Chip Jacobs

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The shocking musical truth of 1950′s sci-fi

October 25th, 2011 · No Comments

My uncle was Ed Wood Jr.’s music man.

And his involvement might’ve been stranger than the plot to “Plan Nine from Outer Space,” still regarded by movie experts as one of the most dreadful films of all time. (Sorry “City Slickers II.”)

Gordon Zahler, you see, couldn’t move a muscle, let alone lead an orchestra or play an instrument. He was a full-blown quadriplegic that resulted from a wicked gynmastics fall he took as a fourteen-year-old boy in 1940 Pasadena. A decade-plus later, flouting multiple prognoses that he wouldn’t live a year with a broken neck and the complications it presented, Gordon was building a Hollywood post-production company that no one could imagine. A “cripple” in show biz? Running a legitimate company? Please.

Gordon’s company was General Music Corp., and the small shop with that conglomerate-type name was located in a cramped office on the back side of what is now KTLA on Sunset Blvd. It was devoted to selling background scores to nascent TV and movies at a time when the unions were driving music costs through the roof.

Gordon’s initial supply came from the music that his composer/arranger/musician father, Lee Zahler (my maternal grandfather), had produced during his prolific career in Hollywood — a career, tragically and ironically, cut short by the broken spirirt he suffered after his son’s accident and the personal and financial toll it took on the family.

Picture the scene in 1950′s L.A. Wood, with the cheesy moustache and big heart that exceeded his directorial talent, convinces Gordon to bring his wares to the production. Maybe it was the other way around, Gordon using a special phone headset to dial Wood, who had a fondness for women’s clothing, especially angora sweaters. Up until then, Gordon’s success was hit and miss. General Music was furnishing pre-recorded music and whole scores to early TV shows like “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok” and “The Red Skelton Show,” but my mother’s little brother wanted an entree into the movie world. Wood gave him that chance, though people later fascinated by Wood’s “Plan 9″ personnel — we’re talking Criswell, an Elivra vampire figure, a professional-wrestler-turned-actor, a morphine-junkie lead actor in Bela Lugosi, etc. — apparently overlooked the fact that a wheelchair-bound businessman who weighed 95 pounds drippping wet and needed help just scratching his nose was in fact an intergral part of the effort.

Historians and writers would latch on to the oddity in the 1990s, but they got so much wrong or speculated so wildly that their analysis was downright laughable (and maybe even actionable for the litigation minded). At the same time, there’s no doubt that Gordon, like other post production wizards/hustlers of that era, probably cut some corners when it came to securing all the necessary rights. Hey, it’s Hollywood, baby.

One site, Monster Movie Music, had this to say: “The music in “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is stock music from at least 12 different composers, so I guess the credits go to the guy who put the puzzle all together, Gordon Zahler. First off, we’ve got Criswell and the theme!”

Wood, before he died, gave Gordon what the kids today call a shout-out, in discussing his legendary stinker that sci-fi movie hounds love to love and, even more, love to hate (while watching it for the 100th time.) “The initial reaction to the film was predictably mixed… the fans loved it, and the critics killed it. Some of the reviewers actually made fun of our cheap cardboard sets. I mean, what did they expect for $786.27… the Paramount backlot? But time has proved the fans right. Not only is “Plan 9″ a hit on late night television, but now it has been permanently preserved on this phonographic record, which contains nearly all of the film’s dialogue and music. I would be lax if I did not mention the wonderful music by Gordon Zahler. I think it is his finest work, surpassing even his superb scores for “Mutiny in Outer Space” and “Women of the Prehistoric Planet.”

Yes, before scoring those B-sci fi movies, Gordon provided music to another Wood Jr. production, “Night of the Ghouls.” It just wasn’t as universally panned as the legendary “Plan Nine.” Gordon was lucky to do a second stint with Wood. About then, he nearly died from a kidney blockage, but doctors used a life-saving, experimental technique developed by the V.A. to save him. Alcohol was injected into his spine.

Some years back, a journalist named Paul Mandel made an earnest attempt to piece together some of this forgotten history by homing in on Gordon in this article, entitled, “Forty Year Mystery Solved: the Music Behind Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Disagree as I do with parts of it, I also recommend the article. It’s a good read by a thoughtful person seeking answers. The question is whether he got the low-down on my seat-of-the-pants uncle or a fragment of him.

