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Sherman Torgan: Last of the Independents

Sherman Torgan, the selfless, universally well-liked and quite possibly heroic owner of the New Beverly Cinema, died July 18 of a heart attack while riding his bicycle on the bike paths in Santa Monica. For what would have been 30 years next May, Torgan served as proprietor of the last traditional revival cinema in Los Angeles, offering two films nightly for the absurdly low admission price of $7.

In the ’60s, Torgan came west from Philadelphia and graduated from UCLA. After relocating to San Francisco for five years, he returned to L.A. and leased what was then known as the Beverly Cinema, an adult-film theater left with suddenly bleak prospects when the Los Angeles Times stopped accepting ads for X-rated businesses. A shrewd businessman even then, Sherman rechristened the theater the New Beverly (to save himself the cost of a new sign) and opened for business on May 8, 1978.

Long before that, the performance venue at 7165 Beverly Boulevard, between Fairfax and La Brea, had a storied past. A vaudeville theater in the ’30s, in 1946 it became Slapsie Maxie’s, a nightclub nominally run by boxer Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, who was really a front for L.A. mobster Mickey Cohen. Jackie Gleason and the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis both had their West Coast premieres there. In later years, the theater was run by a cinema society as the Riviera-Capri, showed first-run foreign films as the Europa, and operated as an adult theater as both the Eros and the Beverly.

Over the years, the New Bev’s less-than-opulent surroundings nevertheless played host to a cavalcade of famous names.

“Rod Steiger came down here to see Children of Paradise with a whole entourage,” remembers Robert Nudelman, a building-restoration advocate and weekly patron since the theater’s launch. “Robert Altman drove by the theater a couple of years ago when a double bill of his was playing — I think he was on his way to the Golden Globes — and he got out to say hello and get a program. And Lawrence Tierney [the character actor whose career was revitalized by Reservoir Dogs, which played an extended midnight run at the theater]: Here was a guy who was pretty much forgotten or disliked by everybody, and it’s one of the few places he could come and talk to people and enjoy himself. His big social event was coming down here.”

Novelist and screenwriter Michael Tolkin set the murder scene in The Player at the Rialto in Pasadena, but admits it was predicated on his formative experiences at the New Beverly. Aiyana Elliott worked there as “the popcorn chick” in the early ’90s, and years later Torgan booked her documentary The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack. Andy Kaufman slipped in late for midnight showings of Three Stooges shorts; and in his Golden Globes speech for Leaving Las Vegas, Nicolas Cage name-checked the theater as having been responsible for his film education. Torgan himself recalled once changing the marquee to the Stanley Kubrick double bill Paths of Glory and The Killing, only to be assailed by actor Timothy Carey (featured in both), looking to book his own film, The World’s Greatest Sinner. (It later played at midnight.)

Ironically, this past March, Torgan reluctantly agreed to let longtime patron and New Beverly supporter Quentin Tarantino host his two-month Grindhouse Festival at the theater, suspending the usual programming in favor of nightly double features assembled from Tarantino’s personal collection of exploitation, offbeat and subcommercial fare, ostensibly to promote the release of Grindhouse. As lines stretched around the block nightly for titles like The Swinging Cheerleaders, Death Rage and Cry of the Prostitute, Torgan confided to L.A. Weekly film editor Scott Foundas that the crowds were the largest the theater had seen since its pre-DVD heyday in the 1980s.

In a message posted to the New Beverly Web site, Torgan’s son Michael, who worked with his father at the theater, said there are no immediate plans for its future. “Sherman was my father and my best friend, and his passing has left me and my family completely devastated,” the message says. (By press time, programming was set to resume under the steward­ship of family friend Jeff Rosen.)

But let’s give Sherman the last word, and allow him his own epitaph:

“Not that I’m sitting here this depressed, beaten-down shell,” he told the Weekly in 2003. “Because I feel successful. I feel like if I walked out of here tomorrow — which I’m not planning on doing — hey, I had a good run. Very few independent businesses, no matter what they’re selling, last 25 years.”

As Gene Kelly sang in An American in Paris: Who could ask for anything more?


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