Dr. Samuel Hoffman
Dr. Samuel Hoffman was born in 1904 on the Island of Manhattan. He attended school in New York City, showing musical talent from a young age and playing in school bands.
He studied violin under Ovide Musin, the noted Belgian violinist. At 14, Hoffman became the youngest musician to play at Loews New York Roof Garden, and later formed his own orchestra.
After two years of pre-med at Columbia, he decided there were a great many pedestrians in the world and transferred to Long Island University where he received his D.S.C. Degree (podiatry). He interned at the Foot Clinic of New York. He then went into active practice at the Essex House; and also continued to play the violin in bands, using the stage name Hal Hope.
Hope, né Hoffman, appeared in many Manhattan niteries, including Brooklyns Casino in the Air atop the Montclair Hotel. His scrapbook contains numerous clips from the Dining and Dancing columns of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. [Note: All thumbnail images with a border around them are clickable click on them to see a full-size version of the small image.]
Dr. Hoffman and the Theremin
In one of the innumerable newspaper interviews conducted throughout the course of his 30-year hobby (as he once termed it) as a musician, Dr. Hoffman told the reporter about how he became intererested in the theremin:I first became acquainted with the theremin many years ago through the inventor ... Leon Theremin. At that time I was working around New York with Jolly Coburns band; I decided the theremin would make an interesting novelty instrument as a double. ... I used it on a lot of jobs with Coburn, playing solos on ballads and those old standards musicians call fake tunes. I also found it very effective as a novelty solo feature when I was directing bands for Meyer Davis on society dates.
(His son, Gary Hoffman, recalls his father talking about how he came to acquire his theremin: There was a certain band leader or musician who owed Dr. Hoffman some money. He didnt have the cash, so he offered a theremin as barter. Dr. Hoffman agreed to the deal, wanting the theremin more out of curiosity than anything else; hardly predicting what a significant role it would ultimately play in his life.)
In the June 8, 1936 issue of the New York Evening Journal, in The Sidewalks of New York, columnist W.S. Bill Farnsworth mentions: HAL HOPEs Electronic Trio, in the Casino-in-the-Air atop the Hotel Montclair, Lexington Ave, 49-50th Sts., is recommended for diversion seekers looking for something new ... Played by electricity, it can produce 25 million different tone combinations...
And in August 1936, the following appeared in the Long Island Daily Star, which goes into greater detail about this electronic orchestra.
The writer of this interview makes an astonishing reference to an electric cello without strings, which surely suggests the incredible revelation that Dr. Hoffman had one of Professor Leon Theremins rare cello-theremins!
Go West Young Man, Go West...
Dr. Hoffman came west to Los Angeles in 1941, where he became connected with the May Company Department Stores Wilshire Boulevard location, remaining there three years before opening a podiatry office in the Carthay Medical Building.
He carried on his New York tradition of playing the theremin in clubs; however he was now appearing in Hollywood. An item from the November 12, 1941 Los Angeles Daily News in Erskine Johnsons Hollywood Diary column notes Dinner at Leones on Sunset Strip where Hal Hope plays a musical novelty, a theremin, which he explains is controlled radio static. Its something to see, and hear.
In another, later interview, Dr. Hoffman talks about how he came to play the theremin for the Hitchcock classic film Spellbound: (Photos and clippings appear below in his Theremin Chronology.)When I came to Hollywood I had no expectation of doing anything with the theremin in picture scoring, or much of anything for that matter. I put in my transfer with Local 47 just as a matter of routine, like most musicians do who keep up their union membership even after they have retired from the business.
I put down theremin on my card as a double without thinking much about it. When Miklos Rozsa thought of using a theremin in his score for Spellbound he called the union to see if any theremin players were available. I was the only one listed at that time who could read music.
He came out to see me with a sketch of the part he wanted to write and was delighted when he discovered I could sight-read it. So the theremin part went into the Spellbound score; the score won an Academy Award....
Spellbound was the spring-board that launched Dr. Hoffman from local musician to nationally acclaimed theremin personality. One can detect a definite dividing line in his scrapbook, Before Spellbound and After Spellbound. This truly was the tour of duty that put him on the map and suddenly in great demand for musical performances as well as newspaper interviews, radio spots, phonograph recordings, personal appearances and, later, television. One can only wonder how this mild-mannered podiatrist by day, thereminist by night, kept up with the demands of what certainly became a dual career once Spellbound rocketed him to national recognition.
