Dr. Hoffman Tells Whys, Wherefores of Theremin
by Charles Emge
November 05, 2002
An article from Down Beat magazine originally published on 02.09.1951.
Hollywood -- An occasional mention in this department of a motion picture score featuring a relatively little known instrument, the theremin, seems to have aroused some curiousity in several readers, who wanted to know more about it. It dawned on us that we didn’t know too much about it ourself, so we called on Dr. Samuel Hoffman, Hollywood’s most prominent exponent of the theremin, for some information on the gadget and his own interesting activities in a field in which he has virtually cornered the musical market.
Dr. Hoffman is a former violinist who gave up - or thought he was giving up - his musical career several years ago when he came to Los Angeles to settle down as a specialist in foot ailments - a chiropodist. He gave us his story like this:
Used as double"I first became acquaineted with the theremin many years ago through the inventor, a Russian scientist named Leon Theremin. At that time I was working around New York with Jolly Coburn’s band; I decided the theremin would make an interesting novelty instrument as a double.
"Mechanically, the instrument is easy to play, but, like the violin, you have to put in a lot of study and hard practice to play it properly. I made a serious study of the instrument. (A theremin looks-and is-something like an old-fashioned radio. The pitch, the quality, and the vibrato of the tones are controlled by moving the hands in an electromagnetic field.)
"I used it on a lot of jobs with Coburn, playing solos on ballads and those old standards musicians call ‘fake tunes.’ I also found it very effective as a novelty solo feature when I was directing bands for Meyer Davis on ‘society dates.’
No hopes of use"When I came to Hollywood I had no expectation of doing anything with the theremin in picture scoring, or much of anything as a musician, for that matter. I put in my transfer with Local 47 just as a matter of routine, like most musicians do who keep up their union membership even after they have retired from the business.
"I put down theremin on my card as a double without thinking much about it. When Miklos Rozsa thought of using a theremin in his score for Spellbound he called the union to see if any theremin players were available. I was the only one listed at that time who could read music.
"He came out to see me with a sketch of the part he wanted to write and was delighted when he discovered I could sight-read it. So the theremin part went into the Spellbound score; the score won an Academy award.
"Then came , The Red House, and calls from a lot of other film composers. And I've had engagements in radio (last season's Satan Waitin’ series); I'm making phonograph records (Capitol's Peace of Mind album and others), and doing concerts and quite a few television dates.
"In fact, I have all the work I can possibly handle and still give proper attention to my patients. I get a lot of requests to teach, but just haven't got time."
It shouldn’t worry Dr. Hoffman to learn that he has some competition in the offing. A singer, Jon Paul Jones, has been using the theremin very effectively here-abouts as part of his nitery routine. Jones did a theremin sequence for the score of Walt Disney's forth-coming feature, Alice in Wonderland. Jones, like Hoffman, was found to be a competent, trained musician; he’s in line for more movie scoring assignments.
Very few aroundNow, in case you’ve decided to transfer your musical endeavors to playing the theremin because the field seems to be practically wide open, we’d better pass on the information given to us by Dr. Hoffman that RCA-Victor, which owns the patent rights on the theremin, only manufactured a handful of the things, and, finding no real market, hasn’t turned out any in years.
[Down Beat, 02.09.1951]
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