YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Return of the Killer Scores

Thanks to a husband-and-wife team, '50s horror flick music lives.

September 22, 1996|Bill Whitaker | Bill Whitaker, based in Abilene, Texas, writes frequently about film music

As a veteran film composer who has written reams of music for bug-eyed space aliens, giant arachnids and cave-dwelling mole people, Herman Stein thought he knew what defined farfetched. Then he met David Schecter.

Schecter, 41, jokingly bills himself as "one of the best greeting card writers in the world." More important, he's among the legions of baby boomers raised on those delightfully scary, atomically oriented science-fiction movies of the 1950s.

Movies, in fact, like Stein used to score--"It Came From Outer Space," "Tarantula" and "This Island Earth." Schecter loved those movies, but he loved their brass-laden, theremin-wailing, rafter-shaking music even more. So he and his wife, Kathleen Mayne, 35, of Burbank, set up their own CD company, all revolving around brilliant new digital re-recordings of classic sci-fi scores. Now they're waiting to see if their releases take the world by storm--or if the world storms them.

"We'll either be a complete bust and go back to our normal, everyday lives or we'll move on and produce other volumes," Schecter says. "We've been working on this seven days a week now for a year or more."

The company--called Monstrous Movie Music--has just released its first two albums. Among the offerings: a lengthy suite from 1955's "Tarantula," composed jointly by Stein and Henry Mancini, then a young staff composer at Universal International.

Bronislau Kaper's music for Warner Bros.' "Them!" (1954), a giant ant flick, is also featured. Schecter is proud they could include "Ant Fugue," joyfully penned by Kaper even though he knew editors would cut it from the final film--as they did. Most of the composers, including Kaper and Mancini, are dead. Those who survive say they are flattered by Schecter and Mayne's attention but baffled as well. This music was, they say, all in a day's work.

"The reaction of those like [film composers] Irving Gertz and Herman Stein has been funny," Schecter says. "When I first proposed we go and rerecord their old scores, their initial reaction was, 'Oh, don't do that. Nobody will want this.'

"I even brought Irving a copy of Scarlet Street magazine, just to show him there's a huge following for this kind of thing. The cover had a picture of that old movie 'Alligator People' and, well, Irving just shook his head."

Stein, 81, expresses excitement about Schecter's project. Even so, the film composer says he had no idea at the time he wrote these scores that anyone would ever be interested in them as pure music.

"I thought they might wind up in a library someplace," Stein says, "but it was really just something I did for the moment. None of us at Universal--Irving Gertz or [composer] Frank Skinner--thought this was something that would survive us."

Gertz, also 81 and co-composer for such films as "The Incredible Shrinking Man," "Monolith Monsters" and "It Came From Outer Space," marveled at Schecter's knowledge--not just about the old movie music but the obscure creative forces behind it.

"I was amazed when he first called me," Gertz says. "He knew more about me than I did myself. He said he'd grown up listening to all this stuff and watching the movies, and he said, 'Do you realize people would just love hearing this music?' "

Of that long-ago music, Gertz remembers only that he and other Universal staff composers took pride in propping up the movies' farfetched plot lines, especially the sci-fi classics helmed by producer William Alland.

"I never felt at any time he tried to get in the way of the music," Gertz says of Alland in the 1950s. "I think he felt this was where his picture was going to rise--like a loaf of bread!"

Schecter and Mayne's commitment went to the extent Mayne quit her job as a music copyist. Schecter also has had to turn down much work, including freelance writing jobs, just to find time to handle rights, contracting and distribution of the albums. "I guess I can tell you," he jokes, "we've also mortgaged the house we're renting."

The project involved more work than either thought. For one thing, some scores for Universal's famous bug-eyed monster pictures of the 1950s are lost, necessitating that Mayne painstakingly reconstruct them, note by note, from scant materials. Often, this meant repeated viewings of each movie.

"I actually had a nightmare or two," Mayne says of the long, tedious process. "One night I woke up in a cold sweat, dreaming I had spiders all over me and, of course, I had been working nonstop on 'Tarantula.' It was horrible. I made David take all the sheets off the bed, just to make sure there were no spiders."

Schecter went to the floor for his project--sometimes literally. At one point, the search led to the web-shrouded regions under Henry Mancini's house. Other snatches of music surfaced in a rat-infested storage shed.

Los Angeles Times Articles