Humphrey Bogart uttered one of the most famous lines in movie history when he held The Maltese Falcon in his hands and mused wistfully … “The stuff that dreams are made of.” Well, for me and in the formative years of my youth, along this journey we call life, The Benner Theater was the place that dreams were made of. The Benner Theater was situated tantalizingly just one and one half blocks from my house at 1517 Benner Street. The walk each week to its doors at the corner of Benner Street and Castor Avenue was one filled always with a sense of joyous excitement and expectation…for it was within those mighty doors that my youthful dreams would be shaped, developed, and ultimately transformed. For the first thirty odd years of my life, it was inside the auditorium of that small neighborhood movie theater that the direction of my world would be born. My brother Erwin and I sought solace each week from the promise of another exciting adventure beyond the stars, or encounter with a creature beyond imagining, at the Saturday Matinee. There were always trailers to coming attractions that set my young heart ablaze. Previews of coming attractions would light my youthful soul with yearning as I anticipated riding upon thundering hooves with Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry, or soaring amongst the stars with Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon.
My mom was very protective of her two young boys, and would often prevent us from seeing the more lurid or frightening motion pictures appearing each week at The Benner. I can vividly recall my eyes widening with excitement as my pals would return from the Benner on a given Saturday afternoon, regaling me with stories of a mad sculptor creating images made from dead bodies in wax (“House of Wax,” 1953), or setting my heart a flutter with tales of giant ants rampaging beneath the streets of Los Angeles (“Them,” 1954.) I can still recall walking to the Benner on a Saturday in 1957 when my friends were joyously ensconced inside the auditorium, while I pressed my ear against the alley doors of the theater to hear the ferocious roar of the Venusian Ymir in Ray Harryhausen’s “Twenty Million Miles To Earth.” Yet, the ultimate blasphemy was to occur in 1956. Erwin and I, along with millions of other young lads across the country, had been drooling in anticipation for twelve months as merciless advertising campaigns, beginning in 1955, proclaimed the coming production of the greatest science fiction film in motion picture history. The assault on our senses, through posters smeared across cereal boxes and candy bars, became absolutely mesmerizing.
Finally, the day arrived on a pleasant Sunday afternoon in 1956 as Erwin and I, hearts pounding in excitement, arrived at the box office of The Benner Theater, and purchased our tickets for MGM’s major science fiction extravaganza, “Forbidden Planet.” The lights dimmed, the screen came alive, and awakened from a week long slumber with the roar of the famous MGM lion, and 3-D like lettering hurling at us while crouched, eyes gaping, jaws dropped, and huddled in our seats. At roughly forty minutes into the film, an usher walked determinedly down the aisle and found us. He shined his flashlight in my face, and blandly declared that we would have to leave the theater because my mother was waiting for us in the lobby. Insulted by the temerity of this boorish upstart, I folded my arms in arrogant refusal and told him to go fly a kite. He insisted that we had to leave, and said that my mother was waiting patiently in the lobby for us to emerge. With all of the will that my ten year old courage could muster, I steadfastly refused to move, clutching the arms of my chair in brazen defiance of his insanely irrational demand. A moment later, my mother emerged from the shadows instructing us to follow her out of the auditorium and into the lobby. My resolve weakened somewhat, and I followed her with my little brother in tow. Outraged once more, I admonished her and asked how she could possibly have dared to interrupt this exalted moment that we’d waited patiently, in drooling expectation, for the past twelve months to experience. It seemed, she explained, that my great Aunt Jenny had commanded my family’s presence at her dinner table that evening, and that this was “an offer we couldn’t refuse.” “I’ll refuse,” I brazenly ventured. “You go without us. We’ll see you tonight when you return.” “You can’t stay here by yourselves,” she explained. “You’re just children. You have to come with me.”
We left the theater with my mom, and took several busses to Aunt Jenny’s dungeon of horror. I was miserable. My dreams had been irrevocably shattered. This was to be one of the worst nights of my life. I sat at my great aunt’s dinner table, listening to her boring platitudes, but my thoughts were with Robby, The Robot, Morbius, the ill fated Bellerophon, and the crew of United Planets Cruiser C-57D at The Benner Theater. I loved my mother, but I was now scarred for life.
