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S. David Levy, 67; Owner Of Biograph, Key Theaters

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page B06

S. David Levy, 67, who helped found the Biograph Theatre and was co-owner of the Key Theatre, which kept alternative cinema alive in Washington for decades, died Sept. 15 at Washington Hospital Center. He had chronic leukemia for more than 20 years.

A film fan since law school, Mr. Levy held several jobs in the legal profession early in his career but dashed them for a chance to start a movie house. With his four partners, including two lawyers, he founded the Biograph at 2819 M St. NW in what was once an auto salesroom.

David Levy became a devotee of film in the early 1960s. (Family Photo)

Their motto at the time: "Crazy we may be, but stupid we're not."

The Biograph's focus on classic and foreign films, often shown in repertory, made the business an instant favorite for cinephiles. For years, it was one of the few places where they could find films by Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. The old Circle Theater was the only competition.

Mr. Levy, who handled booking at the Biograph, began scouting for an opportunity to work for himself. In late 1973, he and his wife bought the Key, a one-screen theater at 1222 Wisconsin Ave. NW.

They eventually expanded the Key to four screens to show classics, early films by John Waters and first-run foreign fare.

Much of the business was alchemy, an intuition about audience tastes. He cited one example: "When I saw 'My Brilliant Career' " -- a 1979 Australian film -- "I said, 'I don't care what the reviews say, this picture's going to do business.' "

The film's distributor had called him accidentally, he once said, confusing him for another David Levy in his Rolodex. Mr. Levy obtained exclusive rights to show the movie at the Key, and it attracted large audiences for seven months.

The Key's midnight weekend viewings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975) also brought in a steady audience. For years, "Rocky Horror" ticket buyers lined up in garish makeup and costumes, the customary attire to celebrate the cult film.

French entertainer Yves Montand flew in from France to promote "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring."

Waters, the Baltimore-born filmmaker, came with his transvestite star Divine to the premiere of "Polyester" (1981), which was accompanied by a klieg light show.

That caused some trouble.

"We had traffic blocked on Wisconsin Avenue for two hours," Mr. Levy said. "And we got a call from National Airport telling us the lights were disturbing the airplanes coming in. Howard Stern was the DJ at [radio station DC] 101, and they did a live remote. And no one cared about Stern. Everyone was gaga for Divine and Waters.

"That was," he said, "a long time ago."

Both theaters were casualties of home video, rising real estate prices in tony Georgetown and competition from larger, corporately owned theaters for booking rights.

Mr. Levy also cited media influence, especially Washington Post editors who he said rarely seemed interested in what he was showing. "You have to fight to get covered," he said. "If you can't get the ink, it's hard to get people to come to the movies."

The Biograph closed in 1996. The Key was razed in December 1997, replaced by a Restoration Hardware store. Mr. Levy maintained a lease on the building and made much more money from the retail outlet.

He remained sentimental about his cinematic enterprise. He continued hosting at various theaters the Key Sunday Cinema Club, which featured a pre-release screening of an independent movie and conversation with a film critic.

Simon David Levy, a native Washingtonian and resident, was the son of a Georgetown menswear merchant and real estate holder. His father, Samuel, was credited with refurbishing the once-seedy area near the Key Bridge.

The younger Levy was a 1955 graduate of Sidwell Friends School, a 1959 graduate of the University of Wisconsin and a 1962 graduate of Harvard Law School.

While at Harvard, he was first exposed to the art-house films and foreign imports that were beginning to attract and influence U.S. audiences and filmmakers.

"I got my film education there while nominally preparing for a legal career," he told a reporter.

Early on, he did legal work for the National Labor Relations Board and the National Capital Planning Commission. He also had a private practice.

He was a former president of the Georgetown Business and Professional Association and a board member of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. His daughter is hearing impaired.

Survivors include his wife, Seena Schnall Levy, whom he married in 1966, of Washington; two children, Karena M. Levy of Washington and Benjamin Levy of Los Angeles; and two brothers, Richard H. Levy and Philip G. Levy, both of Washington.

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