UPDATED 9/6/14 with links to further information and reportage, including statements from Quentin Tarantino, all of which can be found at the end of this post.
UPDATED WITH MORE LINKS 9/7/14
"Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got till it's gone" – Joni Mitchell
I sat down this morning to write about what essentially feels the end of an era, and as dramatic as that may sound to those on the outside looking in, I suppose it really is. Last evening, August 31, 2014, marked the final screening at the New Beverly Cinema to have been overseen by the theater's manager, programmer and all-around heart and soul Michael Torgan, the son of the New Beverly's original owner, the late Sherman Torgan, who died suddenly while riding his bike in Santa Monica in 2007. The elder Torgan had been running the theater on very thin margins since 1978, and when Michael took over day-to-day operations after his father's death, and after the generous financial intercession of Quentin Tarantino, there was a sense of relief that the legacy and tradition of repertory cinema as envisioned and executed by Sherman would continue.
And continue it did for seven years, until last night's screening of William Wyler's Funny Girl. Ironically, the film was shown in a brand-new 4K digital restoration, a concession undertaken by Michael to the march of progress and the marketplace meant to ensure the theater's livelihood against the reality of the dwindling availability of 35mm rentals and the ascendance of digital cinema packages (DCP) as the primary format of exhibition in this age of ever-altering modernity. As of this writing, no details regarding the facts of Michael Torgan's departure have yet emerged, though Michael did speak at last night's screening to the crowd that came out to wish him a fond farewell. (I was not among them, unfortunately, so I cannot relate anything of what he said. I am hoping that someone will report on it soon, and when they do I will link to it here.)
It is not hard to imagine, whether correct or not, that Tarantino might not have been happy about the digital invasion into the New Beverly, given his increasingly strident 35mm-or-bust position. And it might not have been the best strategy to purchase the equipment, given that position, without Tarantino’s approval, if that’s the way it happened. But whatever the story is, there is no escaping the fact that when the New Beverly reopens its doors in October, after a dark September, Torgan and his vision, and his sense of film history, and the things he learned about the repertory business from his dad, will no longer be in play. The first screening in October, under a new management team likely to be closely monitored by Tarantino himself, will mark the first time since 1978—36 years-- that the Torgan family will not be involved in presenting classic, contemporary and foreign films to the city of Los Angeles. I have no idea how the New Beverly will change moving forward, but it seems naïve to think that it won't, and perhaps significantly.
I heard about Michael's final evening late yesterday afternoon, far too late for me to rearrange a previous commitment, and so I wasn't among those who were able to spend last night in his company and that of the community of New Beverly faithful, the people who have made my own renewed relationship with the theater such a joy over the past eight years. So I did the only thing I could do—I conceded to my sadness, and I drank some beer, and I thought a lot about what the New Beverly Cinema has meant to me, in the Sherman Torgan era, of course, but primarily in the Michael Torgan era.
As I wrote on Facebook yesterday, when I first heard the news, Michael has honored his dad's memory in the best way possible—by tirelessly, and sometimes not so tirelessly carrying on, in the face of changing habits of his audience and any number of other technological wrinkles in the way we watch films in the 21st century, most of which amount to a series of hurdles placed squarely between the desire to present repertory cinema for an increasingly distracted audience and actually getting asses in seats and pictures on the screen. When I think about what the continued existence of the New Beverly has meant, I think about things that have less to do with what the theater means for how we still see the movies, in a general sense, and more to do with reasons that are very selfish, very personal.
The number one thing that I will miss about Michael Torgan not tearing my ticket at the box office is that sense of community which he engendered, for which he was undoubtedly the core. As I began showing up to the theater more regularly again, beginning in 2007, and making what was happening at the New Beverly an important aspect of what I wrote about on this site, I started becoming aware of seeing the same faces every time I'd see a film there. As a result, I met a lot of people, many of whom have become good friends, and we frequently had just as good a time talking about what we’d seen in the lobby afterward as we did watching the films themselves. But even more importantly, Michael always somehow made me and my family feel so very much at home whenever we would go there, either all together or just a couple of us at a time – and we went there a lot. I took my daughter Emma there so often during the years 2009 through 2012, for everything from screwball comedies to film noir to westerns, that we not only established our own favorite seat, but Emma also drew pictures depicting the outside of the theater and the two of us standing with Michael and Julia Marchese, the theater’s director of event programming, which for several years held a place of honor at the entrance of the theater, taped to the inside window of the box office.
