By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
After coming west from Philadelphia and graduating from UCLA in 1969, Torgan relocated to the San Francisco area, where he worked as a location scout and spent a year negotiating the purchase of a theater with several partners. When that fell through, he returned to Los Angeles, where he leased what was then known simply as the Beverly Cinema and staffed it mostly with UCLA film-school grads. “I didn’t want to get in a business that involved getting up too early,” he says, “and I wanted to get in a business that really had sort of a positive vibe. Movies put a smile on people’s faces.”
Before Torgan took over, the building at 7165 Beverly Blvd. had a curious legacy. It was a vaudeville theater in the ’30s, and then, beginning in 1946, Slapsie Maxie’s, a nightclub named for the boxer and, later, actor “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom (world light-heavyweight champion between 1930 and 1934, and originator of the Big Jule role in Guys and Dolls on Broadway). Although Rosenbloom, who got his nickname from sportswriter pal Damon Runyon, was listed on the deed, the club was managed by Charlie and Sy Devore, clothiers who kept the Rat Pack in their sharkskin suits, and was actually owned by L.A. mobster Mickey Cohen. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had their West Coast premieres at the club.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the space was taken over by a cinema society that eventually ran a wall down the center and operated what may have been the first multiscreen theater in Los Angeles. Known as the Riviera-Capri, it showed an eclectic mix that included Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks, Nazi newsreels, the animated Animal Farm and Sartre’s The Crucible. After that, the theater became the Europa, specializing in foreign films, and then the Eros, which (like the Vista and others at the time) showed 35mm first-run adult films. In 1968, the property was bought by Howard Ziehm, the soon-to-be co-director of Flesh Gordon and Mona, the Virgin Nymph, widely credited as the first domestic porn feature with artistic ambitions. Ziehm changed the name to the Beverly and his new tenants added live erotic stage shows. In 1977, the Los Angeles Times suddenly stopped accepting ads for adult films, and the business became a liability.
Torgan opened the doors of the rechristened New Beverly (so he wouldn’t have to replace the sign entirely)
on May 5, 1978, with a Brando double bill — A Streetcar Named Desire and Last Tango in Paris, which was just then helping to bridge the gap between X-rated and mainstream entertainment.
“I like to say that the L.A. Times put me in business,” Torgan says. He is both the longest tenant in this location and the oldest business on the block.
Over the years, the theater attracted a cast of regulars that give the place part of its personality, including Freddie Gillette, who was Orson Welles’ driver for the last five years of his life (and, in fact, found the director’s body), and Gary Graver, the cameraman on Welles’ final (unreleased) feature, The Other Side of the Wind. There’s the Asian gentleman who can locate a Marxist subtext in even the most benign Hollywood offering, and the Hasidic gentleman who will enter in casual clothes (generally for a screening of something with “sex” in the title — sex, lies and videotape; Sex and Zen) and then change into Orthodox robes before exiting the theater.
Robert Nudelman, former president of the Hollywood Heritage Association, is perhaps the oldest customer, having averaged a movie a week since the New Beverly’s inception. “I met Sherman when he was actually putting together the first schedule, and I was here the first week,” he says. “He’s the last of a breed who came up in the ’70s. Corporations have always had trouble with revival programming, because it takes programmers who understand the movies and the audience. If they don’t like it themselves, the audience will figure that out real quick.”
Many of the New Beverly’s most memorable evenings have been a function of Los Angeles’ casual proximity to fame. Numerous actors have stood up after screenings to take questions: Seymour Cassel with Faces and Shadows, Malcolm McDowell with If . . . and A Clockwork Orange, Timothy Carey with Paths of Glory and The Killing, Allen Garfield after The Conversation. Tom Waits came to see Lolita and complimented Torgan on his intermission mix-tape; Andy Kaufman used to slip in late for the Three Stooges midnight marathons; Robert Altman pulled over in his limo on the way to the Golden Globes when he saw Nashville on the marquee; and Rod Steiger led a whole entourage in to see Children of Paradise.
Quentin Tarantino once showed up with practically the entire cast of Reservoir Dogs at a midnight screening. Later, Lawrence Tierney became a fixture in the lobby, bellicosely holding forth and expecting theater employees to drive him home afterward.
“I’ve seen Tarantino down here a couple of times just watching [Reservoir Dogs],” says Nudelman, “seeing how it was going to go. So you could say he learned how to make Pulp Fiction while hanging around the Beverly. That may be a good or a bad thing, I don’t know. [As for Tierney,] here was a guy who was pretty much forgotten or disliked by everybody, and it’s one of the few places he could come, talk to people, get some free food and enjoy himself. I talked to him a few times. That was his big social event, was coming down here.”
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