The Sound of Early Sci-Fi: Samuel Hoffman’s Theremin

Alien seen in the film The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). Photo by: Archive Photos / Stringer, Getty Images.

"That’s an old favorite of mine," Neil Armstrong said from Apollo 11, "it’s called Music Out Of The Moon." He was speaking in answer to a question about the music that Charles Duke, at Houston, could hear in the background over the radio link. "It sounded a little scratchy to us, Neil. Either that or your tape was a little slow," Duke replied. To which Buzz Aldrin quipped: "It’s supposed to sound that way."

Music Out Of The Moon was first released by Capitol in 1947 as an album of six pieces over three 78rpm discs. Written by the British-born songwriter and composer Harry Revel and arranged and conducted by Les Baxter, it was light orchestral mood-music, blending the Theremin of Dr. Samuel Hoffman with wordless vocal cooing.

Lunar Rhapsody - Harry Revel - Dr.Samuel J.Hoffman-Theremin

Through the ‘50s, Hoffman and his Theremin became the sound of science fiction movies, notably The Day The Earth Stood Still. Hoffman died in 1967, but Armstrong the astronaut playing a cassette of his music during a rocket trip to the moon was a suitably unique coda to a peculiar musical journey.

Born in New York City in 1903, Samuel J. Hoffman was a violin prodigy who combined music with medical studies. He qualified as a podiatrist and by the ‘30s was in practice—while still playing in dance bands under the name Hal Hope. At the time, Leon Theremin, the inventor of the instrument that bears his name, lived in New York, and Hoffman later told Down Beat he had become "acquainted with the Theremin many years ago through the inventor, a Russian scientist."

At some point in the early ‘30s, Hoffman acquired a 1929 RCA Theremin in payment of a debt. Around 500 RCA Theremins were made in 1929–30, of which 135 are known to survive—including Hoffman’s, which is an unusual instrument. While standard RCA models were housed in a dark wood cabinet on long legs, Hoffman’s is in a bigger, floor-standing cabinet with an integrated speaker. Whether it was modified, specially built, or a prototype is unclear. Whatever the instrument’s story, it served him well, and he used it until his death.

Hoffman said he "made a serious study of the instrument" and in 1936 formed his own nine-piece swing orchestra, switching between violin and Theremin. Next came Hal Hope’s Electronic Trio, which featured a Hammond organ and a Theremin-fingerboard electric cello alongside Hoffman and his Theremin. In 1941, Hoffman relocated his podiatry practice to Los Angeles. Though he had no plans to continue with music professionally, he registered with the local branch of the musician’s union in the hope of picking up the occasional job. And he continued to moonlight as Hal Hope. A local newspaper reported him demonstrating his Theremin at a restaurant on Sunset Strip, adding: "It’s something to see and hear."

The Day The Earth Stood Still 1951 - Theremin studio session.

In 1944, composer Miklós Rózsa was looking for a Theremin player for his score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and called Hoffman, the only Thereminist listed in the union register who could read music. Hoffman auditioned, performed the parts perfectly, and found himself contributing to what became an Oscar-winner score. And so began an entirely unexpected mid-life part-time career for "the only man in Hollywood who operates the mechanism," as Radio Life put it in 1946.

Before Hoffman’s Theremin became the sound of sci-fi movies, he embarked on a trilogy of recordings with Les Baxter, of which Music Out Of The Moon was the first. It sold well, and in 1948 Baxter, Revel, and Hoffman regrouped for Perfume Set To Music, on RCA Victor. The Corday perfume company sponsored the project, with Revel composing six impressionistic aural representations of different Corday fragrances. It reached number 1 in Variety’s chart that December.

Back at Capitol in 1950, Revel and Hoffman replaced Baxter with Billy May and completed their trilogy with Music For Peace Of Mind. "Turn down the lights, relax in an easy chair, and listen," the sleeve notes suggested. Many did. It was another big seller. Commercial success aside, these often-forgotten albums are historically significant. This was the pop music of the day, led by an electronic instrument. It hadn’t been done before.

While recording the trilogy, Hoffman worked on a steady stream of Hollywood movies. The year the Spellbound score won its Oscar, another soundtrack featuring Hoffman, The Lost Weekend, was also nominated. In the years immediately following, Hoffman contributed to several lesser noir, crime, and horror films, including The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Red House (1947), and Impact (1949), cementing the Theremin’s association with the darker side of life.

