80th Birthday Tribute to Elmer Bernstein

Born: New York, New York, 4 April 1922

This year he has already received the first World Soundtrack Lifetime Achievement Award It’s my greatest pleasure to recognize one of the most respected film composers working today: Elmer Bernstein.

I’ve been a fan of his music ever since the 1950’s. I’d like to tell a little tale about how I first noticed his film music. It was way back in 1954 and I was just a teenager who was a TV and movie addict. When school was out in the summer months I would go to the local movie theater just about every week to see the latest comedy, western, drama, musical or sci-fi flick. But it wasn’t at the movies that I first heard Elmer’s music but on television.

I noticed in the TV Guide there was a sci-fi movie showing one night during the hot summer months. But the movie started at about 1 a.m. on the “The Late, Late Show” on CBS. How could I stay up that late? I knew I couldn’t.

I was living with my mother, who was a single mom, and it so happened she told me she would be back very late that evening.

So with much anticipation I set my alarm clock and went to sleep. At about 12:45 a.m. I awoke and quickly rushed out to our television in the other room to see if this sci-fi movie would be shown. I thought the TV Guide had made a mistake when it said: ROBOT MONSTER (1953). How could a movie released the previous year be on television so soon? That just couldn’t happen. Most movies on TV in those days were from the 1930s and ’40s. At precisely 1 a.m. the theme of Leroy Anderson’s “Syncopated Clock” starting playing and I began watching this 1953 movie, which said it had been filmed in 3-D. It definitely wasn’t shown in that process on TV. The first thing I remember was the main theme. It was such dynamic music. I noticed the music was composed by Elmer Bernstein. At that time I had never heard of him but knew this was very impressive music. The more I watched this movie the more I noticed the music. It stayed with me even after the movie ended – only an hour later. ROBOT MONSTER is now considered one of the worst movies ever made. But I was thrilled to watch this cheaply made flick, with a hunky George Nader and buxom Claudia Barrett wearing a skimpy see through dress. Wow, boy hormones were running wild!

Then mother came home just as the movie ended so I quickly turned off the TV and ran to bed. She came into my room a few minutes later and scolded me for watching television so late. How did she know? Our Dumont television set still had a faint glow on the picture tube after I had turned it off. So I got caught.

But I was thrilled to have succeeded in my little late night adventure. I had watched this silly movie with a busty Miss Barrett and a brawny Mr. Nader fighting the “robot monster.” The movie was directed by Phil Tucker, who reportedly became suicidal after the poor box office returns from his cheaply made stinkeroo. Today it’s a cult favorite. With such a goofy “monster” dressed in a gorilla suit and diving helmet, how could it fail to cause laughter?

But as bad as the movie is, it’s still one of Elmer Bernstein’s best very early scores. Other film score fans are also fond of this early score. In an interview last year [“The Magnificent One – 50 Years of Elmer Bernstein Film Scores” (Soundtrack, No. 78, Summer 2001)], I asked if he had plans to record ROBOT MONSTER any time soon. He said he had no plans to record it. But he is planning to record another fan favorite, KINGS OF THE SUN (1963), for his Amber record label.

My tale of a long ago late night adventure only points out how long I have admired EB’s music. That admiration began with such ’50s scores as: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, GOD’S LITTLE ACRE, and SOME CAME RUNNING. It has continued right up until the present day.

So for his 80th birthday, I’d like to send him my fondest wishes for many more productive years of film scoring, conducting and recording. Mr. Bernstein you are “The Magnificent One!”

Here are some Elmer Bernstein soundtracks and compilations you can order through Amazon.com:

  • THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (Sony) – Oscar nominee
  • Great Composers: Elmer Bernstein (Varese)
  • THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (Rykodisc – Enhanced CD) – Oscar nominee
  • THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (Polygram) – Oscar nominee
  • TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Varese) – Oscar nominee
  • WAY OUT WEST (Silva)
  • THE WILD WEST (Silva)

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