This is the third in a series of posts describing my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco. I base these posts on 102 pages of notes in my little black Moleskine notebook, 254 photographs and my memory (supplemented as necessary). This post focuses specifically on the Castro Theatre and its environs. You may read the first two posts here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).
It is difficult to describe the exhilaration I feel taking that first walk up the stone stairs from the Castro MUNI station at the start each NOIR CITY festival. Once or twice, I have shaken myself slightly to release the tension—and convince myself I am really back.
Before I cross Castro Street and walk the short distance to the Castro Theatre, I will observe that the entrance to the Castro MUNI station is known as Harvey Milk Plaza, named for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors member (one of the first openly-gay elected officials in the nation) assassinated on November 27, 1978, along with then-mayor George Moscone.
The area is enveloped in giant rainbow flags that add even more color to this vibrant neighborhood. I have yet to capture its neon-lit urban beauty in photographs—though this 2014 shot is not bad.
I prefer not to photograph men who walk these streets completely naked except for a blue—something-or-other—covering their genitals.
Walking to the Castro, I pass:
—Twin Peaks Tavern (as a David Lynch fan, I appreciate the name),
—Hot Cookie (yes, those are dark-chocolate-coated cookies shaped liked penises and a woman’s naked torso),
–a shuttered storefront (I forget what used to be there),
—Dapper Dog (a gourmet take-out hot dog joint—popular for rapid before- and between-films meals),
—Lisa Hair Design and
—Castro Coffee Company (multiple types of fresh coffee, plus baked goods, juices and a wide variety of quick protein sources—a lifesaver).
I will revisit some of these establishments later, but now I am standing in front of the Castro Theatre.
This 2016 photograph conveys what the Castro is like a few hours before the dapper raucous crowds arrive:
There are two ways to get tickets for NOIR CITY screenings: buy them for individual shows (or double-bills) or purchase an all-festival Passport (permitting attendance at the Opening and Closing Night receptions on the Mezzanine).
Individual tickets can be purchased from the box office on the afternoon/evening of the screening or online prior to each screening. Ticket holders enter through the doors to the left of the box office (photograph 2016)…
…sometimes forming long lines to do so.
Passports can be purchased either on the NOIR CITY website or by making a donation of $500 or more to the Film Noir Foundation (FNF). Passports usually arrive in the mail or are collected at NOIR CITY XMAS; I always receive my Passports at the Castro on Opening Night.
Passport holders enter through the doors to the right of the box office, often lining up long before the Castro doors “officially” open (photograph 2014).
Both entrances have NOIR CITY volunteer gatekeepers. This young woman (an actress at The Speakeasy) did an excellent “newsboy” impression, complete with “Canarsie” accent and exaggerated pushiness, on Thursday evening, February 1.
I always store my Passports in the right-hand brim of my fedora, as reporters once did. Entering the Castro, I usually just point to my hat; many volunteers know me by sight. But another volunteer revealed that I have a “signature move”: I walk in, point to my hat, then spin around to face the street. Kind of like a Passport pirouette, I guess. I think I am simply confirming the gatekeeper saw my Passports, but who am I to argue with a little flair.
When I approached the Castro that Friday afternoon, the only other person I saw there was Linda Martinez, who is ALWAYS first in line.
The irrepressible soft-spoken 81-year-old was actually brought on stage on Thursday night, ostensibly to play “Name That Noir” (a trivia game created for this year’s festival—more on that later), but really to honor her 16 years of near-perfect (perfect?) attendance. As she told me that Friday afternoon, she always gets Passport #1, which is kept “in the vault.”
Standing there waiting and chatting, as more early-bird regulars (the sartorially-elegant Brian first among them) gathered in the Passport line, was the first of many instances of “hurry up and wait.”
The Castro doors would not actually open for Passport holders until 5:30 pm.
It was also the first “do I eat now, or do I wait until X arrives to join me?” moment. This time, at around 4:15 pm, I decided to grab a “San Francisco” at Dapper Dog: a large juicy all-beef wiener with grilled onions, red and green bell peppers, melted mozzarella cheese and brown mustard.
Yeah, it was wicked good.
No sooner had I started eating it, however, when I received a note on Messenger (the Facebook app). Another Passport holder friend—a local special education teacher and film festival veteran—was just down the street at Slurp Noodle Bar.
I quickly ate my hot dog, studiously avoiding mustard spills, so I could join her. After catching up, we walked back to the Passport holders line, which had gotten considerably longer.
