Intermission at The New Beverly Cinema 7/24/07
The New Beverly Cinema has been many things over the years, but until Sherman Torgan came along it never seemed to be the same thing for very long. In the 1930s it was a vaudeville theater. In the 1940s, mobster Mickey Cohen turned it into a nightclub called Slapsie Maxie’s. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had their West Coast premiere there. In the 1950s it was taken over by a cinema society. After that it became the Europa specializing in foreign films and then a first-run porn theater called the Eros. Eventually it was purchased by Howard Ziehm, director of Flesh Gordon and Mona, the Virgin Nymph. He renamed it The Beverly and had a runway installed for live dancers. When the L.A. Times stopped accepting ads for adult films, a porn theater was no longer the thing to be and in 1978, the theater was purchased by Sherman Torgan. Renamed the New Beverly Cinema, the theater reopened on May 5 of that year with a Marlon Brando double-feature: A Streetcar Named Desire and Last Tango in Paris.
Seemingly against the odds, the New Beverly has lasted that way for 30 years, playing one double feature after another. It’s like Los Angeles’ own private Criterion Collection. Name a classic movie and Sherman has probably programmed it. Pick a cinematic golden age from the country of your choice and examples have probably played there. Bergman? Check. Godard? Check. Fellini? Check. Wilder? Wenders? Check. The other dozen or so revival theaters in L.A. have all gone dark, but the New Beverly has remained. It has weathered the onslaught of the VCR. It has survived the DVD. It has even withstood the American Cinematheque with its state-of-the-art theater and steady stable of members and contributors. It has seen better days for sure, but the New Beverly has carried on. Until now.
Sadly, last weekend the theater was dealt a blow it might not survive: the surprise passing of Mr. Torgan. Sherman was the New Beverly and without him, it’s unclear what will happen next. Knowing that my remaining chances might be limited, but hoping that my support would increase the odds of the theater staying open I headed over to theater’s reopening on Tuesday night for the grindhouse double-feature Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks and The Sinful Dwarf. These are a long way from Bergman, but that’s one of the great things about the New Beverly. I didn’t much care about the movies anyway. I wanted to show my respects in some small way for a man I didn’t know, but who had made Los Angeles a little more liveable for me.
Obviously I wasn’t alone because a line was already forming outside the box office window an hour before show time. As I passed the row of memorial candles and cards and flowers left for Sherman by well-wishers, I could smell the popcorn popping inside and I was struck by the familiar sense of anticipation. Reflexively, I checked my pocket for singles. Sherman always seemed to be running out of singles at the ticket window and I was always the jerk with the twenty. Every time I swore I’d remember to bring change and every time I forgot. Tonight? I had a twenty. Figures.
Johnny Legend (the guy with the long beard) hands out raffle prizes.
Could the white-haired guy sitting front row right be Fred Blassie?
Once inside, the evening began with the grindhouse raffle by singer, actor, wrestling promoter, horror archivist and porn producer Johnny Legend. Prize highlights included a DVD copy of Nympho Libre – the world’s first masked Mexican wrestling sex comedy; an autographed Sinful Dwarf pressbook; a Misty Mundae DVD collection; and Killing Time from the Johnny Ramone VHS collection. Literally. Johnny was a friend of the New Beverly and bequeathed his movie collection to the theater when he died. After the raffle, Dixie cups of Olde English 800 were passed out and a toast was made in honor of Sherman. A nice touch befitting the grindhouse theme.
After that, the lights went down and we were treated to a selection of scratchy trailers from Harry Novak’s Boxoffice International Pictures, the producer if the evening’s features. Many of these were as funny as the trailers in Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse. First there was the Mexican action movie, Machismo! (“The first picture big enough to be called: Machismo!”), followed by Hitch Hike to Hell featuring Russell “The Skipper” Johnson, Kidnapped Coed, and the horror films Axe and Behind Locked Doors (“What will they find – BEHIND LOCKED DOORS!?”). Finally, the familiar psychedelic swirl with “Our Feature Presentation” appeared and the first film began.
So, what do you get when you take ‘Count’ Frankenstein, a horny midget, a horny hunchback, a caveman named Ook (“I do not know your name, so I will call you ‘Ook’!”), a pack of disgruntled villagers, two frequently naked young women, some mumbo jumbo about bringing the dead back to life and an ineffectual police prefect bent on a cover up? You get Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, of course. The moral of the story? “There’s a bit of the monster in all of us.” Classic. There’s no danger of this Frankenstein ever showing up on any Top 100 lists, but it’s exactly the kind of poorly made, absurd fun that plays best on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 or in front of a vocal, appreciative live audience. It got the proper treatment Tuesday night at the New Beverly.
An intermission and more trailers followed: The sexploitation films Country Hooker and Teenage Bride (“The line forms at the rear for Teenage Bride!) plus three full on porn trailers including Marilyn Chambers’ Insatiable (drawing outright applause from the audience), Wildcat Women and Playmates; the latter two in 3D and playing Friday and Saturday at the New Beverly.
At last came the final feature The Sinful Dwarf. Olaf the horny, deranged, Swedish dwarf and his mother Lila Lash, an aging, drunken, ex-cabaret singer (prone to doing sloppy Carmen Miranda and Marlene Dietrich impressions for her drunken friends) run a boarding house. Upstairs they keep a bunch of prostitutes chained and drugged whose services they sell to visiting men. They get their drugs from a heroin dealer named Santa Claus who delivers his stuff inside of the assorted creepy stuffed animals and strange wind-up toys that litter the boarding house. Enter unemployed writer Peter and loyal wife Mary who rent a room for 6 pounds a week….creepy dwarf and peephole no extra charge. Truly bizarre and more than a little disturbing. Jeff the projectionist warned us ahead of time that we’d probably want to go home and take a shower after the movie, but that the insane pre-credit and credit sequences were worth the price of admission. He didn’t lie on either count.
And that was that. The staff seemed pleased with the good Tuesday night turnout and they announced that the theater would definitely remain open at least until the end of the month. They encouraged everyone to spread the word and tell their friends to come support the theater.
You can keep an eye on the New Beverly website and their Myspace page. Also remember the American Cinematheque is planning a tribute to Sherman Torgan on the afternoon of August 19. The Cinematheque website has no details yet, but if I hear anything I’ll post it.