This is an archival interview that first appeared in Spectacular Optical on April 1, 2012
As a child, in the era of Schoolhouse Rock and a wealth of other counterculture kids programming, two Sesame Street songs affected me more than all the others – they were two of three songs composer Steve Zuckerman penned for the then-fledgling Children’s Television Workshop show Sesame Street: ‘Capital I’ and ‘lower case n’.[i] Among the most melancholy tunes that ever graced the revolutionary show’s roster of interstitial animated pieces, their legacy is apparent with a quick browse on the net; I’m not the only one who was haunted by plaintive cry of the lower case n, or the folky strangeness of the Capital I. And Zuckerman’s other Sesame Street song, ‘Imagination Rain’, is a stripped-down 60s freakout anthem. But as if these credits alone wouldn’t establish Zuckerman’s place in cult film history, he also composed the eclectic score to Stephen Traxler’s sole contribution to monster-movie Americana, Slithis, as well as Al Adamson’s space-sex romp Cinderella 2000 – but the story doesn’t end there. We got in touch with Steve Zuckerman, who shared some fascinating anecdotes about his time writing for Sesame Street, Disney and others, proving singlehandedly to be that link between 70s children’s entertainment and z-grade exploitation fare that informed the tastes of many of today’s outspoken genre fans.
– First of all, you were legally deaf until you were seven. Can you tell me about the experience of having your hearing restored and how that led to a fervent interest in music?
I was born with a congenital condition that resulted in my mastoid bones over-growing my ear canals. My parents became concerned when they noticed that I wasn’t responding normally in school and at home. They brought me to a child shrink (since they suspected I might have been “mentally challenged”) who quickly determined that I had an 80%+ hearing deficiency. I had several operations on each ear, which in addition to making my hearing normal also led to an appreciation of music. It was quite a revelation for me when I discovered that sounds (musical and otherwise) could directly elicit an emotional reaction! Shortly after that, I joined the choir in Grade school. It didn’t take long for me to get completely hooked. The choirmaster was also the orchestra teacher and with his encouragement I wrote my first orchestration for the school orchestra at eight years old. I’d like to say it went off winningly, however, someone neglected to mention that there was this issue of transposing instruments. The piece didn’t sound as it was intended, but I’m sure John Cage or Charles Ives would have loved it.
– What kinds of bands were you in as a teenager?
My first band was a surf band. I was twelve and we called ourselves the “Thorns”. I played rhythm guitar and organized practice sessions in my parent’s garage. We hired ourselves out for weddings and bar-mitzvahs and did “battle of the bands”, which was popular at the time. Everybody, I mean EVERYBODY was a guitar player! Later on in High School, I became lead singer for a band called “Love, Soul and Destiny” (LSD), and several others. At the same time I was active in orchestra (classical guitar and woodwinds).
It was a great time for music… Ironically, some 20 years later I was invited to write and produce music for the iconic Southern California Surf Band, “The Challengers” (the “New Wave” album). Talk about full circle!
– How did you end up writing songs for Sesame Street? Was Sesame Street a viable employment option for budding songwriters at the time – meaning, was it a nice paycheck? I only know of three songs you wrote for Sesame Street – were there more?
When I left college to become a full time composer I lucked onto a small animation company in Hollywood: Fred Calvert Productions. Fred was producing animated inserts for Children’s Television Workshop (Sesame Street) and the way it worked was that he submitted creative proposals to CTW for approval. If they accepted the proposal the project went forward. But, there were certain mandatory guidelines that were paramount to each creative proposal. Firstly, there was a huge two-inch thick book of “guidelines”. This document contained all of the research that CTW had conducted on what interested kids in addition to the educational requirements. There were buzz words like “space-ship” and “dinosaurs” that were highly rated in their ability to attract attention. The educational guidelines were highly specific in how CTW wanted the introduction and instruction of letters, numbers and abstract concepts approached. It was a lot of work to develop creative concepts that embraced and satisfied all of these pre-requisites. At any rate, I incorporated all of this input into three songs: Lower Case n, Capitol I, and Imagination-rain. I also scored many other animated inserts instrumentally for Sesame Street, including an animated pilot – Mighty Mouth – that unfortunately never saw the light of day. I wasn’t thinking about much else except paying the rent at that time. There was a special AFTRA (Singers) and AFM (musicians) educational rate, so, while it wasn’t a great payday, it was a very exciting opportunity, which led to other animation scoring jobs. (The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie titles and three one-hour animated movies for that time slot.)
