Sherman Torgan, who turned an adult movie house in Los Angeles into the New Beverly Cinema, an arty repertory theater that screens classic, independent and foreign films, died Wednesday. He was 63.
Torgan suffered an apparent heart attack while on a bicycle ride in Santa Monica. He was pronounced dead at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, said Jeff Rosen, a longtime friend.
From the time “the Beverly” opened in 1978 with a Marlon Brando double bill -- “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Last Tango in Paris” -- Torgan did everything from plan the programs to work the box office.
His limited budget didn’t allow for flashy decor. He said he would rather keep ticket prices down than redecorate. Currently, general admission is $7, less for students and senior citizens.
When Torgan took over the theater, he and friends tore out the runway that had been used for erotic dance acts and replaced it with seats. Over time all of the theater’s 300 seats became battered, and the projection room was “held together by spit and glue,” said Rosen, who sometimes was the theater’s projectionist. Torgan acknowledged that the place was “a little rough around the edges.”
That look was part of the appeal for Torgan’s clientele. Famous film directors and actors turned up unexpectedly to see the movies. Francois Truffaut once attended a screening of “Mildred Pierce,” the 1940s film noir starring Joan Crawford. Eva Marie Saint was once in the audience for “North by Northwest,” the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock thriller that featured her and Cary Grant. “She said she hadn’t seen the movie in years,” Rosen recalled.
One patron, actor-writer-director Quentin Tarantino, organized a Grindhouse Festival at the Beverly this year. The festival title referred to the movie houses that used to “grind” away their projectors, showing three features in a row. Among the many “deliriously bad films” in the festival, Times arts writer Geoff Boucher noted, were “Autopsy,” “Jailbait Babysitter” and “Chinese Hercules.”
Revival, repertory and second-run movie theaters -- the Vagabond near MacArthur Park, the Fox Venice near the beach -- came and went, but Torgan’s New Beverly Cinema remained. The rise of multiplex theaters, the increasing number of classic film programs at Los Angeles museums and the DVD industry cut into his business, but film buffs, students and people in the movie business still sprinkled the audience.
“A lot of people got their film education at the Beverly,” Rosen said.
Torgan was born in Philadelphia on June 18, 1944, and moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. After graduating from UCLA he moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a location scout for movie production companies. He returned to Los Angeles in the mid-'70s to be nearer the studios.
He and two friends, Martin Ford and Donald Rappaport, opened the New Beverly Cinema in 1978. A year or so later Torgan took it over, Ford said in an interview with The Times this week.
Many patrons recognized Torgan on sight. He was slim and wiry with a dark beard and a full head of hair in the early days of the theater, when he was in his 30s. Later, he shaved off the beard but always kept his weight down.
In recent years his son, Michael, worked with him at the theater.
Programming has been canceled through the weekend. Further plans regarding the schedule will be announced on the theater’s website, www.newbevcinema.com.
“The theater was Sherman,” Rosen said.
Besides his son, Torgan is survived by his wife, Mary, and a brother, Marvin.
A funeral is planned for 1 p.m. Monday at Mount Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles. For details, call (800) 600-0076.