S. David Levy, 67, theater owner reopened the Charles as art house

September 18, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

S. David Levy, who established the Charles Theatre as the city's best-known art house cinema 25 years ago, died of leukemia Wednesday at Washington Hospital Center. The Washington resident was 67.

In 1979, Mr. Levy, who owned the old Biograph and Key theaters in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood, leased the Charles, then a vacant movie house at Charles and Lanvale streets. He was widely credited with reviving an interest in film repertory and with improving the neighborhood north of Penn Station.

"We thought that Baltimore was a great city that needed some help," said his wife of 38 years, the former Seena Schnall, who was born in Baltimore and lived as a child in Pimlico. "It was really a quiet time for movies in Baltimore. There was nobody playing much art film at all."

When Mr. Levy reopened the Charles - it had earlier been a place where World War II-era newsreels and some art films were shown - the surrounding neighborhood was declining. A 1979 Sun article described it as "a rather battered area near the train station."

Mr. Levy ran the Charles as a repertory house, featuring a mix of old and new films. He renovated the aging building and installed a new projection system. He also set a six-week advance schedule of films and offered discounted ticket books. For several years, he also operated Charles Village's Playhouse in the first block of W. 25th St.

"He put money into the Charles and brought it way up. He had excellent instincts and taste in booking," said Pat Moran, the Baltimore casting director who was the director of the Charles for many years.

In 1989, a decade after reopening the Charles, Mr. Levy reported that the film Sex, Lies and Videotape had broken a house record with $30,000, eclipsing an earlier house high-water mark of $20,000 earned in five days by director John Waters' Polyester.

Ms. Moran said she and Mr. Waters approached Mr. Levy about becoming a film exhibitor in Baltimore after the opening of Waters' Female Trouble in Washington.

"At the time, there really was nowhere in Baltimore where films like this were being shown," she said yesterday. "The Charles may have then been in the wrong part of town, but it was certainly the right time for it."

Mr. Levy blamed a decline in business when he gave up the theater in late 1993. It reopened the next year and has since been enlarged and refurbished.

"He made the Charles an important place," said James "Buzz" Cusack, the Charles' owner. "He was most helpful to me when I first took the place over."

Born Simon David Levy in Washington, Mr. Levy was a 1955 Sidwell Friends School graduate who earned degrees at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard Law School.

While at Harvard, he saw art films being shown in Cambridge, Mass., and Boston.

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

His father, Washington merchant and real estate investor Samuel Levy, was credited with boosting older commercial sections of the Georgetown neighborhood, where he owned and operated a men's clothing business.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow at Washington Hebrew Congregation, 3935 Macomb St., NW, Washington.

Mr. Levy also is survived by a son, Benjamin Levy of Los Angeles; a daughter, Karena M. Levy of Washington; and two brothers, Richard H. Levy and Philip G. Levy, both of Washington.

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