2013 marks the 80th anniversary of noted Hollywood composer, arranger and conductor Alfred Newman creating the iconic fanfare theme for Twentieth Century Films which was renamed Twentieth Century-Fox in 1935. It is also the 60th anniversary of when I first experienced Newman's motion picture soundtrack genius at the age of 10. It turned out to be an event that unquestionably set me on the path to what would become a thrilling, life-long musical odyssey. In 1953, though television was posing a serious challenge to the motion picture industry, going to the movies still seemed to me, my friends and family in the South Bronx a one-of-a-kind special occasion that we always looked forward to with keen anticipation. Fortunately, within walking distance of our neighborhood, there were three movie theatres along Southern Boulevard, a bustling hub of shops, restaurants, delis, candy stores and newspaper stands.
Weekly, the three cinema houses presented varied first-run offerings, something for everyone. The Boulevard was a showcase for MGM, Paramount and Columbia productions while the Spooner featured mostly Twentieth Century-Fox, Warner Bros. and RKO films. The Star, meanwhile, presented an eclectic mix of B movies and an occasional ‘art' film, i.e., the films of Charlie Chaplin's later period such as "Limelight."
A day or evening at the movies was a serious but often entertaining investment of time. A typical outing, lasting as much as three or four hours, included a double feature, coming attractions, News of the Day, and in the case of the Boulevard, an even longer stretch of time on those evenings when a live, vaudeville performance was added to the mix. For kids, on Saturday mornings at the Spooner, the festivities would begin with 10 cartoons (a whopping 25 during the holidays) followed by the same generous offering of the double feature and more! I fondly remember many a winter day when my friends and I would walk home in the gathering darkness after a day-long silver screen marathon that included popcorn, candy, ice cream, soda galore and the grudging tolerance of a middle aged woman who had the thankless task as usher to control the behavior of us kids who were confined to the "kiddy section."
The defining moment I allude to occurred during Christmas week in1953 when I saw "The Robe" at the Spooner. There was so much excitement leading up to the opening of this film because the theater had been closed for days as workers installed the new CinemaScope screen and stereophonic sound speakers. I had read about "The Robe" making its New York City premiere at the Roxy Theater in Manhattan where it played to record crowds for several months. My imagination about what this Biblical spectacle might look like on an amazingly wide and curved screen had been peaked.
The experience of "The Robe" exceeded my expectations. I was overwhelmed by the drama about a Roman tribune, played by a young Richard Burton, who finds redemption after commanding a military unit that executed Jesus Christ. What made the experience of this film so moving was its deeply stirring and memorable, symphonic-like music score for a large orchestra and chorus. I had noted in the opening screen credits that the music had been written by Alfred Newman, an artist who would soon become an integral part of my intensifying love affair with film music, classical music and Broadway musicals which, in turn, would be joined by opera, jazz and rock and roll.
Ironically, it wasn't the silver screen where I learned about Newman's amazing contributions as a pioneer film composer but on the small black and white TV screen. In the 1950s, WNTA's Channel 13 in New York City aired for the first time many of 20th Century-Fox's productions from the 40s and early 50s. Just about all of them included original scores composed and conducted by Newman who I learned had begun his long tenure as music director of Darryl Zanuck's studio, starting in 1940. The sheer diversity and range of this composer's talents enthralled me and enhanced my enjoyment of such film classics as "All About Eve," "Leave Her to Heaven," "The Song of Bernadette," "The Keys to the Kingdom." "Captain from Castile, "How Green Was My Valley," "The Mark of Zorro" and others.
On other TV stations, I discovered film scores from Newman's early career in the 1930s. Among the gems were "Street Scene," Dodsworth," "The Prisoner of Zenda," "Gunga Din" and the unforgettable "Wuthering Heights."
As it would turn out, "The Robe" represented the near mid-point in Newman's remarkable and prolific career. In the ensuing years, he would compose memorable scores for "Anastasia," "Love is a Many Splendored Thing," "The Greatest Story Ever Told," "The Counterfeit Traitor," "How the West Was Won." and the deeply moving "The Diary of Anne Frank," which became my personal favorite Newman score.
In the 1950s, I also fell in love with Rodgers and Hammerstein (R&H) musicals, thanks to Hollywood's striking adaptations of their Broadway hits, beginning with "Oklahoma!" filmed in the breathtaking wide-screen process of Todd-AO. Although it was an expensive proposition, $1.80 a ticket (plus 30 cents round-trip subway fare) for a reserved balcony seat in the Rivoli Theater in Manhattan, I saw "Oklahoma" more than half a dozen times during its very long run. I was smitten by the music, lyrics and storytelling of R&H and thrilled to learn from newspaper ads that other film adaptations of their musicals were in the offering. But when I went to see "Carousel" I noticed in the opening screen titles that Newman arranged and conducted the score, shedding a new light on what I would soon learn was yet another of his remarkable talents—adapting and conducting the scores of other composers.
Newman's signature scoring for a R&H musical— richly symphonic in ways that I discovered with disappointment could not be replicated by smaller orchestras used in Broadway productions—continued with "The King and I", "South Pacific," "Flower Drum Song," and the remake of R&H's original film musical, "State Fair." Although he did not score R&H's "The Sound of Music," Newman captured the last of his nine Oscars (a record for a Hollywood composer and music director) for Lerner & Loewe's "Camelot" three years before his passing in 1970.