It was also a wonderful learning opportunity. I had the chance to learn from some of the best animators in the business and also to garner film editing skills. Skip Craig from Jay Ward productions taught me how to read and write exposure sheets for cell animation. At the time it was a very valuable skill, since most of my music timings had to be derived from those docs, as the finished animation was always arriving at odd times, mostly after the score had been recorded!
– I read that the songs were written first and then animated afterwards. With that in mind, what kinds of ‘countercultural’ influences led you to imagine an anthropomorphized letter ‘n’ crying on a hilltop, or three guys living in the letter ‘I’ and just methodically cleaning it every day? This stuff screams ‘LSD trip’ to me. Am I wrong? What were your musical influences at the time?
I have to go back to the CTW guidelines. In order to sell the animated inserts into the show as far as concept was concerned, it had to pass muster with the producers in New York. Hence, the challenge was to create interesting situations, which lent themselves to compelling music and visuals, and to cover all the educational requirements also. At the time I was influenced by some of the great writers and artists that were also working on creating proposals and presentations. Bob Arbogast, Jim Thurman, Gene Moss to name a few. These guys were crazy, creatively speaking, and their offbeat way of approaching the material was absolutely inspirational. At that time, I was heavily influenced by many musical artists, including: Blood-Sweat-and Tears (Al Cooper’s “Child is the father to Man”), Phil Ochs (“Pleasures of the Harbor”), The Buffalo Springfield, Stravinsky, and various Neophonic Jazz orchestras. So, looking back on it, the tonal setting for Lower Case “n” was mostly a result of my wish to create an authentic “song of longing and fulfillment”. The setting for Capitol I was mostly a stream of consciousness affair. I’ve had numerous people write to me commenting on what they perceived as sexual (Freudian) connotations, but at the time, I was trying to create a visual and musical “hook” that would satisfy the educational and entertainment “requirements” that CTW was looking for. I can equivocally state that I wasn’t using LSD at the time!
– Tell me about the recording process. Were there other musicians involved?
There were no other musicians involved. I recorded these songs very simply due to their limited budget. The studio I rented had a two track recorder. So, first I recorded a pass playing guitar and singing. Then we “bounced” the first track over to the second track as I sang the harmony parts, mixing them as we went. Then, the 2nd mono track (the one with the combined/mixed audio) was what we transferred to 35mm. This track was “read” by an editor on a synch block using a magnetic tape-head. Using the counter on the block, the editor measured and wrote out the timings on an exposure sheet which was used by the animators to lay out the song, frame by frame.
In the case of both songs, by the way, the storyboard visuals were created after the recording was completed. The songs were submitted to CTW along with storyboards for their approval.
– As a kid I would anxiously watch Sesame Street waiting for the lower case n song to come on. It would always make me upset afterwards (a mix of sad and frightened), yet I couldn’t wait to watch it again! I think this was my first experience of deriving pleasure from vicariously experiencing painful emotions ‘safely’ through films, something that later turned into an interest in horror films. But there’s something cosmic about these songs, like they could have been written by the cast of ZARDOZ or something. The products of a weird utopian hippie community that is about to become the Manson Family. I guess that’s not really a question.
In a weird sense I know what you mean. For me, there are several musical settings that always get my attention (even if I’m not watching the video). These invariably remind me of the work of Bernard Hermann. I’m a huge fan of his film work and his influence on the sci-fi, horror, fantasy and mystery genre is unmistakable. The Mysterious Island and Seventh Voyage of Sinbad chord progressions have played a large part in defining my musical lexicon, as I’m sure it has done with many others. I can be out of the room, but if I hear any one of those harmonic combinations it grabs my attention instantly. The effect, as you’ve observed, is almost Pavlovian!
– It’s kind of fitting that you went from writing two of the darkest kids songs Sesame Street ever featured to composing the score to SLITHIS, one of the great American indie monster films.
That film was lot of fun and a challenge to write. As in most cases I didn’t get much time and I was responsible for generating all of the written music for the musicians in addition to writing the score.