So as I continue to worry about that which is out of my control—the future of the New Beverly Cinema—I thought it would be at least a more positive distribution of my energy to think about my favorite moments at the theater and remember the generous vibe, the film school in a popcorn bag atmosphere that Michael Torgan, unexpectedly handed the reins in 2007, managed to cultivate there. Here then are several reasons why I’ll miss the New Beverly Cinema as it once was.
THE FIRST MOVIES I EVER SAW IN LOS ANGELES WERE… Less than a year after I graduated from college, a friend and I ventured south from Oregon to Los Angeles with vague hopes of trying to find work in the movie business-- #1 piece of advice: Don’t try to break into the movie business during what amounts to an extended two-week vacation. Though we did manage to wrangle an audience with producer Mary Anne Fisher at the old Venice location of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures (we even showed her some super-8 movies we’d made), the trip was basically a chance to screw off and see movies. And the first ones we saw were a double bill of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Eraserhead (1977) at—where else?—the New Beverly Cinema. Especially for two hayseed boys from small-town Southern Oregon, the theater had a strange, sinister run-down vibe that was, of course, exacerbated by the skeevy terror of the films themselves, and I remember being constantly aware of my surroundings, as if I seriously questioned whether we’d make it out of there alive. We did. But if you’d have told me in the spring of 1982 that I’d be taking my own daughter to see movies there some 37 years later, I might have suggested driving to the nearest hospital for an emergency vasectomy. Especially after seeing Eraserhead.
UPON RETURNING TO LOS ANGELES FOR GOOD IN 1987, the New Beverly became a favored destination for me and my best pal Bruce, as well as other friends I would quickly make. I remember a screening of Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka (1983) during which Bruce and I discovered the one section in the middle of the auditorium from which the foul reek of stale piss was inescapable. The fact that the house was packed (Packed! On a Wednesday night! For a notorious Nicolas Roeg flop! This place must be some sort of heaven!) meant that we had to sit tight and stick our heads in our popcorn bags for any hope of relief. Avoiding that section in the future, I saw greats like Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), Manhattan (1979), Red River (1948) and Ride the High Country (1962) with other friends, including the woman who would soon become my wife. And one night I faced up to one of my major bucket-list fears and bought a ticket for Salo: the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Like the horrific stench of stale piss, there was no escape from Pasolini’s tortured vision either. (Fear not, motif hounds—I shall return to the urine theme a bit later, though, believe it or not, in a much happier context. And by the way, just for the record, that smell has long since been vanquished from the auditorium!)
FOR TEN YEARS FROM APPROXIMATELY 1997 to 2007, I FELL OUT OF THE HABIT OF GOING TO THE NEW BEVERLY CINEMA. But I had a pal at work who was becoming a regular and who was constantly encouraging me to attend the occasional Grindhouse Night with her, those special sojourns into the scurrilous world of low-rent genre cinema that would soon become a twice-monthly staple of New Beverly Tuesday nights. I was constantly begging off, having recently had two daughters of my own and experiencing firsthand the life- and scheduling-altering effects of parenthood. I’d been writing this blog for three years when she finally talked me into it. The first Grindhouse Festival, designed by Quentin Tarantino as a simultaneous homage to the trash classics he loved but also as a cross-promotional opportunity for the upcoming Grindhouse (2007) double feature, got under way in March of 2007. I seized the chance to write about the event for this site, specifically about the two double features I managed to attend-- John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977) and Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), and then a few weeks later Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971) doubled with Richard Lerner’s Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1976)-- in a piece entitled "Sex and Violence x 2: Grindhouse Report 2007." And I was off, again, and running.
IF WE’RE LUCKY, WE GET TO HAVE A HANDFUL OF GREAT THEATRICAL EXPERIENCES IN OUR MOVIEGOING LIVES, and during that stretch from 2007, when I started my habit anew, to this year, 2014, the New Beverly has afforded me seemingly more than my share. There was the night, during Edgar Wright’s second “Wright Stuff” festival, when John Landis, who replaced Wright at the last minute, hosted a screening of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and, to my initial horror, called me out during his introduction to talk about my experience as an extra on that film in front the whole house. (He asked if I thought he’d been a nice guy to work for, and when I answered in the positive he proclaimed, “Well, then I can reveal now that you’re the main reason for the movie’s success!”)
