a local chain. Ernie Asten, present owner of Cliff's, remembers one of the Nassers managing the "new" Castro when he was a kid in the neighborhood. "I remember him," says Asten, "always wearing a double breasted brown suit, often with the stub of a cigar in his mouth, looking stern in the lobby as we kids tore up and down the aisles."
By the early 20s, the Nassers were out-growing their Eureka Valley roots. They built new homes in St Francis Wood, and continued to expand their activities, becoming important players in an enormously important industry. In 1933, George Nasser was a member of the committee that gave the nation its infamous, puritanical Production Code, which dictated morally pure movies. Fifty years later, his own Castro Theater would do a big box office business exhibiting the pre-code pictures he had helped outlaw.
By the early 1940s, in addition to the original candy company, the Nassers owned a movie distribution network, as well as 12 theaters in the bay area, now including the famous Paramount in downtown Oakland. They had grown in scope right along with the movie industry.
If you'd like a sense of that growth, take a few minutes before your next film at the Castro. First, go take a peek into the Rolo store, note the size and feel of the space. Then walk across the street and check out Cliff's. Finally, take your seat in time for the "San Francisco" anthem on the Castro organ. All that should give you some idea of the pace of expansion as the Nasser brothers ran with the burgeoning movie industry. Remember, from the Rolo store, the Apple II of this series, to the Castro took only 15 years.
Of course, the industry didn't stay at that Castro and Paramount peak. The "pictures got smaller." But the Nasser brothers were up to that challenge too. In fact, they profited from it. In 1949, they paid $2.5 million for a bedraggled Hollywood studio known as General Service Studios, described at the time as "the 'B' picture capital of the world."
With impressive foresight, they went against the then prevailing Hollywood strategy and opened their studio doors to the infant television production industry. As a result, it was our own Nasser brothers from 18th and Collingwood who brought us "I Love Lucy," "Our Miss Brooks," "The Lone Ranger," "Burns and Allen," and eventually "Mr. Ed," and "The Beverly Hillbillies." As uncle Albert might have said--how sweet it is.
The Castro was designed by influential San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, at the age of 28. Pflueger had been commissioned by early San Francisco theatre owners the Nasser brothers. It was the first of many Bay Area theatres he designed for them, including the Alhambra on Polk Street and the renowned Paramount in Oakland.
Often cited as a flamboyant example of a style known as Spanish Renaissance, the Castro's interior strikes a balance between huge spectacle and minuscule detail. Most of the artwork inside the theater was done by a company called Faggioni Decorating. The murals on either wall are done in a textured style called scraffito, made with wet plaster instead of a canvas. This helps explain why they are so well-preserved. The ceiling is an enormous canopy of ornate decorative plaster-a technique Pflueger used in many of his later buildings to create a festive atmosphere.
As the plaque above the concession stand attests, the Castro is San Francisco Landmark Number 100. Landmark status protects the exterior of the building from undergoing any changes without prohibitive red tape from the City. The interior is fair game, but is not likely to change drastically since the theatre is able to finance its own maintenance.
Compared with the technological and social revolutions that carried on outside the Castro's doors, 75 years' worth of wear and tear seem to have hardly breathed on the theatre's romantic status quo. As with any grand movie palace that stands as a living protest to the stucco-slaked shoebox megaplexes in shopping malls across America, the real threats to its preservation came from larger societal forces.
In the 1950s, movie theatres faced a crisis when, to paraphrase Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond, "the pictures got little." The advent of television forced cinemas to create a more powerful sensory experience for the moviegoer. For the Castro, that meant shrinking the orchestra pit and expanding the screen to Cinemascope size. Somewhere behind that screen lies another layer of architectural beauty that an entire generation has not seen. Throughout the decades, when times got lean and change was in the air, there has been talk of splitting the Castro into a two-screen duplex. Perhaps miraculously, thanks largely to public outcries, it has always escaped this fate.
Though it is established in local imagination as the ultimate repertory theatre, the Castro was a regular neighborhood theatre, showing first- and second-run mainstream films, until San Francisco repertory theatre champion Mel Novikoff took over the theatre in 1976.
It was during Novikoff's management that the Wurlitzer organ presently in the theatre was installed by the Taylors, a family of local organ enthusiasts were looking for a home for their instrument. In 1979 Ray Taylor and his sons Dick and Bill began assembling an all-Wurlitzer pipe organ-a monumental undertaking, considering that pipe organs nowadays must be assembled willy-nilly from any pieces that can be found and bought around the country. The console, for example, came from a theatre in Detroit. Their labor of love was rewarded in 1982, when the theatre's electronic Conn organ was retired and the Wurlitzer was played for a live audience for the first time.
In the 1980s the Castro, like all theatres, faced fierce competition from the video revolution. The Castro eventually stood alone when San Francisco's seven or eight repertory theatres, including the York and the Strand, shut down in quick succession. When Novikoff died in 1987, San Francisco's Blumenfeld Theatres-the current operators-rescued the Castro. Appropriately, Blumenfeld Theatres' roots go all the way back to nickelodeons in the teens and twenties.
Starting in 1990 the Castro experienced a rebound in patronage that continues today. Manager and associate curator Tod Booth attributes this to a rediscovery of the theatre-going experience. Says Booth of the theatre, "There's nothing else like it in the City."
Booth hopes a glass case full of early Castro memorabilia in the lobby will soon be joined by another historical collection, when the Castro finds a donor who can provide a cabinet to contain an entire set of "Dish Night" dishes donated by Paul Kantus of the East & West of Castro Improvement Club. These dishes were given out to moviegoers during the Depression as an extra incentive to buy tickets. Though not particularly distinctive in appearance, the dishes have escalated in sentimental value over the years and have many aficionados.
As you snuggle into your seat at the Castro Theatre, popcorn in hand, the rising strains of "San Francisco" on the organ make you feel as though you're at a grand event, not just a Friday night movie. You can gaze up at the ornate theatre ceiling and let the organ's music transport you to a bygone era. There's a palpable excitement in the air as the last chord rings out and the audience breaks into applause.
With their backs turned to their audience, the organists who play night after night may not be familiar faces, but they are certainly popular figures at the theatre. David Hegarty, the principal organist, and Bill McCoy, who fills in for him regularly, are both highly trained performers and composers who have been lending an air of pomp to the theatre-going experience at the Castro for 20 years.
photo by Bob Burnside
McCoy worked as a musical director at his local Lincoln, Nebraska station, playing for live television shows at the beginning of his career. Since coming to the Bay Area in 1964, he also played the organ for Golden State Warriors, Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants games, until the live music was replaced by electronic or recorded tunes.
The theatre organ was originally designed as a replacement for live orchestras, so the sound is imitative of orchestral instruments, and tends to be very rhythmic. "With pipes on both sides of the theatre, it's the original stereo experience, too," says Hegarty.
The Castro was not the only theatre in the City that featured live organ music during that period. During the '70s, the old Avenue Theatre on San Bruno Avenue showed silent films on Friday nights, with organ accompaniment.
According to Hegarty, playing at the Castro Theatre is "a job that doesn't feel like a job." But it does require some quick thinking and dexterity, as Hegarty found out one night while dealing with a disgruntled audience member. The woman climbed up on the four- foot high platform, crawled onto the bench with Hegarty and began yelling. Startled, Hegarty pushed the button for the hydraulic lift to lower the platform to the floor. Once down, he nudged the unhappy listener off the bench and pushed the button again to start back up—all without missing a beat. Hegarty remembers, "I was playing Gershwin on the way down, but after getting her off the bench and rising back up on the platform, I had somehow segued into "Oklahoma"... I have no idea how I did it."