It would appear that after Spellbound, Dr. Hoffman decided to abandon the Hal Hope moniker and began performing under his real name: All newspaper accounts following the one quoted above from Erskine Johnsons column refer to him as Dr. Samuel Hoffman. At some point he was given the title Dean of the Theremin, by which he is referred to many times in post-Spellbound articles and interviews.
Two interesting by-product gigs of Spellbound are represented by these two items; first, an announcement of a live performance with the Hollywood Bowl orchestra; second, a radio appearance with Miklos Rozsa which was hosted by Gloria DeHaven.
A brief digression:
In a mid-1970s interview, Clara Rockmore mentioned that she had been approached to do Spellbound but had turned it down because (a) she was doing a concert tour, on the theremin, of Blocks Schelomo [a virtuoso violin work]; and (b) because she refused to use the theremin for making spooky noises.
One can only wonder if she ever regretted that decision in light of the great acclaim it brought Dr. Hoffman, as well as the attendant widespread interest generated in the theremin. How ironic it is, indeed, that she the greatest thereminist of all time (then or ever thereafter) witnessed a much-less-polished thereminist, playing an instrument inferior to hers, receive such widespread notoriety and financial success.
However, history - or destiny - often selects its own course; perhaps it was for the best, ultimately, that Dr. Hoffman was proclaimed Hollywoods Dean of the Theremin, and not Clara Rockmore.
Clara Rockmores theremin world was, for all intents and purposes, all-business and no-nonsense. She took the instrument, and its revered inventor, very seriously. She restricted her repertoire to classical music (violin and vocal transcriptions, as well the paucity of indigenous theremin compositions written around the time she was actively performing). But that approach, sublimely idealistic though it may be, would probably have forever limited the theremin to the relatively small world in which Mrs. Rockmore kept it confined. (And had she agreed to perform for Miklos Rozsa, it would likely not have been accomplished without a great amount of publicly suffered indignity on her part, as opposed to the easy-going - even gleeful - manner with which Dr. Hoffman accepted and performed the unseemly task of demeaning Professor Theremins ethereal Instrument.)
The theremin world of Doctor, Dean, Hoffman diametric to that of Mrs. Rockmores was much more culturally accessible to the unwashed masses. While Mrs. Rockmore was playing Bach and Bloch and Fuleihan, Dr. Hoffman was playing Rozsa, Revel and Baxter. His theremin was an instrument of dream-worlds; a device from another realm; a metaphysical apparition wrapped in layers of beguiling mystery --- along with a dash of futuristic science for good measure. (The liner notes from his three Harry Revel records throw into sharp relief this intriguing contrast between him and Mrs. Rockmore.)
Furthermore and this may be hard for the more sophisticated ears of our generation to believe all of Dr. Hoffmans recordings for Harry Revel (see chronology below) were incredibly successful, staying at the top of the charts for months. His scrapbook contains numerous reviews, advertisements, and sales accounts from the trades to bear out the great popularity of his recordings. And again, this is something that the refined sensibilities of a Clara Rockmore probably would not --- nor could not --- have accomplished.
It was possibly by necessity that Hoffmans arguably more uncouth definition of the theremin was required to propel it from the elite salons of soirée-attending New York society and into the living rooms of movie-going Middle America ... and, then, ultimately, to the whole world on the heels of the present Theremin Renaissance:
Had it not been for, say, Dr. Hoffmans Music for Peace of Mind, what is the likelihood that the theremin would end up with, say, the Beach Boys?*
*(albeit a mutated variation called the Electro-Theremin)
And then where?
On through the brilliant mind of Dr. Robert Moog who expanded his early work with the theremin into the basis for his Synthesizer.
And, then, into the psychedelic 1960s, where it occupied a characteristically understated, yet unmistakable, place in the electronic music revolution.
And, then, after a time of dormancy, so unexpectedly into the end of the 20th century, when the unweildy, capricious vacuum-tube and Tesla-coil appointed wooden cabinets of the 1920s would be combined with precision, reliable, digital MIDI hardware and software to produce the theremin of the future. This latest evolution from Professor Theremins original instruments may ultimately prove to be the most expressive electronic instrument ever to spring from the brain of a human being into our physical reality.
