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Samuel J. Hoffman

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Biography

Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman was the most famous and influential exponent of the theremin, the eerily bewitching electronic instrument that ushered popular music into the space age. Born in New York City on July 23, 1903, Hoffman studied violin under Ovide Musin and at 14 was the youngest musician to play Loew's New York Roof Garden. He later led his own orchestra while studying medicine at Columbia, and received a degree in podiatry from Long Island University. Despite launching his own foot practice, Hoffman continued moonlighting as a violinist under the alias Hal Hope, appearing regularly at Manhattan's most popular nightspots. While playing in support of bandleader Jolly Coburn, he befriended Leon Theremin, the Russian-born inventor of the electronic instrument bearing his name. Hoffman soon acquired his own theremin from a fellow musician who owed him money. Essentially a box with two projecting radio antennas that requires no physical contact and merely necessitates that the player move his hands to generate strange, alien sounds, the sheer novelty of the theremin made it a hit with Manhattan's cultural elite, and it became the centerpiece of Hoffman's act. In 1936 Hoffman recruited musicians Charlie Paul and Bill Schuman to form Hal Hope's Electronic Trio. Also featuring an electric organ sans pipes and a rare cello-theremin (essentially a stringless cello played without a bow), the group served an extended residency at the Hotel Montclair's Casino-in-the-Air that brought the theremin to new heights of mainstream recognition. Hoffman relocated to Los Angeles in 1941, opening a podiatry practice inside a May Company department store. As Hal Hope, he continued moonlighting in nightclubs, regularly appearing at the Sunset Strip eatery Leone's. When composer Miklos Rozsa sought a theremin expert for his score to the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Spellbound, he hired Hoffman, the only such figure so registered with the Los Angeles Musician's Union; and while other practitioners of the instrument (most notably the renowned Clara Rockmore) were more skilled and more revolutionary, the film's success vaulted the doctor and his theremin to international renown. In the wake of Spellbound's success he retired the Hope alias for good and began performing under his given name, giving countless newspaper and radio interviews and even headlining the Hollywood Bowl. Film studios also lined up for his services, and he contributed supernatural sound effects to such classic features including The Lost Weekend and The Spiral Staircase. Hoffman then teamed with arranger/conductor Les Baxter and composer Harry Revel for 1947's landmark Capitol label release Music Out of the Moon, a landmark effort that effectively launched the vogue for space-themed easy listening recordings and remains the best-selling theremin release of all time. Hoffman, Baxter, and Revel later reunited for the 1948 smash Perfume Set to Music, and in 1950 Hoffman and Revel teamed with arranger Billy May for Music for Peace of Mind. With his work on 1951's sci-fi film landmark The Day the Earth Stood Still, Hoffman further defined the sound of the theremin in relation to the cosmos. The instrument's strange, foreboding tones perfectly evoke the mysteries of life beyond this world. However, as the decade wore on, public fascination with the theremin diminished, and by the late '50s Hoffman's film and recording career dried up for good, especially in the wake of trombonist Paul Tanner's 1959 introduction of the mechanical electro-theremin (aka the Tannerin). The doctor nevertheless continued making occasional nightclub appearances in the years leading up to his death from a heart attack on December 6, 1967. ~ Jason Ankeny