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The Last Picture Show 

Of Los Angeles’ great archival double-bill theaters, only Sherman Torgan’s New Beverly Cinema remains. Can this revival house be saved?

Thursday, Jul 17 2003
Photos by Ted Soqui

“Tell your children how the great age ended.”

—Charles Laughton in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn, seconds before he leaps to his death

Once on Family, a mostly forgotten prime-time soap opera from the late ’70s, the son, Willie, meets a special girl at a revival theater he frequents, and they enjoy what Walker Percy in The Moviegoer referred to as “a sweet and natural relationship.” The girl, a quiescent beauty with her head swathed in a long, flowing scarf, is played by the actress Brooke Adams, and she has the spark of life about her, even though she is revealed to be suffering from terminal cancer. In the second half of their two-part episode, he marries her, and she dies.

The theater, although not named, was the New Beverly Cinema, as indicated by the presence of its calendar on the family’s refrigerator. And to a burgeoning film buff in a suburban enclave a thousand miles away, this became an enduring vision of Los Angeles — where the fossil record of film history floated loose in the air, where fading movie palaces served as the temples of a secular religion, and where beautiful, albeit doomed, girls awaited in the darkness within, captive in the movies’ evanescent thrall.

When Sherman Torgan opened the New Beverly Cinema in 1978, there were literally a dozen revival, repertory and non-first-run theaters in greater Los Angeles. There was the Vagabond near MacArthur Park, home of “the Vagabond crowd,” pensioners who flocked to Golden Age programs (now largely on display at the Tuesday matinees at LACMA), and its sister cinema, the Tiffany on Sunset. There was the Four Star on Wilshire, now a Christian Youth Center; the Encore, razed to make way for Raleigh Studios; the Sherman in Sherman Oaks; the Loyola near LAX; the Gary I and II on Santa Monica; and the granddaddy of them all, the Fox Venice, at Lincoln and Venice. Of them all, only the New Beverly remains.

“Before the VCR and before the multiplex, there was this incredible time, a small period from about 1980 to 1983, when a lot of [theaters] were becoming archival houses, because it was so cheap,” says Michael Tolkin, writer-director of The Rapture and The New Age and a longtime New Beverly patron. In both his novel and screenplay for The Player, a studio executive murders a screenwriter in an alley behind the Rialto Theater in South Pasadena after a screening of The Bicycle Thief, but it was more likely the New Beverly he had in mind. “I don’t think I’d ever been to the Rialto except once when they were showing The Bicycle Thief, and that’s why I set it there,” he says. “Otherwise, it probably would have been in the alley behind the Beverly.”

In an era when most theaters boast state-of-the-art sound systems, acoustics and projection for the latest blockbusters, the New Beverly offers the exact opposite: thematic double bills culled from a century of the finest Hollywood, foreign and cult movies, in a venue that, to be charitable, threatens to collapse around its enlightened clientele. Former L.A. Weekly film critic Michael Ventura, for whom Torgan used to screen the obscure John Boorman– Marcello Mastroianni film Leo the Last (on a bill with Point Blank), once wrote of the New Beverly, “It likes to revel in its own funk.”

The theater’s 300 seats may lack that mall plushness; its screen might bear the battle scars of generations of overzealous viewers; it may rely on swamp coolers instead of air conditioners; and its projection booth may be the size of entire multiplex screening rooms. But Torgan still insists on offering double features — even if a sign on the ticket window must inform contemporary audiences that “second feature does not require separate admission.” And, now that the second-run Vine has jumped to 7 bucks, Torgan has the lowest ticket price in the city: two movies for $6. With a special discount card — eight admissions for $30 — that price drops to $3.75 per double feature, or an absurd $1.87 per movie. What’s more, Torgan serves fresh-popped popcorn with real butter.

“Sherman hired me to be the popcorn chick,” says filmmaker Aiyana Elliott, who worked at the New Beverly briefly in the early ’90s. “I’m sure it didn’t pay very much, but it was my dream job. Not only could I watch tons of movies when I was working, but Torgan was definitely the best boss I ever had. I’d like to get that job back, as a matter of fact. Being an independent filmmaker just isn’t quite paying the bills.” (Torgan later booked her documentary The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, about her father, folk musician Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, on a double bill with the Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back.)

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