Today, April 4, 2022, is the centennial of Elmer Bernstein’s birth and I’ve been asked by a lot of people (okay, two) if I’d be sharing my memories of him.
And sure, I’m happy to! But I’m afraid it won’t be super interesting.
The reason is simple: we liked him! And, as far as we’re aware, he liked us. He was always courteous and helpful, in a kindly, professor–emeritus way.
So there wasn’t a lot of conflict and thus, not a lot of compelling stories or unusual encounters. (I mean, not like with Leonard Rosenman, who unbeknownst to us was suffering from dementia, or John Williams, who dryly insinuated I was a loser.)
As a fan, I discovered Elmer’s music early, before I even knew of movie music as “a thing.” I noticed my favorite comedies from the 1980s all had really great music, and the same name—Elmer Bernstein—appeared in the credits: Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Spies Like Us, The Three Amigos, Funny Farm.
I love the Funny Farm score—the movie that caused Elmer to say “no more of those!”—and had my eye on it when I was releasing Warner Bros. scores...but we never got to it, drat!
(This video is annoyingly chopped to bits, but you can hear some of the score:)
Elmer’s comedy scores all had the same lilt and charm and size, and a way of being funny while playing it straight (his great innovation). I thought—as did most of us—hey, this guy’s great!
Later, when I discovered that the “comedy Bernstein” was like the fourth or fifth reinvention of himself—there was also epic Bernstein, western Bernstein, crime-jazz Bernstein, dramatic Bernstein, sci-fi Elmer, soap-opera Bernstein, television-theme Bernstein—I was...whoa!
Elmer is in the pantheon, no doubt about it.
Here I am meeting him at the 1992 Society for the Preservation of Film Music conference, my first time in L.A. (I was 17). I was so excited! Thanks to Matthias Büdinger for the photo:
Elmer was politically liberal, but in terms of film music, he was a traditionalist. And I guess we were a bunch of Alex P. Keaton types at Film Score Monthly—by that comparison, also traditionalists—so he approved of us and took time to be supportive.
But we never had any kind of heart-to-heart, man-to-man type talks with him. I suppose the closest we came was when he was scoring Wild Wild West in 1999. We attended a session at Sony (down the street from our FSM office in Culver City)—where I remember Barry Sonnenfeld being a rather nervous figure on the control room couch—and also had lunch with Elmer (for an interview) at a restaurant we liked in that neighborhood, Bamboo. (In fact this may have been how we discovered the restaurant.)
I vividly recall waiting with Jeff Bond, seated outside, when we saw a very large Land Rover (or something) pull up, and this famous man get out of it.
And we proceeded to have an interesting lunch, but for the most part, Elmer had his war stories and his shibboleths (how film music had all gone to hell)—and his genial, upbeat nature kind of disguised how downbeat a lot of his opinions were.
Pop songs in film, directors with no taste, the overuse of test-screenings and temp tracks, the disappearance of traditionally educated composers, the extinction of strong music department heads like Alfred Newman—I tell you, the man was fed up! (Much like John Barry and Maurice Jarre, he was a “living legend” who remained active in the 1990s, but was most often called upon to create a reflection of something he had done before, and suffered some rejected scores and indignities.)
I do remember the topic coming up of Twilight—not the vampire movie, but the 1998 detective film starring Paul Newman and Gene Hackman. Elmer admitted, matter-of-factly, “It was soft.” (If you remember this movie for its brief, gratuitous topless scene by Reese Witherspoon, you too were probably 24, and male, in 1998.)
Elmer’s comment was important to me because it was like, “Are we pals? Are you going to tell us the truth?” And he did, but I remember being impressed at his tone—like, “Yeah, I scored a not-very-good movie, but why make fun of it? It was what it was.”
We were so excited for Wild Wild West—it was supposed to be the next Men in Black-size blockbuster—but alas, it also wasn’t very good, and sorry to say the score was not particularly interesting.
I do remember he was very fond of his 1955 score to The View From Pompey’s Head, which we released on CD in the early years of our label.
The movie was, for whatever reason, completely unavailable on home video (maybe a rights problem?), but we had obtained a videocassette of it from Fox as a reference, and his office called circa 2001 asking if we knew where he could obtain a copy. (His assistant was a very nice woman named Lisa Edmondson, who had earlier worked for Henry Mancini.) We didn’t, so we made him a copy of our tape—and he was so pleased, I remember he personally called me to say thank you.
In hindsight, I’m pretty sure he asked to see Pompey’s Head because he was starting on Far From Heaven (2002) for Todd Haynes, a serious-minded, high-class homage to exactly that kind of 1950s “woman’s picture,” and wanted to refresh his memory. It’s pretty obvious Pompey’s Head was the model for the Far From Heaven score.
Far From Heaven ended up being Elmer’s final narrative feature (his last project, 2004’s Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic, was a documentary)—and a fitting finale that received critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination.
