In New York, where, for one perilous and unforgettable mid-seventies year, a team of us ran a movie palace, movie music was a far cry from fifties or even sixties romance. The 2,672-seat St. George Theatre in Staten Island was our home in 1976. And so Dean and I were wondering yesterday over our Sunday eggs, what music we remember from that year, emanating from our grand mostly–empty theater auditorium?
The mid-seventies were a brooding time at best. Jaws, which we ran in early may of ‘76, had won an Oscar in ’74, later ranked as the sixth-greatest score by the American Film Institute. The "shark" theme, an alternating pattern of two notes became a classic piece of suspense music. Its composer, John Williams, described the theme as "grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.”
Jaws’ shark theme really did penetrate beyond the glass-enclosed auditorium. I could hear it (and see the swimmer about to be pulled down into the water) from as far away as the concession stand.
No wonder we ran the trailer for Gone With the Wind over and over, even though we had no intention whatsoever of showing the movie to our action-obsessed audience. Not so secretly, we craved the kind of movie whose music wraps its violins around you and pulls you in. Could’ve run a Casablanca trailer, come to think of it. “As Time Goes By,” was the kind of song I needed to curl up inside of.
Of the more than a hundred movies we ran in our theater year, only the shark and those tubular bells from The Exorcist come to mind as music that penetrated my consciousness, although we did run a number of movies with sound tracks worth noting:
• “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” R&B, Freddie Perren and Chrstine Yarian’s song from the 1975 Cooley High, obscure then, but a cult film now.
• Jack Nitzsche’s score for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, won an Oscar. Speaking of on-edge music, the dominant sound has to do with a bow drawn across a saw; it’s up there with tubular bells and shark music.
• Composer Jerry Goldsmith’s “Avi Satani,” won an Academy Award for The Omen in 1976. It’s a lovely if unsettling piece of music. As late as it came along in our desperate year, I don’t remember it well. Was I in my office trying to come up with a rent check? Probably.
• Texas Chainsaw Massacre is in a class by itself, an amalgam of music by local Texas talent never brought together into anything as formal as a sound-track. People have tried. See the above link if you’re curious.
As a movie exhibition year, 1976 was between two music worlds. Movies with heroic themes came along afterward: post–‘Nam, post–Watergate, and beyond the recession that, among other things, had early bankrupted New York. Is this why the movies I remember loving used music less as a theme and more, the way Hitchcock had in Psycho, as an effect? From Psycho’s brilliant tearing violins — in the shower scene — to the tubular bells of Exorcist isn’t very far in movie music time.
Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Chariots of Fire, Fame, even All That Jazz (despite its dark vein) followed in the late seventies and eighties, offering music with a kind of resolve, that might, after all, reach movie-goers standing outside an auditorium and draw them through the doors. Alas, by that time, those doors were in multiplex labyrinths, not single-screen palaces. After we left the movie business, the music changed, in more ways than one.