Miklos Rozsa: Spellbound (1945)

In the middle of this run, Hoffman also turned up on the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope comedy Road To Rio (1947). That same year saw the start of the flying-saucer craze in the United States when pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine flying objects that he variously described as being like a "pie plate that was cut in half" or "saucer-like." There followed a flurry of similar sightings and, shortly afterward, a deluge of comics, radio and TV shows, books, and movies that feverishly anticipated extra-terrestrial invasions.

Music Out Of The Moon had established a link between the Theremin and space, and it was perhaps inevitable that Hoffman would be called to contribute to some of these movies.

In 1950, he played on his first sci-fi soundtrack, Rocketship X-M, followed by The Thing From Another World in 1951. In both of these, Hoffman contributes eerie textures rather than lead melodies. Others followed through the decade, including Phantom From Space (1953), It Came From Outer Space (1953), Project Moonbase (1953), and Day The World Ended (1955).

By some distance, the best of Hoffman’s sci-fi scores is the 20th Century Fox production The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). Filmed in black-and-white and directed by Robert Wise, it stars British actor Michael Rennie as Klaatu, a humanoid extraterrestrial who visits Washington in a flying saucer to warn the world that unless it ends its warlike ways, destruction is assured.

Shop Theremins

Klaatu’s peaceful expedition, accompanied by a ten-foot-high silver robot, Gort, stirs fascination and fear. He is hunted through Washington and eventually killed, before being rescued by Gort and revived. Standing in front of his spaceship, he delivers a valedictory warning before blasting off for home.

The soundtrack was provided by Bernard Herrmann, later to become Alfred Hitchcock’s first-choice film composer. His scores were often unconventional, none more so than The Day The Earth Stood Still. To perform this, he assembled a hybrid semi-electric ensemble that included Hoffman on lead Theremin alongside violinist Paul Shure playing bass Theremin. A string section was electronically amplified, and multiple percussion and mallet instruments played alongside two Hammond organs, oscillators, four pianos, four harps, and about 30 brass instruments.

Toward the end of his life, Herrmann declared that the score had "some degree of originality." 20th Century Fox later reused the title theme in the pilot episode for the TV series Lost In Space (1965).

Through the ‘50s, Hoffman became an unlikely part-time star. The film work continued, and alongside the sci-fi there was a Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments (1956), and a Jerry Lewis comedy, The Delicate Delinquent (1957). He performed nightclub sets and was a television regular, and there’s surviving footage of a skit on Johnny Carson’s show in 1956. Hoffman, a plump, avuncular character with thinning hair, demonstrates the Theremin to the talkshow host before he attempts to teach Carson how to play, with predictably comic results.

"It Came From Outer Space" Theremin Music Demo

From the late ‘50s, Hoffman’s musical career tailed off. This may have been attributable in part to a rival that Hoffman himself probably inadvertently inspired. Paul Tanner was a trombonist whose credits included sessions for Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller. In 1958, he was playing a film soundtrack session alongside a Thereminist, most likely Hoffman, who was having trouble pitching his instrument to the orchestra.

This prompted Tanner to rig up a test oscillator in a box with a manual slider, with notes marked on the box as a guide. This he called the Electro-Theremin. It first appeared on Music For Heavenly Bodies (1958), on which Tanner shared billing with Andre Montero And His Orchestra. It’s the same sort of light orchestral and electronic crossover mood-music as Hoffman’s trilogy of Theremin albums a decade earlier.

From that point on, much less was heard of Hoffman, though he still turned up from time to time. His film soundtrack career, which had started with an Oscar-winner, ended inauspiciously on the horror western Billy The Kid Vs. Dracula (1966). Dracula was played by the Hollywood great John Carradine, who said later when considering his career: "I only regret Billy The Kid Vs. Dracula. Otherwise, I regret nothing."

Thankfully, Hoffman’s musical adventures did not end on that low point. Most likely his last recording was his only known foray into rock music. In spring 1967, he contributed to Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk, appearing on two songs, "Electricity" and "Autumn’s Child." Hoffman died of a heart attack on December 6 that year, bringing down the curtain on a singular career. It was—adapting a Corday ad for the 1946 Perfume album—a career full of "unusual, magical music … the strange and hauntingly beautiful tones of the Theremin."

About the author: Mark Brend is an author and a musician. His books The Sound Of Tomorrow (Bloomsbury 2012) and Strange Sounds (Backbeat 2005) explore early electronic music and musical instruments. He lives in Devon, England. More info at

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