SLITHIS was Stephen Traxler’s first foray into the film business, and one of his only directorial efforts – how did you end up working with him?
I forget exactly how he ended up working with me. I know that he was also talking to Richard Delvy and Ed Fournier, the team behind the Fat Albert theme song and the movie The Green Slime. Somehow, I ended up with the commission instead of them. Ironically, 12 years afterwards, Richard and I became business partners in a company called “Atmospheres-designs in sound”, as well as becoming best friends until his untimely death 11 years later. Also, as it happens, Ed and I still work together today! By the way, Ed has a brief onscreen role as the “Venice Beach” wino in the film.
I’ll also relate a funny incident that happened to me after the film was completed. My wife and I had just married, and were on honeymoon in Hawaii. We were walking on the beach in Waikiki when suddenly, I hear a familiar voice: “Come back! Come back, we’ve got to change the last reel!” I looked up to see the film editor running towards us on the beach. After a moment of sheer panic, he shared with me that he exploited the unlikely and sheer coincidence of our being in the same place at the same time to get a laugh. It was an effective, if somewhat surreal jest.
– Obviously you’re working with more orchestration on Slithis, and you’ve got such a bizarre blend of musical cues, ranging from free jazz to 1930s cartoon sounds, to renaissance music and of course moments of more traditional horror film music. What kind of freedom did you have working on the score?
I had total freedom on the score. The emotional range of the film was very broad and thought it was fitting to use an equally broad range of musical styles. I also wrote what I did for logistical reasons. The entire score was produced on a shoe-string budget. Traxler promised me 2% of the file (none of which I ever received), but there wasn’t much money to record the music. I rented a rehearsal room at the local junior college, grabbed a bunch of students and some professionals and recorded the entire musical soundtrack live to stereo track (with a 4 track backup-which I never used, since the live mix was excellent!). I had done a feature film the year previous (Cinderella 2000[ii]) and I used the engineer I met on that job, Corey Bailey, to record the Slithis score. We rented headsets and click-track metronome so that the orchestra could play to fixed tempos to match the timings. Despite a few pretty scrappy performances, the bulk of the score came off surprising well.
You were involved with the music for the trailers for Disney’s The Black Hole, The Devil and Max Devlin, The Watcher in the Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Tron and more. Maybe this is the through-line to SLITHIS, because this was truly the darkest, richest period in Disney’s output, in terms of the content. Movies made for kids but often very frightening for kids at the same time. What was your involvement with these trailers, and what was the atmosphere like at Disney at this time? What do you think prompted this subversive mini-renaissance in Disney’s output?
At the time I was working on the trailers, I was very involved with projects for Disney, including doing music for the Epcot educational series and “area” music for the Epcot park that was being built in Florida. This was a great time to work for Disney. Ron Miller was running the place and it was a much kinder and generous place than it became under the reins of those who followed him.
While some of the Disney content might be construed as darker, it was Ron Miller’s intent to break off more adult material via “Touchstone Pictures”, which was a distribution company he established for that very purpose. It was a difficult time for the studio, since not a whole lot of what they were producing did well at the box office. (Who remembers the Unidentified Flying Oddball?) It was these financial disappointments (amongst others) that led to the regime change at Disney.
John Klawitter was the Disney executive who was 2nd in command of the film marketing at the time. He wanted me to develop musical approaches that were unique but still appropriate to the films. For me, the most unusual trailer I scored was for the movie The Black Hole. I utilized several non-traditional musical techniques to produce the soundtrack. I employed a combination of various orchestral instruments playing “mus-effects”, rather than traditional musical patterns so that the score would have an organic-electronic effect. One of the great moments in the trailer is where the viewer gets sucked through the “green grid” and ends up on the logo card. We had a 12 foot piece of scrap iron that the percussionist rubbed with a super ball to create the “scream” that climaxes into the final impact and deep rumble at the end. (The deep rumble at the end was so loud it made printing the optical track problematical!) In the end, I thought it came out extremely well. The studio wished to use my score for the opening titles of the film (they used the same visuals from the trailer), but the composer on the project (John Barry) wasn’t having any of it… However, since most of his theme work on the film was soooo slow, my work was featured on all of the TV and radio promoting the film.