“For decades, Plan 9′s music credits have been shrouded in mystery. Misinformation was legion. A cue sheet was never filed with ASCAP or BMI, which made the identification process a real bear. A bootleg LP issued in 1980 by a nameless outfit (a vinyl transcription of the entire movie) had bogus liner-notes by “Ed Wood, December 1978″, with Wood congratulating music supervisor Gordon Zahler for “his wonderful Plan 9 score.” Zahler didn’t write a note. In 1989, Performance Records came out with a Plan 9 from Outer Space CD calling itself “the original motion picture soundtrack” which, like the LP, was a transfer of the edited optical track. Great for parties, but it didn’t showcase the music (As Wood might have put it: “Soundtrack. That would indicate sound.”) In his 1992 Ed Wood biography Nightmare of Ecstasy, author Rudolph Grey insisted that Plan 9′s main theme was actually Russian composer Alexander Mosolov’s “Iron Foundry”, which prompted a New Jersey post-grad student to write her thesis examining the relationship of Mosolov’s music to Wood’s imagery. Regrettably, that too was fiction. Truth to be known, the “score” for Plan 9 from Outer Space consisted of cues taken from Britain’s Impress Mood Music Library published by Inter-Art under various copyrights spanning 1955-1961. The library was formed by entrepreneur Gordon Barnes with the backing of a rich postcard manufacturer. The name Impress was invented by music editor Richard Taylor, later a director – the “Imp” stood for Inter-Art Music Publishers. To supplement Plan 9′s score, a handful of suspense cues were rented from the Video Moods Music Library owned and operated by Mort Ascher and his son Everett in New York.

… When Ed Wood wrapped production on Plan 9 at Quality Studios in 1956, he hired Gordon Zahler to access the music tracks. Zahler, a paraplegic, was a bottom-rung music packager who operated under the banner of General Music Corporation. His father, Lee Zahler, was a music director and legitimate composer of countless Mascot and Republic serials in the ’30s and ’40s. After Lee’s death in 1947, Gordon grabbed his father’s cues with other music taken from acetates of old movies and turned it into a rental library, which was illegal but filled a need. An example was the Wild Bill Hickock show in 1953; the main title and interior cues were lifted from these acetates. Like Ed Wood, Zahler was never known to have played with a full deck. Often he’d pick cues from foreign libraries and assign his own cue numbers and titles to them for ASCAP and BMI royalties, which was also illegal. Various sources have told me that he and other packagers like Raoul Kraushaar and David Gordon often did not operate above board, and the lack of any Plan 9 cue sheet therefore comes as no surprise. Zahlers physical condition tended to dissuade anyone from hauling him into court. For Plan 9, Zahler chose the Impress and Video Moods libraries, which he accessed from Emil Ascher Inc., the exclusive U.S. distributor. Both libraries were new, which made them attractive. Impress was by far the better of the two: not only were the composers first-rate, it had the luxury of being performed by a large orchestra in Stuttgart, Germany. Ironically, these sterling sessions were driven by the union ban on library performance in England … ”

Whatever you think of Gordon’s business practices, and even having written a book about him (Wheeling the Deal), I’m still not positive how much of his early music supervision was legit, there’s a pretty interesting postscript. Gordon, for the life of him, could not get Wood to pay him for his work. Gordon eventually dispatched his trusty Westside lawyer, Abe Marcus, to pursue Wood, and it made for a slapstick round-and-round of pay-up-meets-I’m not responsible. Here’s a sample. Wood’s response is a classic of its own. Check out the font. It screams cheap screams.

Gordon, after an impossible, over-the-top-life, died in late 1975. Jesus, I miss him. I’m not sure if movie historians do. Tim Burton made a great bio-pic about Wood starring Johnny Depp. Too bad he missed including one of the best characters, because Gordon would go on to do some gigantic things in Hollywood by the 1960s. He owed Wood’s rescurrection-minded space men a thanks in that regard, because they got him started in film, “B-quality” as it was. After “Plan 9,” MGM came calling for Gordon on the Doris Day romantic send-off, “Tunnel of Love.” No hubcaps for UFOs in that movie. Just Gordon’s score, with feet (he couldn’t feel) in the door of future top-notch productions.
Thanks Ed.

Tags: Chip Jacobs · Family matters · Gordon's big ideas · Hollywood · Outrageous Legends · paralysis · Pure Inspiration · Quadriplegia · The Hollywood Way · Wheeling the Deal: the Outrageous Legend of Gordon Zahler

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