Films Depict Castro Fairs of Yore
Street performers, from ethnic dancers and magicians to jugglers and stilt walkers, entertain the crowds. Local artisans sell their wares.
Booths promote gay organizations, such as Bay Area Gay Liberation, or BAGL for short, where bagels with cream cheese are available, and the Gay Teachers Coalition.
The scenes aren’t that different from today’s Castro Street Fair, which continues to celebrate the neighborhood, its merchants, and its LGBT community. This year’s outdoor festival, set to take place Sunday, October 6, marks the 40th anniversary of the event.
Yet the images captured in grainy, black and white home movies were shot during the 1976 and 1978 Castro Street Fairs. Part of the Daniel A. Smith (Queer Blue Light) video collection at the GLBT Historical Society’s archives in San Francisco, the footage has rarely been seen by the general public.
A roughly two-minute clip of the donated films that was posted to the society’s YouTube page last October has racked up slightly less than 5,300 views. It was only in the spring that fair organizers themselves learned about the archival footage’s existence.
"Earlier this year we heard the footage existed and that parts of it had been screened at the historical society’s Castro museum for Harvey Milk Day," said Fred Lopez, president of the fair’s board of directors.
He and George Ridgely, the fair’s executive director, recently visited the archives South of Market to view the several hours worth of film for themselves.
"We knew they probably had some artifacts, old posters or programs. The video was a surprise to us," said Ridgely, who was hired in 2006.
He was struck by how similar the early fairs appear compared to today’s incarnations.
"It is not unlike today. You see the roots of the event in the footage," he said. "Quite honestly, other than some layout changes, the fair is still true to its roots."
The fair organizers decided screening the footage for a larger audience during this year’s event would be an appropriate way to mark the fair’s ruby anniversary.
"This is a good opportunity to celebrate it and highlight this particular footage," said Lopez, who began volunteering at the fair seven years ago and joined the board in 2010.
Stephen Quinones, a San Francisco-based visual artist, filmmaker, and photographer, is working with the fair organizers on editing the footage down into a three-minute clip that can be shown on a loop at the gay museum space on 18th Street in the heart of the Castro the day of the fair.
Organizers plan to also promote the footage on the event’s website and Facebook page.
"We are working with a videographer to make it look nice. We want to give it an intro and an outro," said Lopez, who expects to release the edited version in early September.
One segment will feature a short interview with the late gay Supervisor Harvey Milk, who had a camera store on Castro Street in the early 1970s and launched the fair to promote the neighborhood and its businesses.
"I like to see a neighborhood street fair that is just that. It is why I never promoted it outside the area," Milk says in the interview filmed during the 1976 fair. "Two years ago I was sitting in my store and got bored. I decided to entertain myself by putting on a street fair. It was phenomenally successful."
For several years now the GLBT Historical Society has screened the Milk footage at its museum as part of its Harvey Milk Day celebration. The unpaid state holiday is annually observed on May 22, which is Milk’s birthday.
"It does seem to make sense to show the fair footage at the museum," Paul Boneberg, the historical society’s executive director, told the Bay Area Reporter when asked about the fair organizers’ desire to screen it during this year’s event.
After viewing the footage himself, Lopez was excited to hear Milk explain his philosophy for creating the fair four decades ago.
"One of the reasons that I got involved with the Castro Street Fair to begin with was because it was something Harvey Milk was directly involved in," said Lopez. "During my time as a volunteer and a board member, it’s been sort of rewarding to be a part of that and continue the spirit of Harvey Milk in San Francisco."
The fair footage is just a small slice of the hundreds of hours of archival video donated by Smith, 69, a gay man who has lived in the Castro since 1971. He and Nikos Diaman, another longtime resident of the city, used a portable camera known as the Panasonic portapack to shoot the footage.
In a recent interview with the B.A.R. Smith explained that the camera used reel-to-reel, half-inch videotape that ran on a machine one held over their shoulder in a bag with the camera attached to it.
"Then we bought editing equipment. It was expensive but well worth it," said Smith.
He does not recall who is behind the camera shooting the street fairs or Milk, though he said he interviewed the gay rights leader "many times" in the 1970s.
The old videotapes had been stored away in his house. One day Smith inquired about transferring the footage to a more modern viewing system but found the cost, at $1,500 for each half hour of footage, to be prohibitive.
"I thought that was just too expensive and I would never be able to afford it. I decided to donate them to the historical society hoping they could keep them," recalled Smith.
Asked about his footage now digitized so modern audiences can view it, Smith said, "I mean it’s fine. I think it is important to record history."
But he demurred when asked about the significance of the films he donated.
"But of course the interpretation of what was recorded is up to people today," he said. "They can decide what is important and not important."
Because the historical society has not finished digitizing its entire film collection, it is unclear what other footage of past Castro Street Fairs may be waiting to be discovered. There is a 20-minute video from the 1991 event that has been made available to researchers.
The color footage shows KTVU Channel 2 news reporter Rob Roth interviewing people at the fair about a riot that took place at the Statehouse in Sacramento when then-Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a gay rights bill that he had pledged to support.
What is notable about the scenes captured when compared to the footage from the 1970s is the prominence of AIDS organizations and how the fair footprint had expanded onto Market Street.
Castro resident Bill Longen, a gay man who worked at KTVU for 20 years as an editor, "liberated" the footage after it aired so that the station didn’t tape over it for another segment.
"Because tape was so expensive at that time, we would hold the raw tapes for a couple weeks before we would erase them, rewind them, and have the cameraman reuse them," explained Longen. "I would go in if it was a gay story I considered important and would keep the raw tapes. I put them in a cabinet at work; after a few weeks I would save them from being erased."
One day the late KTVU cameraman Willie Kee, who died in 2001 at age 64, spotted Longen removing a tape from a storage shelf marked "gay" and asked if he was taking it.
"He said, ’That’s good, keep them because they are important. They are more important than all the murders and fires we shoot everyday. You got history in your hands; don’t let them erase it,’" recalled Longen.
In 2001, before moving to Palm Springs for several years, Longen, 66, donated several boxes full of tapes with gay content from the news station to the local LGBT archives.
"They didn’t know what to do with it when they got it," he recalled.
Now that it is being made available to academics, filmmakers, and others interested in LGBT history, Longen hopes it can be used to educate LGBT young people about the community’s past.
"That is what it is there for. I believe everybody should see it," he said.
To see a short video of the 1976 Castro Street Fair, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nttdjtthfhs.