At some point, I was moved into the “do not yet have a Passport” line. I waited patiently for one of the four volunteers (yes, there are a lot of NOIR CITY volunteers: 56 are listed in the souvenir program) sitting at the tables in the space between the entry doors and the main lobby, just inside the theatre itself. Show runner Rory O’Connor (“the best-dressed man at NOIR CITY”) did just that Saturday afternoon (February 3):
I love NOIR CITY, and I plan to attend as many years as I can. Heck, when our daughters are a little older, I want to bring them and Nell with me.
But confusion often reigns over my Passports.
My name was not on this list and not on that list. What was your name again? No, that is not the correct list. Hmm…I think you need to talk to Phil.
Finally another show-runner, the energetic and amicable Manessah Wagner (graciously photographed with me on the festival’s final night), quietly materialized behind Phil’s left shoulder. Before you could say “chiaroscuro,” I was handed my two Passports with a sincere mea culpa from Ms. Wagner.
Into the theatre I went.
The first thing you see when you walk into the Castro is the old-fashioned concession stand (photograph 2014—neon effect unintentional). There may be no more seductive aroma then when they start to pop their popcorn. Plus the coffee has unlimited refills.
Another volunteer job is to corral the many interior lines—like this concession stand line Friday night (February 2).
I noted in a previous post that the bathroom code at the now-defunct Sliders was vital intelligence. That is because the rest room lines that form just before, during and just after screenings are jaw-dropping. The men’s room is to the right and down a flight of stairs at the very back of the above photograph. At the bottom of the stairs, you turn right into an ante room containing a wooden bench and a giant ice maker; giant framed lobby cards for films like The Blue Angel (at the very bottom of the stairs), A Night in Casablanca (in French, no less), High Noon and, of course, The Maltese Falcon adorn the walls. There are three urinals and two stalls in the men’s room. And still the line—leading to dash quickly during closing credits—will often snake out of the bathroom, through the ante room, up the stairs, across the lobby and into the auditorium itself.
The line for the ladies’ room, located on the opposite side of the lobby, similarly snakes up one of the wide carpeted stairwells to the Mezzanine (shown behind me below—albeit shorter than usual; slightly askew bow tie belonged to my late father-in-law).
There are four wooden double-door entrances into the auditorium, two to the left of the concession stand and two to the right. I always use the ones just to the left of the concession stand because my preferred seat is five rows down on the left, right on the aisle.
Before settling into that aisle seat for the first film, I Wake Up Screaming (aka The Hot Spot), a masterpiece directed by Charlie-Chan-veteran H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone and released just 13 days (October 31, 1941) after The Maltese Falcon, we will explore the Mezzanine.
As I tweeted on January 29, it is “where all the cool kids hang.”
On either side of the entrance doors are the wide stairs to the Mezzanine, with a giant gilt-framed mirror hanging on the turning (seen looming out of my fedora in the previous photograph).
The mirrors have their uses (yes, that is a TARDIS iPhone case)…
Turn left at the top of the stairs (the ones to the left as you enter the Theatre). Just to your left, in the corner formed by the turn of the stairs, are two cushioned sofas, placed cater-corner to each other around a wooden table. On the other side of the table is a hard wooden chair with a yellow-covered plush seat and dark leather back whose bottom hits your tailbone in the most awkward way.
The only person I have ever seen sit comfortably in that chair is Bill Arney, the “voice” of NOIR CITY, whose disembodied voice announces the start of “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller’s (or Alan Rode’s) introduction of each film.
You are not supposed to bring outside food into the Castro, but I have enjoyed multiple sandwiches and bags of chips from Rossi’s Deli, just opposite the Theatre (photograph 2016), sitting on those sofas. On a trip like this, with so many meals eaten on the fly (or way too late at night), sandwiches are an excellent way to get “vegetables” (if only lettuce, tomato [OK, it’s a fruit], onion, pickles, etc.) into your diet. The owners of this family-owned business (more than 30 years, if memory serves) are happy to chat with you while you wait for your order. On this trip, the glass window visible in the photograph below (2016) was gone; the delicatessen was literally open to the public. The week before the festival, a stray bullet had pierced the window; nobody was hurt.
The next three photographs are from 2015. I never learned these ladies’ names, but they generously allowed me to take their picture. The car ain’t bad either—I believe it had delivered that year’s joint Ms. NOIR CITY’s (Evie Lovelle and Audra Wolfmann) to the Castro earlier in the evening.
See the storefront with the circular blue and green sign suspended over it? That is Marcello’s. I have lost track of how slices I have savored—or wolfed down—there, though I will count some in later posts.