Among the more cherished memories of my days and nights at The Benner Theater were my cinematic adventures with my father who loved the writings of Sir Walter Scott, and would take me to evening presentations of “Mogambo,” “Valley of the Kings,” “Ivanhoe,” and “Knights of the Round Table.” As my father and I bonded during these decidedly masculine presentations, I found that my pulse would noticeably quicken whenever the music would come on. This might have been due, in part, to the influence of my mother who religiously played the local classical music station on the radio in our kitchen seven days a week. At any rate, my musical appreciation began with my mother’s precipitous influence. However, as my early childhood fascination with film would occupy the predominance of my thoughts for the remainder of my life, I naturally gravitated to motion picture music as the greater source of my cultural sustenance. Among the musical interludes that often treated my senses in those early days of Philadelphia classical radio on WFLN was “The Spellbound Concerto.” My imagination soared whenever I would hear it and it quickly became, along with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue,” my most obsessively favorite classical pieces during my formative childhood years. It wasn’t until some years later that I became aware that the composer of “Spellbound,” as well as those early Robert Taylor epics, was one and the same. It all seemed to come together for me at some point in 1959 when I first heard, and fell in love with the Christ Theme in MGM’s “Ben Hur.” A friend had purchased the LP, and wanted to play it for me. I’d never heard anything quite so beautiful. It was then that I became truly aware of the name Miklos Rozsa.
I’d begun writing somewhat professionally around 1968 and 1969, while my essays on the art of motion picture music began seeing print in such journals as “L’Incroyable Cinema” Magazine in Manchester, England, along with “Black Oracle” and “Cinemacabre” Magazine in the United States. It was somewhere around 1969 when I learned that Miklos Rozsa would be making a personal appearance at the renowned Philadelphia Academy of Music to conduct and perform his Piano Concerto, played by Leonard Pennario. I wrote and telephoned the management of the prestigious concert hall, and haughtily proclaimed my insignificant literary achievements. I was rewarded for my chutzpah with two free orchestra seats for the evening’s performance and a gracious invitation to join the performers backstage after the concert. As the moment grew nearer, I grew ever more excited at the prospect of meeting my now favorite composer. There behind the curtains stood the man who had serenaded my dreams.
I approached this giant persona with both perspiration and trepidation. I walked over to him with my brother, and extended my hand…after wiping it nervously against my trousers. I introduced myself to Miklos Rozsa and told him just how deeply his music had affected my life. He was most gracious in his decidedly European speech and manner. I was struck by the distinguished resonance of his voice. As the crowd backstage began to leave the theater, I asked Dr. Rozsa if we might gentlemanly escort him back to his hotel. He graciously obliged us, and we strolled with him along Broad Street to the famous Bellevue Stratford Hotel where he was staying, at the invitation of Maestro Eugene Ormandy (his friend from their days together in Hungary) who maintained a suite there for himself and his family. As we walked from the Academy of Music to the Bellevue, I noticed that Eugene Ormandy was walking just ahead of us with pianist Leonard Pennario. While I had met and spoken with Maestro Ormandy earlier back stage after the concert, the esteemed conductor frequently turned to look back at us, as if to make curtain that we hadn’t kidnapped or absconded with his guest performer. I asked Dr. Rozsa if I might write to him, and he generously said that I could contact him at USC in Los Angeles where he taught the art of film music to such legendary students as Jerry Goldsmith. That kindness began a correspondence with the composer of twenty seven years duration.
