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The Last Picture Show

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.)

 

A small, wiry, somewhat cautious man in his late 50s, Torgan has a reticence that might be misinterpreted as world-weariness from having witnessed a quarter-century of humanity through the narrow margins of a box-office window. But once you get him talking about movies, a welling enthusiasm spills out. “There’s so much you miss seeing a film the first time,” Torgan says. “I have guys who come in and say, ‘You know how many times I’ve seen this film? Twelve.’ Or you’ll get these older guys who come in, and they’ll say, ‘Casablanca? Saw it first-run.’ They’ll tell you where they saw it, how old they were. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many places like this left in the country. I just got back from New York City, and there’s really nothing there.”

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.”

The theater has served as a de facto film education for generations of young Hollywood. Nicolas Cage mentioned it as a primary source of film knowledge when accepting a film award. Alicia Silverstone once reportedly rushed out two minutes before the end of The Misfits, horrified at the treatment of the horses (moments before Clark Gable sets them free), thus unconsciously emulating Marilyn Monroe’s character. Torgan recalls some mysterious graffiti that appeared in the women’s bathroom in the early ’80s, praising Wim Wenders in robust terms. Only years later, when filmmaker Allison Anders, speaking after Gas, Food, Lodging, confessed to the ongoing vandalism, did he learn its source.

“I wrote some gushing thing, like you would about the Beatles, for Wim Wenders,” remembers Anders. “‘He’s a genius’ — very schoolgirlish, even though I was already a mother of two by then. And [Torgan] did leave it up, because I continued to be able to add to it every time I went there. Of course, I was writing Wim a letter a week at this point . . . I went to the New Beverly all the time. It was like my film school before film school.”

 

On its recent 25th anniversary, the theater held no celebration, no fete or revival of past glories — merely a screening of Rosemary’s Baby. Even its calendar barely registered what would seem like a monumental achievement — a tiny notice in 6-point type proclaiming, “Hooray! The Beverly Cinema has reached a milestone. This month marks 25 years of continuous repertory programming . . . The struggle goes on.”

“I think anyone who tries to run a revival house will tell you that theaters saw the writing on the wall years ago,” Torgan says, trying to take the long view. “The last five or six months have been very hard. I’m just hoping that things turn around. I have another option period for quite a few years into the future. But anything can happen. I’m getting older; it just becomes exhausting, and kind of disheartening. I feel unappreciated. In a way, I am supporting the theater, just in the labor that I don’t pay myself for. I try to do everything I can myself: I book the theater, I put together the calendar, I distribute the calendar, I buy supplies. I do pretty much everything except run the projectors. My son has helped out since college — he works a day or two a week — but he works full time elsewhere.”

A host of forces seems to have converged recently to make the theater’s continued existence more tenuous. Although it managed to weather two decades of the video revolution, the recent proliferation of DVDs seems to be taking its toll — perhaps because the revival-theater demographic feels like it is finally being marketed to. The New Beverly is the only revival theater in Southern California — and possibly one of the last in the world — that is neither a nonprofit nor tax-subsidized, meaning that unlike UCLA and the L.A. County Museum of Art, every dollar that goes toward bills ‰ comes from either the box office or concessions. As for American Cinematheque, which has aggressively carved a niche out of the U.S. archival market that is the New Beverly’s bread and butter, Torgan says, “They’ll do their noir festival, and then I can’t play film noir for a year.” Typically, he thinks about this less as a rival than as a fan. “As a moviegoer, I would be there all the time. I tell people in other cities about the American Cinematheque, and they can’t believe we have that kind of a venue.”

 

In addition, Technicolor struck a deal in the ’90s with the studios to provide storage for their 35mm prints in giant vaults in Wilmington, Ohio, and Ontario, California, in exchange for an exclusive contract to ship the prints and related promotional material. Although the shipping cost is roughly $35 a print, less than any commercial shipping service would charge, multiply that by six prints, 52 weeks a year, and suddenly theaters like Torgan’s are facing up to an $11,000 annual delivery charge. (Torgan used to drive to the studios and load the prints in his trunk.) Between that, increases in insurance and workers’ comp, and the onslaught of permit-only parking on residential streets surrounding the theater (in front of houses that have both garages and driveways), a wafer-thin profit margin suddenly vanishes.

“People think, ‘Well, gee, they’re not doing any cosmetic changes,’” Torgan says. “It’s just that we can’t afford it. And if we did, we’d certainly have to raise the ticket prices. People have come in over the years, from the industry or wherever, and said, ‘Gee, we’d really like to help you out.’ And I was always too proud at the time; I felt like it was charity. But certainly I am open to that today. I’ve heard of nonprofits in other cities — San Francisco, say — where people felt like they provided a community service and have held benefits or whatever. I just wonder how many people really even know this place still exists.”

“I think there will be something really lost if it goes,” says Tolkin. “In a way, the marquee is an index for what has lasted.” He suggests more first-run foreign films that have not landed distribution. “He could do that with the French Cultural Ministry, the Spanish Cultural Ministry. There’s an unbelievable wealth of films being produced around the world.”

Torgan continues to experiment with programming, mixing in newer films like Spun (on a recent bill with Trainspotting), which is technically new enough to qualify as second-run. Johnny Legend and Eric Caidin of Hollywood Book and Poster show exploitation prints from their private collection once a month, as they did recently with Spider Baby and The Big Doll House, featuring director Jack Hill and star Sid Haig in attendance. Torgan rents the theater out to daytime film shoots when he can. And the possibility always exists for individual sponsorships — either corporations or entities buying out blocks of seats, or individuals booking a night and inviting all their friends. (Put me down for Network and Sweet Smell of Success.)

“Not that I’m sitting here this depressed, beaten-down shell,” says Torgan, suddenly concerned that his comments might be misconstrued as bitterness. “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.”

Julien Nitzberg assisted in researching this article.

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