Again, television was the medium whereby I discovered that early on his Hollywood career, Newman's contributions as an adapter/music director were considerable and included "City Lights," "Born to Dance," "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Tin Pan Alley." In researching this article, I was surprised to learn that Newman won two Academy Awards back to back in 1952 and 1953 (same year as "The Robe") for his work as adapter, respectively, on "With A Song in My Heart" and "Call Me Madam." Also in 1953 (what a year!), he appeared conducting the overture in "How to Marry a Millionaire." Actually, the music performed by the 20th Century-Fox symphony orchestra under his baton was the classic score he wrote for one of his earliest films: "Street Scene" in 1931.
The discovery of Newman was critical in my growing appreciation for the art of film scoring and opened the doors to other Hollywood composers I came to love: Bernard Herrmann, Alex North, Dimitri Tiomkin, Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman, Elmer Bernstein, Ernest Gold, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. Along the way, I discovered that the renowned composer, Aaron Copland, wrote several film scores that became classics in themselves, notably "The Red Pony" and "Our Town."
The 50s were a golden age for Newman and it marked the start of my own golden age in discovering the joy of music in all its forms. My passion for music was boundless. During high school, I and other students attended a matinee performance of "West Side Story" at the Winter Garden Theater in Manhattan. The thrilling surprise was the appearance of the show's young composer, Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the overture. Suffice it to say that I immediately became a huge admirer of Bernstein for having written for my generation an amazing musical that spoke directly about the teen street gang world we knew about first hand and also expressed our youthful yearnings.
But Bernstein also soon became a major link in my growing appetite for classical music which started to be whetted by my listening to two New York City classic music stations—WQXR and WNCN. Originally, I tuned into these stations because they programmed film and show music but I also began to hear broadcasts of classical music. In the summers, I listened to live performances from Tanglewood of the Boston Pops conducted by Arthur Fiedler which featured a sprinkling of light classics as well as compositions by celebrated Broadway composers. It was also on a summer evening at Lewisohn Stadium at City College in Manhattan where I heard my first live classic concert conducted by the renowned Leopold Stokowski. The highlight was a Brahms symphony that enthralled me for its melodic lush string instrumentation, a quality I loved most about Newman's scores.
In time, after hearing a number of symphonic recordings by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, I decided to attend one of his concerts at Carnegie Hall. I did so at one weekend matinee performance that featured Copland's "Appalachian Spring" which filled my heart with inexpressible joy. My list of favorite composers quickly expanded with Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven and then grew to include Britten, Shostakovich, Vaughn Williams and Prokoviev. During my young adulthood, Bernstein, then Solti, introduced me to Mahler's symphonies and, once again, I would be moved in profound ways, delighting in the richest string instrumentation I had every heard in this composer's eloquent adagios. Mahler quickly stood as the Mt. Everest of my most favorite classical composer.
I could not get enough of music. In time, I got that the idea that I could hear the music I loved most when I chose to by starting a record collection of my own. The source for my new hobby was the Record Hunter store on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street where I spent endless hours leafing through bins of music albums alphabetized by composer and reading about the works, composers and conductors on the rear of the album covers, a pleasure that disappeared away with the advent of the CD format.
My collecting started modestly with a few purchases of Newman soundtrack albums but soon expanded with the addition of classic music recordings, a hobby that led to a massive LP, then a CD collection which would also eventually boast significant holdings of opera, classic rock n roll and jazz albums as well. Out of nostalgia and the belief that many of the vinyl recordings sound better than their CD transcriptions, I have not parted with my LP collection.
Newman's music is forever and vividly embedded in some of the most unforgettable images that flickered before my young eyes: Christ carrying the cross in "The Robe;" the heartbreaking embrace of Anne Frank and Peter when they realize the Nazis have discovered their hiding place in "The Diary of Anne Frank;" the seeming endless numbers of Eve Harringtons taking their bows before the mirror at the end of "All About Eve;" the doomed lovers on the moors in "Wuthering Heights;" the innocent young peasant girl encountering the Virgin Mary in "The Song of Bernadette;" the insanely jealous daughter, wife and soon-to-be murderous throwing her father's ashes to the wind as she rides horseback in "Leave Her to Heaven" and the King of Siam whisking Anna off her feet in the rousing "Shall We Dance" segment from the "The King and I."
At next year's Academy Awards, I suggest that the Hollywood community pay the tribute that Alfred Newman deserves for the richest soundtrack musical legacy he left to generations of film lovers. The tribute would of course include selections of Newman’s most memorable scores conducted by his two talented sons—David and Thomas—who have followed in his footsteps as successful film composers in their own right. But, the evening’s proceedings would begin with a double overture. The first would be the instantly recognizable Twentieth Century-Fox fanfare that has heralded thousands of that studio's productions since it was first heard eight decades ago. The second would be the dramatically rousing "All About Eve" theme. "Eve" was composed with the Broadway theater in mind but it is so appropriate to the glittering Hollywood world as well, one that Newman was so much a part of for more than 40 years. And for his many admirers like me who were inspired by his genius, it's time indeed to shout out our universal appreciation in a grand and festive Alfred Newman sounding kind of way.