Fri 6 Apr 2012
by Francis M. Nevins
When stuck for something to write about, browse the Web. I did that recently and discovered on the Bernard Herrmann Society website an excellent item to kick off this column with, an interview with composer Fred Steiner (1923-2011), whose main claim to fame for mystery lovers is that he wrote the theme for the Perry Mason TV series, which you may listen to here.
Here, laboriously transcribed by my own fingers, is what he had to say on that subject in the 2003 interview:
“I think the first time we recorded it, of all things, was in Mexico City, because of union complications. The original title was ‘Park Avenue Beat.’ And the reason for that was, I conceived of Perry Mason as this very sophisticated lawyer, eats at the best restaurants, tailor-made suits and so on, and at the same time he’s mixed in with these underworld bad guys, murder and crime.
“The underlying beat is R&B, rhythm and blues, and for the crazy reason that in those days, and even to this day, jazz or R&B is always associated with crime. You look at those old film noir pictures, they’ve always got jazz going for some reason or other. It’s like every time you see a Nazi they play Wagner.
“[The theme is] a piece of symphonic R&B. That’s why it’s called ‘Park Avenue Beat,’ but since then it’s been known as the Perry Mason theme… It’s always been used. It’s gone through several changes depending on the timing, because they would change the main titles year in and year out.”
During the late Fifties and early Sixties when Perry Mason was in prime time, the head of the CBS west coast music department was Lud Gluskin (1898-1989) and the best-known composer working for him of course was Herrmann (1911-1975), whose ominous music was heard frequently in the episodes from the first two years of the series.
Steiner went on to tell of another Herrmann-Mason connection:
Listening to Steiner’s words as Perry Mason would listen to the testimony of a witness against his client, do you detect the ambiguity I do? If Steiner were on the stand and you were cross-examining him, wouldn’t you ask the same question I would?
“Mr. Steiner, do you know whether Herrmann actually wrote a new theme for the series before he persuaded his bosses that they didn’t need one?”
Steiner died last June so the answer may never be known. But if he had replied that Herrmann did indeed write such a theme, wouldn’t you love to knew where it is? Or better still, to hear it?
At least we can see Steiner and hear the interview on YouTube.
From the Fifties let’s retreat to 1928, the year Fred Dannay and his cousin Manny Lee were writing The Roman Hat Mystery and creating Ellery Queen. How did they come up with the name?
It’s been known for decades that Ellery was the name of Fred’s closest friend when he was growing up in Elmira, New York. How they settled on Queen was explained in an audio recording played at the Columbia University’s Queen centennial conference in 2005.
The speaker is Patricia Lee Caldwell (1928- ), Manny’s oldest daughter, who had the story from her mother, Manny’s first wife, Betty Miller (1909-1974). Manny had married her in 1927 when she was 18 years old and he was 22. They were living in an apartment on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn when their daughter was born.
“They had already decided on Ellery … but they hadn’t decided on a last name. Well, they were playing cards, and my mother said that they suddenly looked at the picture cards and they said: ‘Yeah, wait, the picture cards. Maybe this will give us something.’
“And they suddenly decided it would be Ellery King … but it didn’t seem quite right, and so they diddled around with it a little and they said: ‘No, Queen. Queen!’ The letter Q is extremely unusual in the English alphabet, and it would be much more memorable.”
And which of us shall say that it wasn’t?
Now let’s jump forward to a time when Ellery Queen was a household word, specifically to the fall of 1946 when the first volume of The Queen’s Awards brought together the prizewinners in the first annual story contest that Fred Dannay conducted for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
Among the winners of the six second prizes — $250 apiece, which was a nice chunk of money in those days — was William Faulkner for “An Error in Chemistry” (EQMM, June 1946), the future Nobel laureate’s only original contribution to the magazine. (The two other Faulkner stories Fred bought were reprints.)
From various Faulkner biographies we learn that he lost no time deriding both the magazine and the prize. “What a commentary,” he wrote his agent. “In France I am the father of a literary movement. In Europe I am considered the best modern American and among the first of all writers. In America I eke out a hack’s motion picture wages by winning second prize in a manufactured mystery story contest.”
A true Southern gentleman, yes?