Saturday, March 24, 2007

Herman Stein -- Composer

Ed: We rarely honor the men and women who help make even mediocore films bearable. Here was one such man. And there's one great laugh quote from him in here too.

Herman Stein, 91, Composer of Moody Horror and Science-Fiction Scores, Dies

Published: March 24, 2007

Herman Stein, a little-known craftsman who, unseen but very much heard, helped terrify the audiences of a spate of classic horror and science-fiction films, died on March 15 at his home in Los Angeles. Mr. Stein, a former staff composer at the Universal studio in Hollywood, was 91.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said David Schecter, a record producer who runs the Web site Monstrous Movie Music (

A largely self-taught composer, Mr. Stein contributed to the scores of nearly 200 films, including westerns, comedies and dramas. Though he labored in relative obscurity, he became known in particular — if only to an ardent cult following — for his work on dozens of movies featuring little green men, big hairy things and oceans of primordial ooze.

Among his best-known films are “It Came From Outer Space” (1953), “Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954), “This Island Earth” (1955), “Tarantula” (1955) and “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957).

“Herman Stein was one of the architects of the sound of 1950s science-fiction movies,” Jon Burlingame, who teaches film-music history at the University of Southern California, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

But if there was honor in being the Mozart of “The Mole People” (1956), there was little glory. At Universal, several composers typically worked on a single picture. (Mr. Stein’s frequent collaborators included Henry Mancini.) On most of the studio’s films, only the music supervisor, Joseph Gershenson, received on-screen credit.

In many of these films, though, Mr. Stein’s work formed the bedrock of the score. “He either wrote the main themes, from which he and his colleagues worked, or, equally important, wrote the opening music, which often sets the tone for the film itself,” Mr. Burlingame said.

Mr. Stein’s best-known musical passage is probably the jittery, ascending three-note “creature theme” from “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” Played by shrill trumpets, it recurs more than 100 times on the film’s soundtrack, heralding the monster’s appearances.

Herman Stein was born in Philadelphia on Aug. 19, 1915. A child prodigy, he took up the piano at 3, playing his first public concerts at 6. As a teenager, he taught himself orchestration by studying scores at the public library; as a young man, he worked as an arranger for well-known popular bandleaders, including Count Basie and Fred Waring.

In 1948 he moved to Los Angeles, where he studied composition with the noted Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Three years later he joined the staff of Universal, where he remained till the end of the decade. Afterward, Mr. Stein composed mostly for television before retiring in the mid-1960s.

Among his other films are “Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation” (1953); “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars” (1953); “Drums Across the River” (1954); and “The Intruder” (1962), a movie by Roger Corman about Southern racism starring a young William Shatner. Mr. Stein’s last film score was for “Let’s Kill Uncle” (1966), directed by William Castle.

He scored episodes of many television shows, including “Lost in Space,” for which he composed the warm, lyrical theme — oboe over strings — associated with the Robinson family.

Mr. Stein’s wife, the former Anita Shervin, a violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, died in 2001. No immediate family members survive.

Several of his film scores are available on compact discs in new recordings, produced by Mr. Schecter. One of Mr. Stein’s concert pieces, “Sour Suite,” for woodwind quintet, is featured on the CD “Woodwind Treasures,” from Crystal Records.

Throughout his life, Mr. Stein played down his contribution to Hollywood horror films — or, more precisely, he played down the films.

“There are pictures here you’ve never heard of,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2000. He added, “Because you’re lucky.”

Despite his own best efforts at self-effacement, though, Mr. Stein’s music remains indelibly imprinted in the minds of millions.

“The baby-boom generation grew up with these horror movies and monster movies,” Mr. Burlingame, the film-music historian, said. “We saw them all. And so we remember that music far more than a lot of the boring pictures that Stein wrote the music for that he was much prouder of.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Herman Stein was a genius. His music for "Lost in Space" episodes 2, 4, 6, and 8 alone would be enough to secure that assessment. It is evident that he was well acquainted with the work of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Bartok, and made effective use of dissonance in some of the more foreboding passages of his music.