During that stretch I also had the chance to see several of my favorite Robert Altman films projected, including Brewster McCloud, Thieves Like Us and The Long Goodbye. Most thrilling, however, were the exquisite prints I saw on a M*A*S*H (1970)/California Split (1974) double feature about three years ago, bested only by the chance to see Nashville (1975) again last fall, just prior to Criterion’s gorgeous Blu-ray release, after a long period of not seeing it theatrically. It was even more exciting because I saw the film with two friends who had never seen it before. And yes, we spent some time in the lobby afterwards, with Michael, talking about just how astonishing the movie remains nearly 40 years after it was released, and how even more prescient it seems in the current light of day.
I’ll never forget seeing Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922) on a double feature with Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943) a few years ago , just weeks before Halloween. The hallucinatory brilliance of the double feature (how many more programs like this can we reasonably expect without Michael Torgan’s influence?) was capped perfectly when I made my way out into the lobby afterward, only to see Julia stumbling down the stairs from the projection booth, a dazed look on her face. When she saw me she muttered, “That’s the freakiest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. Did you like that?!” Equally memorable, the transcendent Sansho the Bailiff (1954; Kenji Mizoguchi), which I’d never seen before, and which unspooled in its haunted splendor before me and about 10 other paying customers on a Friday night. When I stopped to thank Michael for showing it, he could not hide his disappointment that so few patrons, even among the New Beverly faithful, seemed willing to give the movie a chance.
AND THERE WERE THE GREAT, LO-O-O-O-O-O-O-ONG SITS that made me forever grateful for the theater’s seat replacement program, in which the tiny, beat-up fold-down seats were replaced by much nicer, cushier, back-friendly ones—with cup holders!—in 2008. It was a real privilege to spend my first riveting and unforgettable experience with Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976; Chantal Akerman) in the company of my pal Maria, on whose urging I decided to finally come to terms with this unique and brilliant film myself.
Slighty longer than that, though considerably more action-packed, was a midnight screening of Tarantino’s own personal answer print of Inglorious Basterds (2009), hosted by the loquacious director himself, which started a half-hour late and was preceded by 45 minutes worth of WWII movie trailers also brought in by the director—which meant that the nearly three-hour feature didn’t get started until about 1:00 a.m. The usual gathering in the lobby to hash out the experience got under way at about 4:00 a.m., and I didn’t leave for home for another half-hour, remembering all the way to my car and all the way home how I used to do this sort of thing all the time in college, and it never seemed as devastating to my system, or my need for sleep, as it did in this moment.
However, easily the longest and the most pleasurable of all was the opportunity I took a couple years ago to avail myself of a New Beverly pre-New Year’s tradition: a seven-hour (with bathroom break between features) double bill of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), perhaps the most devastating and thrilling of all American epics. To see it unspool in such close proximity, at full attention, was a singular thrill. I’d pulled this stunt once in the VHS days as a particularly perverse Thanksgiving treat to myself, but there’s nothing like the power of Coppola’s films unleashed in a theater, sans distractions—not even a peep from a cell phone, as I recall-- to make you appreciate their true, unforgiving power.
BUT AS GREAT EXPERIENCES IN A MOVIE THEATER GO, whether at the New Beverly or anywhere else, it’s hard to beat these three in my personal book. In April of 2008 I topped off the first of two interviews with director Joe Dante, who has always been one of my favorites, with a cornucopia of treats he offered at his first “Dante’s Inferno” Film Festival at the New Beverly. There were several highlights, of course, including Dante’s superb Matinee (1993) and his hilarious, politically astute satire The Second Civil War (1997), but nothing could possibly top the first screening in 40 years of Dante’s legendary, lunatic masterwork The Movie Orgy (1968), compiled with producer/friend Jon Davison during their college days. The screening was free thanks to the multiple rights violations within the program itself, making it illegal to charge admission, and it was packed to the gills, taking on the feel of a true underground phenomenon. More an experience than a movie, The Movie Orgy almost defies description, which as you’ll see in my piece "Joe Dante's New Beverly Movie Orgy" in no way stopped me from trying. (This was the evening during which I was first introduced to Michael Torgan as well. A big night indeed!)
