Herman Stein, 91; composer scored horror film classics

Times Staff Writer

Herman Stein, a staff composer at Universal in the 1950s whose best-known credits include horror and science fiction classics such as “Creature From the Black Lagoon” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” has died. He was 91.

Stein died of congestive heart failure March 15 at his home in Los Angeles, said David Schecter, a record producer and film music historian who is Stein’s musical executor.

The Philadelphia-born Stein had written and arranged for radio programs and jazz orchestras, including for Count Basie, Bob Crosby and Fred Waring, in the 1930s and ‘40s before becoming a staff composer at Universal in 1951.

Beginning with his first composing assignment -- for the Ozzie and Harriet Nelson comedy “Here Come the Nelsons” -- Stein wrote scores for every film genre, including an Audie Murphy western, an Abbott and Costello comedy and a Barbara Stanwyck drama. He also wrote music for the Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule film series.


But for science fiction and horror film buffs, Stein’s best-known credits include “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “It Came From Outer Space,” “This Island Earth” and “Tarantula.”

“He helped define the sound of monster movies back in that time,” said Schecter, whose independent label, Monstrous Movie Music, features re-recordings of some of Stein’s classic monster music on four CDs.

“ ‘This Island Earth’ is one of the landmark science fiction scores,” said Schecter. “It’s up there with Bernard Herrmann’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ and Dimitri Tiomkin’s ‘The Thing From Another World.’ It’s every bit as inventive, if not more, but nobody knew who wrote it.”

Stein, he said, “was a tremendously gifted composer, but he did his work in relative obscurity.”

Unlike well-known film composers such as Herrmann and Max Steiner, Stein seldom received screen credit during his years at Universal, where he often was one of several composers to work on a film and screen credit usually went to the music supervisor rather than the composers.

On “The Far Country,” director Anthony Mann’s 1954 western starring James Stewart, for example, Stein was one of four composers, including Henry Mancini, who wrote uncredited original music for the film.

After leaving Universal in 1958, Stein freelanced as a composer on films that included “The Intruder,” director Roger Corman’s 1962 drama about racism starring William Shatner.

In all, Stein wrote music for nearly 200 movies and shorts, Schecter said. He also composed for commercials, animated cartoons and television, including “Gunsmoke,” “M Squad,” “Wagon Train,” “Lost in Space” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.”

When Schecter began his Monstrous Movie Music project in 1994, he thought Stein was dead. In fact, he said, one show business trade publication had erroneously printed Stein’s obituary in the early 1990s.

“I was calling all the Steins in Los Angeles to see if anyone was a relative,” Schecter recalled. “I wanted to find out where his music archive might be so that we could record some of his scores.”

One day a few weeks after leaving messages on countless answering machines, Schecter said, “My wife came into my office and her face was literally white. She said, ‘That dead guy’s on the phone.’ ”

It was Stein.

The first thing Stein said to him, Schecter recalled, was, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” The next was, “Why are you calling me?”

“When I told him I wanted to record his monster movie scores, he said, ‘Why do you want to record that? Why don’t you record my good music?’ He meant westerns and dramas and that stuff because back in the ‘50s, that was the prestige stuff.”

Schecter said that when he mentioned “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” Stein told him, “Oh, I can’t believe anyone remembers that picture.”

“He had no idea these movies were on video, people cared about them and they knew who he was,” Schecter said.

Born Aug. 19, 1915, Stein was playing piano by the time he was 3 1/2. He gave his first public recital at age 6 and later performed in restaurants and bars. Learning orchestration by studying scores at the library, he became a professional arranger by the time he was 15. After serving in the Army during World War II, he moved to Los Angeles in 1948.

Stein was still downplaying his early film work in a 2000 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer in which he maintained that he was little more than a craftsman and that “Universal was a factory.”

“I still have recurring dreams of not making a deadline,” he said.

When pressed to name a film he was proud of, he gave it some thought and finally came up with an answer.

“I have a six-minute chase in ‘Girls in the Night,’ ” a 1953 crime drama, he said. “It’s not a B picture, it’s a Z picture. It was a chase, and I wanted to maintain that suspense and build to the end. That was satisfying work.

“I was proud of that.”

Stein’s wife, Anita, who played viola for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for many years, died in 2001. He left no survivors.