Also in 2002, we published an Elmer Bernstein 80th birthday issue, after which he sent us this lovely letter:
The summer of 2004 was rough for film music fans: Jerry Goldsmith, David Raskin and Elmer all passed away within a month of one another. We knew he was ill, but like everybody, we mourned—for what he meant to us both artistically and personally.
I do remember a silly scheduling conflict on October 26, 2004, the date of his memorial service at Paramount Pictures. The Red Sox were about to close out their first World Series win in 86 years, against the St. Louis Cardinals, and I was a lifelong fan—what to do?
I mean, there are only a few things I’ve been a fan of longer than I have of Elmer Bernstein—but the Sox are one of them!
I confess: I was late to Elmer’s memorial because I was stayed at home to watch the Red Sox “break the curse.” The Sox won, I was so excited, and quickly headed over to Paramount (very close to my apartment at the time) for the final two-thirds of Elmer’s service.
I do remember sheepishly sharing why I was late to some friends, and they were all like, “Don’t worry, Elmer would approve!” He was a big baseball fan and in fact, some years later I went to a Dodgers came with my friend Doug Schwartz (the mastering engineer for most of the FSM CDs) and we sat in the Bernstein family box seats, courtesy a mutual friend.
Elmer’s memorial service was truly joyous and I wish I remembered more of it. (Read Jon Burlingame’s summary here.) There were so many famous people there, not just from the film music world, but directors like Scorsese, Haynes and John Landis, and stars like Winona Ryder—who wasn’t working an angle or anything, I just remember learning (somehow or other) that she adored Elmer’s work for The Age of Innocence, in which she starred, and wanted to pay her respects.
I liked Elmer’s family—and here’s a random memory, because I think Winona might have been hanging with Elmer’s daughter, Emilie, who orchestrated for her father in the latter phase of his career. There was another Emily Bernstein, unrelated, who was a first-call session clarinetist (she played the clarinet solos on John Williams’ The Terminal, and Williams insisted she get screen credit—super rare in Hollywood), and was understandably annoyed at often being asked if she was Elmer’s daughter. Very sadly, this Emily Bernstein died from cancer in 2005. She was only 45...good God.
In 2006, we released our mega-collection, 12CD boxed set (our first) of Elmer Bernstein’s Film Music Collection. I remember Nick Redman always saying that Elmer had wanted a lot of money to release his collection on CD—he had used a lot of personal funds producing it in the 1970s, and it hadn’t worked out business-wise to his satisfaction.
We did a straightforward license deal with his estate, and the box set was a big hit that everybody liked (as far as I am aware).
I do remember around that time going over to the cottage that Elmer had on Pearl Street, on the Eastern end of Santa Monica. Pat Russ, who had orchestrated for Elmer and was helping the estate, would meet me there and would kindly help me access needed materials. Several of the FMC albums had missing masters (argh!) and we had to transfer them from vinyl. There were boxes of unsold LPs in a shed, but between the weather conditions and the poor quality of the pressings, many were warped or defective, so we went through numerous copies to find the best possible candidates for new transfers.
I also remember during one of those visits bringing over sandwiches for us to have for lunch. There was a wooden table in the kitchen, and as I sat and ate, I noticed the name “Elmer Bernstein” etched in cursive multiple times under my food. I asked if Elmer sat there to sign his correspondence, and Pat said yes, he did—hence his signature had been pressed into the soft wood of the table. (He was a lefty, by the way.)
Another time, Elmer’s reel-to-reel tapes were being packed up for donation to USC (where they are today), and I eagerly poked through the boxes. I was amazed to find a 1/4'' copy of the little bit of Torn Curtain that Bernard Herrmann had recorded at Universal before being fired by Alfred Hitchcock. I didn’t get to listen to it, but it was evidently given to Elmer as reference when he recorded his FMC version of it.
Anybody who’s had a loved one pass knows that one of the things you deal with is—what do you do with all their stuff? The Pearl Street cottage wasn’t Elmer’s primary residence, but his place to stay when he needed to be in L.A., and it had a small collection of books. Pat was like, “Want anything?” I didn’t really...but I saw that Elmer had a copy of the classic Woodward and Bernstein tome, All the President’s Men.
And the notion of owning Elmer Bernstein’s personal copy of this piece of history, in which the heroic, truth-minded journalists slayed the dragon of Richard Nixon, well...
I hope I am not getting Pat in trouble!
I also recall that Elmer had a very good and well-liked business manager named Robert Urband, who died from cancer in 2011. I thereafter dealt with the Bernstein family’s lawyer, who was always friendly and reasonable.
Forgive me, these are random memories. I told you, there’s nothing earth-shattering.
Elmer was a great artist, and a great man, and we were honored to have known him, a little bit.
For a much more interesting retrospective, please see Richard Kraft’s memories—Richard had a much longer and deeper history with Elmer, including serving as his agent. And those of Bear McCreary, who wrote eloquently of his time working for and studying with Elmer.
How else to close except to say...Taarna Forever!