Concluding this tour of Castro-based eateries (for now) is Orphan Andy’s, located just down 17th Street from Twin Peaks and the third 24-hour diner I have discussed in this series (I love San Francisco). This neighborhood landmark is my go-to spot when I have time near the Castro to eat a meal leisurely.
In fact, I enjoyed supper there Friday evening (February 2), ordering a bowl of their excellent minestrone soup (a house specialty and loaded with liver-cleansing spinach) and rye toast. Seriously, I was craving rye toast and butter.
My server that night was a slender man with white hair and a gentle face, somewhat older than many of the young men in tight shorts and t-shirts who work there. As he waited for my order, he told me that I looked familiar. Did I live in the neighborhood, he asked. No, I responded, Boston. He then explained that after living just up the street for 17 years, he was only now meeting his neighbors. He also had just started working at Orphan Andy’s.
While I did not take a picture of the disco ball that hangs near the front door, I did take this one for our purple-loving elder daughter while breakfasting there on the last day of the festival.
I love these butterflies hanging from the ceiling.
You often see other NOIR CITY patrons in Orphan Andy’s. Looking around on my stool, I saw the three representatives from NOIR ALLEY, the Sunday morning show hosted by Muller on Turner Classic Movies, sitting in the large window booth. They were actually the second contingent sent from Atlanta to man the NOIR ALLEY display (and raffle) on the Mezzanine.
Oh, right…the Mezzanine.
Before I resume the tour…a little more NOIR ALLEY from Sunday evening, January 28 (with thanks to the playful and talented Emily and Ken Duffy, the ultra-nice couple who “adopted” me on my first-ever night in NOIR CITY).
This is what the Mezzanine looks like when it is sleeping—say, a little before 5 pm on Tuesday, January 30, 2018.
In the first photograph, that set of tables adjacent to the NOIR ALLEY display is where FNF merchandise is sold—as I will be doing at NOIR CITY Boston (June 8-10, 2018; Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA).
Here, seasoned veterans Elana Meow and Philip Fukuda (and more of those volunteers) sell NOIR CITY t-shirts, mugs and posters; copies of the NOIR CITY Annuals; DVDs of FNF restorations like Woman on the Run; books by FNF authors (the hot item this year was Rode’s new biography of Michael Curtiz); souvenir pins; and a host of other items also available on the NOIR CITY website.
In the corner formed by the turning in the opposite stairwell is where Green Apple Books sets up shop (I apologize for the blurriness). There have been many nights where only the luggage limitations of airline travel prevented me from buying two, three, six books at a time.
Directly opposite is the raffle table, including the sign-up sheet for Name That Noir.
The long red-topped table next to the raffle display is where gorgeous, often rare, vintage movie posters and lobby cards are sold. You can see some of it behind the Duffy’s, who “adopted” me on Opening Night 2014 (photograph 2015).
Finally, there is the booze table (with apologies to my new friends Isabella, Rose and Melissa).
During my first three sojourns in NOIR CITY, “drinks on the Mezzanine” meant that a local store had donated, say, a case of Four Roses bourbon (or gin or red wine) to be poured—free of charge.
Starting in 2017, however, bartenders from Stookey’s Club Moderne (more on them in a later post) starting selling cocktails—including a tasty concoction called a corpse reviver—at their own Mezzanine station. I admit to enjoying more than one of their irresistible rye Manhattans.
There was still some free booze—including on January 30, when they poured Purple Pachyderm pinot noir from Claypool Cellars—owned and operated by legendary bassist Les Claypool.
Earlier that Tuesday evening, sitting on those sofas scribbling in my little black Moleskine notebook, I overheard a conversation between Stookey’s Aaron Cole and Daryl Sparks, FNF Promotional Director/Print Production, over how much wine to pour for each patron. Cole was advocating for the alcohol equivalent of a shot of liquor, while Sparks wanted a smaller portion. They eventually settled on a mid-point: roughly one-half of a clear plastic cup.
Before I finally meet my friend in front of the Castro, so we can enjoy the Opening Night reception and I Wake Up Screaming (she could not stay for Among the Living) together, here is one final staircase shot (Closing Night 2014).
And additional vintage automobiles, from 2015 and 2018, respectively.
To be continued…
Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.
 I have heard Twin Peaks called “the glass coffin” because of its floor-to-ceiling transparent glass windows on two sides and the average age of the clientele. As my friend put it to me, they are the ones who can most easily afford the drinks there.
 A shout-out to Eddie Muller for concluding his NOIR ALLEY introduction of Split Second with a gravel-voice “Gotta light,” an homage to the astonishing Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return.
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