In 1978, while I working as a film editor, cameraman, floor director, and occasional announcer for WTAF TV, Channel 29 in Philadelphia, I received a telephone call from my friend Harry Geduld, a well respected cinema historian and author who, as a full professor, headed both the film and comparative literature departments at the main campus of Indiana University. Harry, along with Ron Gottesman of Rutgers University, had put together and edited the first published volume ever dedicated to the original “King Kong.” Their book, “The Girl In The Hairy Paw,” had been published in New York by Avon Books in 1976. My article about the making and production of the iconic 1933 film had led off the many chapters in the popular volume. Harry telephoned to let me know that he was helming a two day seminar at the college, and that he and his wife Carolyn wanted me to come and stay at their house for the events. I was somewhat up to my eyeballs in work at the moment, and hadn’t really entertained the notion of attending but, out of curiosity, asked Harry who would be attending his upcoming conference. He told me that the esteemed New York film critic Molly Haskell would be there. I replied that meeting Miss Haskell would be lovely, but that I simply couldn’t get away at this time. I asked if anyone else was appearing at the conference. “Yes,” said Harry. George Pal is coming. “Wow,” I said. That’s fantastic. I love George Pal, and I adore his films…but…I just simply cannot see how I could possibly get away just now. Is anyone else attending, I asked?” “Yes,” Harry responded. “Miklos Rozsa will be here, as well.” “Let me call the airport and get my tickets,” I replied.
Now, I hadn’t seen Dr. Rozsa in ten years, although we’d been corresponding pretty regularly. Still, I was growing nervous over the prospect of seeing him again. Would he know me? Would he respond warmly, or regard me as just another fawning fan? I stood with Harry and Carolyn Geduld talking in the antiseptic corridors of the university when I turned to see Miklos Rozsa approaching us. I gasped audibly and said “Oh, My God, there he is.” There was absolutely no doubt by this juncture that he had become, and still is, my favorite composer of all time. As I approached him, I extended my hand and said “Hi, Dr. Rozsa. I’m Steve Vertlieb.” He smiled warmly, and said “Hello, Steve. It’s lovely to see you.” I relaxed. From that moment on, and for the next two days, it was a love fest. I was honored beyond words to spend some eleven hours glued to his side. Wherever he was, there I was, as well. We sat together, ate together, and talked together. He shared wonderful Hollywood stories, and seemed to be genuinely pleased that we were sharing time together and bonding once more.
On the final day of the conference, Miklos Rozsa had been invited by members of the then Indiana based Rozsa Society to a private luncheon for members only at the university cafeteria. Coming from the East Coast, while long before the advent of social media, I was unaware of any formal group of music fans dedicated to the work of this wonderful composer. Consequently, I stood back in the proverbial shadows, while the composer was ushered by John Fitzpatrick and his wife Mary Peatman (the founders of the Indiana based group) into the cafeteria along with other invited members of the society. I figured that since I had enjoyed such cherished personal time alone with the composer that I wouldn’t be selfish, and that I would allow other admirers of the three time Oscar winning composer to have their own moments in the sun. I watched, with Carolyn Geduld, as Dr. Rozsa disappeared into the adjoining restaurant. The doors closed behind them, and I continued to converse with my host. Suddenly there was a jolting noise as the cafeteria doors burst open, and John Fitzpatrick came running out of the room in our direction. I was frightened, and momentarily jarred from my self induced lethargy. Alarmed, I asked “John…What happened. Is Dr. Rozsa all right?” John shook his head quickly, and said “Yes, he’s fine. But when we sat down at the table, Dr. Rozsa looked up and around and asked “Where’s Steve.” I must have gasped in astonishment, and then clutched my chest. This had to be one of the of the most rewarding, heart felt moments of my life. I took a breath, and followed John back into the restaurant where, once again, I sat next to Miklos Rozsa. It was a moment that I’d never forget.
After the luncheon we all prepared to depart the college campus and head home to our individual destinations. Dr. Rozsa, now attired in his outer coat, scarf, and hat, was standing at the door waiting for his limousine back to the airport. I walked over to him and told him how very much our time together had meant to me. He took my hands and clasped them within his own. He looked into my eyes with that steely, no nonsense stare of one who had seen and experienced the world, and said “I feel that you are very sincere.” I damned near cried. “Thank you, Dr. Rozsa,” I somehow managed to stammer. “I Love you.”
