Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Arts & Culture
Published on August 14, 2023
Castro Halloween Returns to Its Roots With Costume Contest & Film ScreeningsCliff's Variety's Ernie Asten (left) as a boy. | Courtesy of Cliff's Variety

While the days of the once-legendary Castro Halloween block party have long passed, plans are currently in the works for a community-based event with a costume contest, film screenings at the Castro Theatre, and storefront activations. 

Event organizers announced plans for the community-focused event, set to take place on Saturday, October 28, at the Castro Merchants meeting earlier this month.

SFMTA board member and Manny's cafe owner Manny Yekutiel, Castro Merchants president and Cliff's Variety co-owner Terry Asten Bennett, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and Sister Roma, Another Planet Entertainment (APE), and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District (CQCD) are spearheading the event's return.

"We are very excited to bring back Halloween in an old-school, community-based, and safe manner," Asten Bennett told Hoodline. "Halloween holds a special place in my heart and I am really looking forward to seeing what our community has to offer."

Ernie Debaca (center), Asten Bennett's great-grandfather, judges a children's Halloween costume contest (circa 1940s). | Photo courtesy of Cliff's Variety


Back in the mid-'40s, kids in the neighborhood geared up for Cliff’s Variety’s annual costume contest, complete with a giant dinosaur that walked around with them.

In 1979, Cliff’s canceled the contest, due to increasing crowds of rowdy partygoers. From there, Halloween in the Castro eventually morphed into a full-blown costume party for adults, attracting thousands of people each year from around the world in the '80s and '90s.

This year's event will not include the block party that attracted hoards of Halloween revelers to the Castro for decades. Instead, the event will include a costume contest and film screenings at the historic Castro Theatre.

Cliff's Variety costume contest (circa 1940s). | Photo courtesy of Cliff's Variety


"It's a reinvention of Halloween in the Castro," said Yekuitiel.  "The Halloween festivities that had been happening were canceled for a reason. I don't think anyone wants to bring that same version of Halloween in the Castro back because it got really dangerous."

Castro residents will recall that the block party was officially canceled in 2006 after 10 people were injured when someone shot into the crowd. Nine people were shot and one was trampled in the chaos.

SFFD ambulance arriving on-scene in the Castro on Halloween 2006. | Photo: Jeremy Francis


Last year the Castro Merchants hosted a similar family-friendly Halloween Block Party on Noe Street. This year's event will be in the same vein with all the major events taking place at the Castro Theatre.

"I see this as going back and trying to reignite the original spirit of the Halloween festivities that brought the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence out in the first place and Terry's great-grandfather was doing activities outside of Cliff's," said Yekutiel.

The festivities will run from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. with film screenings at the Castro Theatre. Tickets will cost $5 and all proceeds will go to the Castro Merchants and Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to host future Halloween events.


Neighborhood businesses are also being encouraged to activate storefronts throughout the day on October 28. Currently, there are no plans to host an organized event on the actual holiday, which falls on Tuesday.

The event will culminate with a costume contest from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. and a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at 9 p.m. When asked if the event will be a sing-a-long, Yekutiel said that details were still being worked out.

"We are so thrilled to open our doors so that people can come together," said APE senior vice president Mary Conde. "The Castro Theatre is the right place for such an event that celebrates the LGBTQ communities and our fellow neighbors and businesses and helps restore this long cherished, truly Castro family Halloween."

The event is being funded by the Civic Joy Fund, co-founded by Yekutiel and Daniel Lurie. Launched earlier this year, the $2 million initiative seeks to engage communities across the city. The fund is supported by a group of individual philanthropists including tech entrepreneur Chris Larsen and institutional donors.

Yekutiel tells Hoodline that the Civic Joy Fund is willing to spend between $100,000 and $150,000 on the event. Yekutiel is also donating $5,000 to Comfort & Joy's Glow in the Streets block party on the same day.

Comfort & Joy's Glow in the Street Block Party (2021). |  Photo: Steven Bracco/Hoodline


"We're delighted to be working with the Civic Joy Fund, Castro Merchants, Sister Roma, and the LGBTQ Cultural District on this event that supports our local neighbors and businesses," said Conde.

District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman did not respond to Hoodline's request for comment on this story.

According to Yekutiel, the idea is to remove the financial risk from small business owners and show that movie screenings at the Castro Theatre can help raise funds. Should the event prove successful, Yekutiel hopes that the Castro Merchants and the Sisters can run it on their own next year.

Yekutiel emphasized that this year's event is meant to be a community gathering and did not want to encourage people traveling in from across the Bay Area.

Halloween at Cliff's Variety (1959). | Photo courtesy of Cliff's Variety


"I don't want people to get nervous," said Yekutiel. "I've heard it loud and clear from the community — they don't want a giant block party."

Safety is one of the event's top priorities and Yekutiel said there will be an extra police presence, private security, and over 40 community member volunteers will help keep eyes on the neighborhood.

Yekutiel is hopeful that this year's event will help bring some excitement and vitality back to the struggling neighborhood. "The Castro needs help right now," he said. "There have been a bunch of businesses that have not reopened post-pandemic and there's a variety of vacant storefronts."

"I thought it would be a way to help the small business environment in the Castro recover and bring some magic," added Yekutiel. "The city needs all the magic it can get right now."

[Full disclosure: Steven Bracco, Hoodline's Castro reporter, is a board member of the CQCD.]