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Sherman Torgan, who founded and ran the last remaining full-time revival cinema in Los Angeles, died Wednesday of a heart attack while bicycling in Santa Monica. He was 63.
His New Beverly Cinema at 7165 Beverly Blvd. in Los Angeles has been screening repertory double bills continuously since it opened in 1978. Past, present and future filmmakers, actors and movie lovers have been drawn to the house, whose attractions run the gamut from old Hollywood classics, recent independent film and European and Asian favorites, to the occasional silent or animated feature.
Torgan opened the doors of the New Beverly on May 5, 1978, with a Marlon 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.
On its recent 25th anniversary, the theater held no celebration. “Hooray! The Beverly Cinema has reached a milestone” read a notice in agate type on the theater’s calendar. “This month marks 25 years of continuous repertory programming. . . . The struggle goes on.”
After coming west from Philadelphia and graduating from UCLA in 1969, Torgan had 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 said, “and I wanted to get in a business that really had sort of a positive vibe. Movies put a smile on people’s faces.”
“I like to say that the L.A. Times put me in business,” Torgan says.
Years earlier, the house had been Slapsie Maxie’s, a nightclub named for the boxer and, later, actor Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom (model for the Big Jule role in “Guys and Dolls” on Broadway). The club then was managed by Charlie and Sy Devore, clothiers to the Rat Pack, and actually was owned by mobster Mickey Cohen.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the space was taken over by a cinema society; then it became the Europa, specializing in foreign films, and then the Eros, which showed 35mm first-run adult films. But in 1977, the Los Angeles Times suddenly stopped accepting ads for adult films, and the business became a liability.
Film luminaires often stopped by: Seymour Cassel, Malcolm McDowell, Timothy Carey, Allen Garfield, Tom Waits, Andy Kaufman, Robert Altman, Rod Steiger and Quentin Tarantino among them.
“I think anyone who tries to run a revival house will tell you that theaters saw the writing on the wall years ago,” Torgan told an interviewer for the L.A. Weekly in 2003.
” 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.”
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