As my own private limousine to Indianapolis Airport arrived, someone asked if I’d mind sharing the hour long drive with George Pal. I said “No, of course not.” I was stupid, but not crazy. And so, there was George Pal, the greatest science fiction film producer and director in history, sharing a limousine with me, and bonding together for a solid hour. He regaled me with stories of his early “Puppetoon” career, and his work for Paramount and MGM which included, of course, “Destination Moon,” “War of the Worlds,” “When Worlds Collide,” “The Naked Jungle,” “The Great Houdini,” and his own most personal masterpiece, “The Time Machine.” We talked about Miklos Rozsa’s brilliant musical score for his film, “The Power,” and how much he felt that it contributed to the picture. Pal had not been entirely pleased with the way in which the film turned out, but felt quite strongly that the score by Miklos Rozsa had been, perhaps, the most memorable component of the movie. He told me that he was gifting the original master tapes of the score to the Rozsa Society. I’d been with George Pal once before when “Psycho” author Robert Bloch drove Erwin and I to visit with Pal at his office at Paramount Pictures during the Summer of 1974, but this unforgettable journey to Indianapolis Airport was the perfect ending to an amazing couple of days in Indiana.
On April 14th 2007, a one hundredth birthday tribute to Miklos Rozsa was celebrated at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, DC, and I was invited to attend the ceremonies. Renowned Hungarian cellist Janos Starker was among the special guests attending the festivities, along with violinist Anastasia Khitruk who performed Rozsa’s “Concerto For Violin and Orchestra.” The composer’s daughter, Juliet Rozsa was a very special invited guest of the embassy honors, flying in from Los Angeles with her daughter Nicchi. Starker, Juliet, and I were each introduced in the audience, and asked to stand. I had known Juliet for a number of years through correspondence, but we had never had an opportunity to meet until this moment. In his declining years when his vision had begun to fail him, Juliet would sit by her father’s side and read my articles and letters to him. Though we were meeting physically for the first time that evening, ours was a wonderful reunion. At the conclusion of the ceremony and concert, Juliet, Nicchi, Janos Starker, my friend John Durso, and I were all invited to join the ambassador and his wife in the Embassy residence where we were treated to a sumptuous Hungarian dinner prepared by the embassy staff.
Later that year, in December, 2007 through January, 2008, I was both honored and privileged to have been asked to program and co-host a one hundredth birthday film festival honoring the music of Miklos Rozsa at the venerable Castro Theater in San Francisco. I selected seventeen films for the nine day festival, wrote the liner notes for the program, and appeared on the Castro stage Saturday evening of the festival with Juliet Rozsa before an audience of some seven hundred enthusiastic Rozsa fans. Juliiet and I shared the stage of the theater for roughly half an hour as I interviewed her about her famous father, prior to a presentation of “Ben Hur” on the huge Castro Theater screen. I had written to the Hungarian Ambassador in Washington, asking if he’d be kind enough to write a special proclamation for the film festival honoring Miklos Rozsa on the Centenary of his birth. He graciously consented, and penned a most eloquent tribute which I was honored to read, along with a dedication by His Honor, The Mayor of San Francisco, to the theater audience.
I presented these tributes to Juliet who was accompanied by her daughters, Nicchi and Ariana, all of whom joined me on stage for the presentations. Ray Bradbury, who had written the narration read by Orson Welles in Rozsa’s “King of Kings,” had asked me if he might write a very personal tribute to Dr. Rozsa that I could read to the audience. I was happy to honor Ray’s request. After all, who was I to say “No” to Ray Bradbury? During that same auspicious centennial year, both Juliet and I were asked by producer James Fitzpatrick to write some of the liner notes for their premiere recording of Miklos Rozsa’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” for Tadlow Records. I was quite honored to have been asked, and ever more delighted to have shared the distinguished musical commentary with the composer’s daughter.
In the years that followed, I’ve continued to write about this most illustrious and gifted composer, while it has been my honor to consider myself a close friend and confidante of the Rozsa family. In the Summer of 2013, Juliet invited a camera crew and I into her home where she conducted a personal tour of her father’s memorabilia, and spoke of hers, and her father’s relationships with me for our feature length documentary motion picture. On August 27th, 2015, I sat proudly with Juliet and Nicchi Rozsa during a big screen presentation of “Ben Hur” at the Arc Light Theater in Sherman Oaks, California. After a nearly thirty year personal friendship with Miklos Rozsa, and enduring love of his music for some sixty odd years, my continuing relationship with Juliet and the Rozsa family remains one of the most wondrously palpable joys of my life.