In New York, where, for one unforgettable mid-seventies year, a team of us ran a movie palace, movie music had mostly lost its romantic edge. The 2,672-seat St. George Theatre in Staten Island was our home in 1976. Dean and I mused over our Sunday eggs: what music did we remember emanating from our grand mostly–empty theater auditorium?
The seventies were a brooding time at best. Jaws, which we ran in early May of ‘76, had won an Oscar in ’74. Its score was later ranked as the sixth-greatest by the American Film Institute. The 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.”
That 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. It also found its way into everyday culture; humming it (duh dah duh dah...) was a way of indicating danger, especially in New York City, where being mugged had come to seem almost normal.
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 at that point, to curl up inside of. It might have helped me deal with how to pay the film distributors and the landlord.
Of the more than a hundred movies we ran, 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 flick, Cooley High, obscure then, but a cult film now. It’s a throwback to romantic themes, melodic and teary.
• Jack Nitzsche’s score for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won an Oscar in ’76. 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” also won an Academy Award for The Omen in ‘76. 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 pay the carting company so they wouldn’t break anybody’s legs backwards? Probably.
• Texas Chainsaw Massacre is in a class by itself. Much of the music from that movie is an amalgam by local Texas talent never brought together into anything as formal as a sound-track. People have tried. Visit this 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 nearly bankrupted New York City. 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 The 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; or, to quote Irving Berlin, “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.”
1. If you liked that last link, here’s an older version of Berlin’s 1927 classic.
2. Speaking of songs in what’s been called The American Songbook, here’s one for the scary time we’re passing through; heard it the other day. It’s a Depression-era song, that sustained a lot of folks in WWII...