[re: Black Hole Trailer above]: That’s one of the short ones I produced. I was responsible for the entire audio process for those tv spots. Since the spots were on video (this is the 80’s) a relatively new process there wasn’t any reliable way to synch sprocketed audio material (such as 35 mm Mag track). All the elements had to be “flown” in from 1/4″ tape to a 2″ multitrack (that was the only machine that could be actually synched to the video). After the laydown process the whole shebang had to be mixed to videotape and in a separate process the picture was transferred back on to it… Back then it was a very expensive process… The only computer involved was a primitive “Imsai 8-80” if memory serves.
The trailers for Watcher, Something Wicked and others were also not traditional musical designs, which also made those challenging and rewarding in their own rights. Additionally, I wrote music for the Disney Channel Launch and a couple of their shows. I even ended up scoring Winnie the Pooh, and A Day for Eyeore. Talk about contrasts! A short time later, I was working on ABC’s afterschool specials scoring the animated “OG Readmore” series and a series of direct to Home video cartoons for the “Precious Moments” company.
– Kids programming and horror movies are my two specialties (horror movies MADE for kids are even better!), and your career seems to feature a cross-section of these two things. Was this a deliberate choice based on your own tastes, or did it just happen that way organically?
Looking back on it, I think everything that happened to me was an amazing ride. I don’t think I consciously chose one project over another, but I love animation and I love sci-fi, fantasy and horror, so I guess I naturally gravitated towards those projects.
In between then and now, I’ve also had a half-life as an orchestrator. I’ve worked on TV series and movies that actually used a real orchestra to make music, such as: Xena, Hercules, Futurama (the first season on Fox) and video games such as Myst III-IV. However, I’ve moved on, as that arena now has much less opportunity, since most music for television, video games and films are produced on computers, using virtual instruments. The last decade that’s how I’ve been making music also (adapt or die!). It’s a shame, but our ears have been conditioned to accept much of what we hear as “real” orchestra, when it’s not, so this trend will not end anytime soon.
– You were also involved with the trailer for American Pop, which is actually one of my favourite trailers. What was your involvement with this?
The production company that did the Black Hole trailer (NeoPlastics, inc.) asked me to do sound design on the American Pop trailer. I created sound effects that complimented the music from the film and supervised the sound editing and dubbing for the trailer. At that time there wasn’t a good way to synchronize film and sound via multitrack, so all of those early trailers were built as 35mm soundtrack elements, synched on a multi-audio head Movieola and dubbed on a film stage. A much more arduous procedure than the efficiencies offered by modern audio tools that are now commonplace on most computers.
– Lastly, tell me a bit about what you’re working on now!
Right now, it’s an exciting time as I’m working on multiple projects for various clients. I have a television commercial creative/production company, CreativeCombustion.tv, that is currently creating tv spots for the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Toy line being issued by Playmates Toys based on the new Nickelodeon CGI cartoon series. This is a déjà vu moment for me, as I wrote and produced (copy, concept and music) the original launch of the product in the ‘80’s. Incidentally, I was the guy who came up with the now long-enduring slugline: “Heroes in a Halfshell” (Thank you, Kilgore Trout)[iii]. Additionally, I’m also writing music and creating audio for inclusion in products being made by several other toy companies under various licenses. I guess I’m very comfortable playing around in the toy realm. After all, if you can’t have fun making toys, well… (hear the original theme HERE)
I’m an avid sci-fi/fantasy fan and over the last few years I’ve been contributing short stories for the “Twisted Tails” anthologies, however, my first novel, “Djinn and Tonnick, casefile: The Demented Diamond” has been published this year by DoubleDragon e-books. (<shameless plug> available on i-books, kindle and Barnes and Noble </plug>). I’m working on the second book in the series and hope to have that out end of this year, if I can find the time to work on it!
[i] Props to the Onion’s AV Club, who identified Steve Zuckerman as the composer of these songs in a 2007 article.
[ii] Zuckerman scored Al Adamson’s Cinderella 2000 (1977) and Chuck Vincent’s Summer Camp (1979) using the pseudonym ‘Sparky Sugarman’.
[iii] Kilgore Trout is a fictional science fiction writer who appears in many Kurt Vonnegut stories. In Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), there is mention of a book Trout wrote called Venus on the Halfshell, which was later actually written – against Vonnegut’s wishes – by Phillip Jose Farmer using the Kilgore Trout pseudonym in 1975.