article picture

Castro Movie Makeover: Glimpses of the Castro from 30 Years Ago

by Marina Coleridge

Guides for the Castro: Tales of the Village tour have been able to observe the ongoing retrofit to the Castro as its appearance from 30 years ago is brought to life. The time warp is all part of the Gus Van Sant film entitled Milk. The biopic on the life of the first openly gay man elected to office in the United States stars Sean Penn as Harvey Milk and Josh Brolin as Dan White. Filming began on January 22, 2008, and is slated to continue until March 15th. For those of us who walk the Castro and, through our stories, evoke the images of decades ago, these are exciting times!

Construction workers have altered the Castro Theatre marquee to use the color palette from the late seventies. The Nasser Family, owners of the Castro Movie Theatre, is paying upwards of $12,000 of the costs involved. After the filming, the Castro Theatre will retain its new “old” look.

On the other hand, we have only had a brief chance to view 575 Castro Street as Harvey Milk’s Camera Shop, Castro Camera.

This building, designated a City Landmark in 2000, has undergone both interior and exterior changes to bring back to life this focal point of gay liberation politics. The retail store Given has vacated the premises until spring. The interior has had a wall removed and the wall coverings, furniture, and fixtures have been changed.

Remnants of the seventies include the “Boycott Coors” poster affixed to the front door. The exterior of the building has been repainted to cover a painting which depicted Harvey Milk looking down to the street below. Since the changes began, security guards have been stationed out in front of the store, in part due to the public interest in this historic site.

Unlike Castro Camera where filming has occurred inside the building, the other changes to the Castro have all been exterior. Behind these new facades are still the current businesses. At 440 Castro Street, the sign for the Toad Hall Bar has been restored. The Toad Hall, originally located at 482 Castro, was a trend-setting gay dance bar in the Castro and was the social hub of the neighborhood. This was one of the first bars to use taped music instead of a juke box. Staying ahead of the competition, they then were first to install a booth and hire a DJ.1

The Bank of America has reappeared at its original location at the corner of Castro and Market, U.S. Bank is temporarily Eureka Savings, and – the most vibrant change in the neighborhood – Hot Cookie has been converted to Double Rainbow Ice Cream. The Castro Launderette and Northern California Realtor have also returned. Wistfully, I have stared into the windows of Northern California Realtor to view the fabulous Victorian properties at their 1970s sale prices ranging into the low 60’s!

The bus stop has been removed from the front of Twin Peaks Tavern at the intersection of Castro, 17th, and Market Streets because it was too modern. As a guide, I appreciate the better view of the Twin Peaks Tavern, opened in 1972 by two lesbians. Its exterior is significant because its floor-to-ceiling windows were a bold statement of being out and proud.2 This was a radical departure for the gay community, which had continued to receive harsh treatment from the establishment.

Most of the filming was planned to be ongoing during the daytime, excluding weekends. The exception is the late-night filming to recreate the march from the Castro to City Hall and the subsequent White Night Riots that took place on May 21, 1979. The White Night Riots, which were a two-part event, occurred after the announcement of Dan White’s conviction of manslaughter instead of murder in the slaying of Harvey Milk. The first part of the riots damaged police cars and other property at City Hall as the marchers from the Castro vented their anger. Later that night, police, looking for retaliation, stormed the Elephant Walk Bar at 18th and Castro (today occupied by Harvey’s), breaking furniture and injuring patrons, many of whom had not been involved in the march earlier in the evening.

To learn more about the Castro as a center of the gay liberation movement, as well as a broader history of the neighborhood back to the Ohlone Indians, join us Sunday mornings at 11 AM under the rainbow flag at Market and Castro Streets.

1 2

Photo credits: Castro Theater by Susan Saperstein. Castro Theater inset and Harvey Milk’s store by Marina Coleridge

article picture

The Castro Theater now has the colors of 30 years ago.

article picture

article picture

Harvey Milk's Camera Shop was recreated in its original location.

Send comments and questions to
Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.