A concluding humorous note ... As dreamy and mystical as Dr. Hoffmans theremin realm was, there were those whose starry-eyed take on the theremin eclipsed even his. Witness the following newspaper account from 1948, of him taking great exception to the bogus hocus-pocus of an unnamed Theremin Goddess from Chicago:
Dr. Hoffmans Theremin Performance Chronology
The following chronology was culled from Dr. Hoffmans own handwritten notes in his scrapbook. In terms of film work, audio recordings, and television appearances, the list is complete as far as I know. (Although at least one feature film, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, was not noted).
Please note that this information was taken directly from Dr. Hoffman's scrapbook. Discrepancies with data from other sources (dates, titles, etc.) such as record companies, motion picture producers, etc., have not been "corrected" the intent being to present the material as it was memorialized by Dr. Hoffman himself or his wife, who saw to much of the scrapbook work over the years.
I have not listed all the innumerable radio, television, and personal appearances (but did include a few noteworthy ones); there were just too many of them.
Lady in the Dark
Capitol Records [sic]
Command Performances [see Go West Young Man... above]
Lets Live a Little
Kol Nidre, Eli Eli
The Swan -- Capitol
Landmark Live TV Broadcast of Kol Nidre service from University Temple, Los Angeles
Dr. Cantaros wedding
Yom Kippur Dance
Murder at Midnight
From Out of Space
The Mad Magician
Colgate Comedy Hour
2 appearances w/ George Jessel
For armed forces ["Rarig" ??]
I Paid the Penalty (royalty)
So Attached to You (royalty - Herb Silvers) [sic]
Disneyland (track to be used)
Credit Where Credit is Due
The wonderful photos and mementos from Dr. Hoffmans personal scrapbook were provided by his son Gary Hoffman, who has granted permission for them to appear here. And, on a more personal note, Id like to thank Gary for being such a kind and generous person; a kindred spirit musically and philosophically. The world could use a few more Gary Hoffmans.
My Close Encounter with
Dr. Samuel Hoffmans Theremin
In July of 1996, I first met Gary Hoffman and saw Dr. Samuel Hoffmans original RCA theremin.
Gary is a very gracious fellow; and most appreciative of the interest that has been generated in Dr. Hoffmans instrument. He allowed me to play it, and he played it for me, and then we played some impromptu duets together. (I had brought along my left-handed Etherwave to show him.) He told me he had never formally learned to play the theremin. But he was able to make some nice melodies and play recognizably in tune. (Hes a drummer and is very musically inclined.)
I had to stand behind the theremin to play it, so that the antennas would be in the proper configuration for me since I play left-handed.
The instrument is in superb condition, especially considering what it has been put through over the years. The cabinet is beautiful, solid mahogany, with a self-contained 12-inch speaker (no separate cabinet). As you may have seen in photos, and in the excellent coverage of it in The Delicate Delinquent, it is a different cabinet style than most other RCAs; there are no legs; the cabinetry extends all the way to the floor. There are casters underneath, and handles on either side, and its a good thing it weighs as much as a large chest of drawers! It took both of us to carry it down a short flight of stairs to his family room. (Thats my Etherwave that appears in the third photo below.)
The speaker grille in the cabinet faces front. There are heat ventilation slits in the top where you can also faintly hear the sound emanating. In the bottom of the cabinet a drawer, about 5 inches deep, pulls out from the front, for storage of the power cord.
The instrument has a pleasing sound. A little more edgy than I had imagined, very much string-like in all registers; not at all the same tone quality as Clara Rockmores.
A very strange phenomenon occurred when we were playing together: When he silenced the RCA (as soft as it would go, that is) it also made my Etherwave go completely mute. The Etherwave would not go loud and soft corresponding to Gary raising and lowering his hand; but once he muted the RCA the Etherwave would also stop. We experimented with moving the Etherwave around various parts of the room we were in a large, fairly bare family room (plushly carpeted, to further confound the mystery no way could the electromagnetic waves be reflecting off of the floor). No matter where we put the Etherwave, or how far away, even in the opposite corner of the room, the RCA still affected it in this way. Most perplexing.
Gary showed me a scrapbook of his fathers career, which led to the development of this tribute web page. In addition to some of the things appearing here, there are also many other wonderful mementos in there not the least of which is a handwritten letter from Rosza thanking him for his participation in Spellbound.
I was only there maybe an hour, yet it seemed like an eternity had passed when I finally packed up my things and we bid a bientot.
I am most indebted to Gary for his hospitality, and also for his granting permission for me to share these photos [and, indeed this entire page, as it would not have been possible without his generous contributions] of Dr. Hoffmans theremin with my cyber-pals.
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