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For years, S. David Levy kept a Che Guevara quotation posted in his Georgetown office: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”
Levy was not exactly a revolutionary, but he lived through dynamic times—an era that shaped him, and that he also shaped. The 67-year-old Levy, who died Sept. 15 after a 20-year struggle with leukemia, began his professional career as a lawyer with a special interest in civil-rights and Selective Service cases. He is most widely remembered, however, as the owner of the Key Theater, the Wisconsin Avenue NW cinema that he and wife, Seena Levy, operated from 1973 to 1997.
Levy’s Sept. 19 funeral drew many veterans of the local film community, including former Circle Theaters owner Ted Pedas, NPR (and Washington City Paper) critic Bob Mondello, and Reason magazine Senior Editor Charles Paul Freund. As a graphic designer and a writer, respectively, Mondello and Freund helped produce ads, fliers, and film calendars for Levy’s theaters in the ’70s and ’80s. (I also did design work for Levy in the mid-’80s.)
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A Georgetown native, Levy attended the University of Wisconsin and Harvard Law School. In 1967, five years after graduating from Harvard, he and four partners started Georgetown’s Biograph Theater. He left that cinema in 1973 and bought the nearby Key, a single-screen movie house to which he and his wife added three more auditoriums in 1985. Later, they also operated the Key College Park and Baltimore’s Charles Theater, both of which they relinquished before the Georgetown flagship closed.
After shuttering the Key, the Levys and the theater’s vice president of operations, Andrew Mencher, ran the Key Sunday Cinema Club, which offered its members previews and discussions of upcoming art-house releases. The club, which Mencher says will continue, ultimately grew to have chapters in nine cities, including Boston and San Francisco.
Levy was “very old-fashioned in a lot of ways. All the good ways,” notes Mencher. “In terms of personal contact and keeping his word.”
Mondello suggests that the club sustains an intimate vibe that has largely been lost in the movie business. “It’s a natural transition,” he says. “David watched film become this big commercial thing. The cinema clubs have more of the old interaction.”
One of the prominent myths about the local art-film market is that it was tiny in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In fact, 10 foreign and indie flicks were screening commercially in D.C. on Sept. 30, 1967, the day the Biograph opened. Such films were playing not just at such art houses as the Circle, the Dupont, and the Janus, but also downtown at the Warner, uptown at the Apex, and even at the Atlas on H Street NE.
It was a fallow time for Hollywood, and the burgeoning youth market wanted new sensations. Still, many foreign movies of the period were popular mostly because they offered a sexual frankness that Hollywood fare lacked. “David took chances with films that couldn’t be marketed as erotica,” says Freund. Levy, Pedas, and the Biograph’s Alan Rubin were “tastemakers,” Freund argues. “They gained the trust of their audience.”
Not everything Levy booked was earnest and ennobling. The Key played The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a weekend midnight show for years and was closely associated with John Waters. The connection grew stronger when Levy acquired the Charles and hired longtime Waters associate Pat Moran to manage it.
Art-film cinema changed dramatically during Levy’s career: The national chains came to dominate, older theaters were superseded by megaplexes, and such cinematic standbys as Hitchcock and the Marx Brothers, now available on video, no longer drew crowds.
David Levy’s influence, however, guided filmgoers throughout almost 40 years of such changes. “He just got such a kick out of films,” Mondello says, “and loved sharing that kick with audiences.”—Mark Jenkins