Only about six months later, it was time for another one of those “I never thought I’d ever see this” kinds of nights that the New Beverly was becoming very generous in providing. Staged in part as a tribute to actress Wendie Jo Sperber, who died in 2005 from breast cancer, and an fund- and awareness-raiser for WeSpark, the breast cancer foundation, the New Beverly staged a double bill of epic proportions featuring Sperber and many, many others-- I Wanna Hold Your Hand! (1978) and one of my favorite films of all time, Steven Spielberg's unjustly maligned 1941 (1979), both of which were written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. (The former was also Zemeckis’ first directing gig.) The stage was packed with veterans of the Zemeckis/Gale stock company, including Gale himself, actress Nancy Allen and actor-director Perry Lang, who staged a great Q&A before 1941 that was worthy of its own DVD audio commentary track. I was especially thrilled to be able to participate in that Q&A and express my unalloyed love for both movies, but Spielberg’s in particular. In my piece "Fire at That Large Industrial Structure: A 1941 Postscript," I talk about the night, which had both an unexpected beginning and a transcendent grace note of a finish.
Those were brilliant nights to be sure, but I don't think anything could match what my friend Don Mancini and I managed to pull off two years later, just before Halloween 2010. The one and only time the name of this blog was ever attached to a movie event was this one, and it was a real honor to have had a hand in making it happen. We commandeered two nights on the New Beverly schedule for what, in our eyes at least, was a terrific double bill— Jaume Collett-Serra’s genuinely frightening Orphan (2009) coupled with Don’s very own misunderstood orphan, Seed of Chucky (2005). The first night was dedicated to the cast and crew of Orphan, including the film’s screenwriter David Leslie Johnson and the unnervingly self-possessed and talented star of the film, Esther herself, Isabelle Fuhrmann, all featured in a Q&A hosted by Don. Night two was dedicated to the spawn of Charles Lee Ray, with Don, actors Jennifer Tilly, Steve West and Debbie Lee Carrington, and producer Corey Sienega all on stage for a Q&A moderated by Face/Off screenwriter Mike Werb. It was a chance to stand up for a couple of horror movies that are much better, more frightening and, in the case of Seed more deliberately funny and satirically sharp than they are usually given credit for, and I think we took 100% advantage of the opportunity to kick-start the buffing-up of both their reputations with this event—and I got to meet (and sit down for dinner with) Jennifer Tilly! Read all about it, and see the Q&As themselves, in my piece The Seed of Chucky/Orphan Q&As."
OVER THE PAST SEVEN YEARS I’VE MADE MUCH IN THESE PAGES ABOUT THE NEW BEVERLY FAMILY AFFAIR, and though it might sound like a sentimental cliché it really is true, in a couple of different ways. I’ve never felt the sense of bonding over movie love as strongly anywhere else as I have at this theater, and that has everything to do with seeing the same engaged, excited faces at screening after screening, ready to soak up whatever unknown or happily familiar sights and sounds that would be spilling off the screen on any given night. And I’ve met so many people who have become an important, indispensable part of the Los Angeles filmgoing scene that I’ve been welcomed into since 2007. I introduced myself to Anne Thompson for the first time at a screening of Richard Brooks’ Wrong is Right in 2008— astoundingly, she knew about my blog already and has been an ardent supporter of my writing ever since.
Among the other people I’ve become acquainted with at the New Beverly include fellow writers Peter Avellino, Jeremy Smith and Jen Yamato, filmmakers Brian Crewe, Joe Dante, Matt Dinan, Marion Kerr, Julia Marchese, Peter Podgursky and Edgar Wright, extraordinary and erudite film fanatics like John Damer, Marc Edward Heuck, Cathie Horlick, Jeff McMahon, Brian Quinn and producer/classic film specialist Michael Schlesinger, film archivist Ariel Schudson (my TCM Film Festival pal), as well as all-around good souls and New Bev fixtures like Corky Baines , Freddie, and of course Clu Gulager. If ever one needed and coveted a family of like-minded filmheads, this is a pretty glorious group with which to start.
And as I stated earlier, Michael and the New Beverly always found a way to make my family feel as though the place was our second home. One evening we found ourselves on the way home from the Westside and my youngest daughter Nonie, as often happens to young kids, was seized by an urgent need to take a whiz. We just happened to be passing the theater on Beverly Boulevard, so I whipped around, pulled in front of the theater and asked if she could use the pottie. While I waited for her to finish, I talked with some of the staff and Michael even gave Nonie a hot dog for the ride home. Try pulling that off at your local AMC mall-tiplex. (See how I returned to that urine motif? Told you I would.)
BUT FOR US THE FAMILY CONNECTION GOES DEEPER than the well-timed availability of the ladies’ room. Round about 2008 I began making a concerted effort to encourage my kids’ interest in classic films, and the New Beverly played a hugely important role in that time and aspect of their young lives. As a dad hoping to instill reverence and love for all sorts of movies in his kids, the theater provided an opportunity that was just too rich and varied to pass up. I started them both off with a kiddie Halloween matinee of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), and we were off to the races. Nonie joined us on occasion, but more often it was Emma accompanying me for a wide variety of great double features, including Kansas City Confidential (1952) and 99 River Street (1953), during which she cultivated a short-lived Jack Elam impersonation, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Christmas in July, (1940), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), from which Nonie’s popular head shot was cultivated, Modern Times (1936) and The General (1926), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) and Coogan’s Bluff (1968), and other great movies like Ace in the Hole (1950), The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), and The Palm Beach Story (1942).
Emma had a personal revelation with the hilarity of the Marx Brothers when I took her to see a double feature of Duck Soup (1933) and Animal Crackers (1931)—I wrote about it in a piece entitled "Duck Soup-- Funniest Movie Ever?", and another one when director Rian Johnson, working on a theme of cons in the movies, introduced her to the ostensibly strange but beautifully modulated double bill of The Lady Eve (1941) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). (I thanked Johnson, and received a nice response back, in a post entitled "An Open Letter to Rian Johnson".)
And we had a great time together as a family for two Halloweens running, with me dressing up in totally white vampire egghead mode the first year for The Invisible Man (1933) and The Wolf Man (1941), and then the next year working a subtle variation on the bald, totally red-headed Satan, Nonie as his unaccountably lovely daughter/minion, for a double feature of Island of Lost Souls (1932) and Them! (1954). The second year’s bonus is that we entered the New Beverly Halloween Costume Contest, judged by the audience and emcee Joe Dante, and Nonie and I kicked ass, taking first prize, a pass card worth 16 free admissions! It was worth the Karen Silkwood-style Lava soap scrub-down I had to endure to get myself clean when we finally made it home.
But Michael and the New Beverly saved the best for a couple of birthday celebrations. For my 50th birthday in 2010, Michael generously offered to let me program the double feature to be shown on my birthday date that year, and the pairing I chose—You Only Live Twice (1967), my favorite of all the Bond movies, alongside Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain (1967), the third in the Michael Caine/Harry Palmer series, which I’d never seen projected, was the perfect combination.
And earlier that same year, through Michael’s seemingly endless generosity, we threw Emma’s 10th birthday party in the theater on a rainy Saturday morning, with a magician, free popcorn and sodas, pizzas hauled over from Domino’s by Michael and myself, and a screening of Emma’s movie choice, Cats and Dogs (2001). To this day I can’t think of this party and how much it meant to me and my family without getting emotionally overwhelmed. We carved out a one-of-a-kind memory for my movie-crazy daughter that day, and I will be forever in Michael’s debt for facilitating such an amazing experience for her. You can read all about it in my post entitled "Wanna Be the Daughter of Dracula..."
So after 36 years of the New Beverly Cinema under the tutelage and guidance of the Torgan family, I’m left with these sweet memories—yours are certainly different, but just as plentiful— an ache in my heart for what has passed, and trepidation for what form the theater will take, what function it will fulfill in the Los Angeles movie community when it reopens in October. I don’t hold out much realistic hope that Michael will continue in the repertory theater game—he’s made his mark, and I wouldn’t begrudge him or be at all surprised if he takes this opportunity to make a new path for himself. I just hope he sleeps well, knowing what he and his family have meant to those who hold the movies dear. To paraphrase and reposition the words of one Steve Judd, played by Joel McCrea at the end of a movie I first saw at the New Beverly Cinema, Michael Torgan deserves to rest easy and know that, once and for all, he can most certainly leave this house justified.
Thanks, Michael, for everything.
LINKS FOR FURTHER READING:
Quentin Tarantino interviewed by Chuck Wilson 9/4/14: "Quentin Tarantino on the New Beverly: 'After Seven Years as Owner, I Wanted to Make It Mine'"
Curbed Los Angeles: "The New Beverly Cinema is Becoming Quentin Tarantino's 35mm Public Screening Room" (This link is most interesting for the comments section, which include one long statement from Michael Torgan.)
Ariel Schudson: "What Price Hollywood? The Finale of a Family-Run Movie House"
Jen Yamato: "Quentin Tarantino's New Beverly Promises Double Features, Vintage Trailers, Tarantino Films & NO. DIGITAL. EVER."
LAist: "Quentin Tarantino Takes Over New Beverly Cinema After An Uneasy, 'Not Very Nice Or Pretty' Transition"
(Some photos courtesy of Ariel Schudson)