Nathan Van Cleave

By Dirk Wickenden
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.78/2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Dirk Wickenden

Nathan Van CleaveTo the contemporary film music aficionado, the name Van Cleave, as seen on countless film and television credits, is shrouded in an aura of mystery. It is difficult to find out much about him. Who was he? Where did he come from? To help us in finding out the answers to these questions and more, we turned to composer Fred Steiner, who started his own career under the aegis of Nathan Van Cleave. Join us, as we take a journey deep into film music’s very own Twilight Zone…

Nathan Lang Van Cleave was born on the 8th May 1910, in Bayfield, Wisconsin. Of Dutch descent, Van, as he was known to friends and colleagues, “was a big, tall man, a rather stout Dutchman with a round face, with kind of a pinkish glow”. Not much is known of his musical education. “In New York, Van became a student of Joseph Schillinger, the composer who was well known for his system of musical composition based on mathematical principles. Van occasionally would show me how he applied those principles to his own music. I also seem to recall he was generally regarded as being particularly proficient in the Schillinger system; apparently one of the latter’s best pupils. (Composer) Lyn Murray also was a Schillinger student; among others were George Gershwin, Oscar Levant and Glenn Miller”. His familial background is also something of a mystery, Of Van Cleave’s own family, Steiner recalls that “Van had married a showgirl, a beautiful woman, her name was Doris. She was a lovely person; they had three children.”

Outside of his musical career, Van Cleave had a hobby, one which Fred Steiner would come to share: “Van loved model trains. I was first introduced to HO model railroading at his house; he had a couple of things that he had assembled, little locomotives in the HO scale. He had a little layout to run around and of course I was fascinated, being a railroad lover since I was a chid. So it wasn’t too long after I went to California, that I began to get into HO railroading too”.

The Musician

Prior to his work in radio and from there, film and television, Van Cleave “was a trumpet player and played in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, (for) many popular bands of the time, I have a vague recollection he told me that he had played at one time in Paul Whiteman’s band. So I presume that, while working in the band, he may have had occasion to do some arrangements. Same way that other people such as Quincy Jones and George Duning started to play in a band and then doing arrangements. It’s possible and probable that he got into radio through pursuing his arranging career.”

The Radio Years

THE MAN BEHIND THE GUN: From back to front – Nathan Van Cleve, music director, William N. Robson, Producer-Director, and Frank Lovejoy, actorBetween 1935 – 1942, the New York-based Van Cleave was on staff at CBS, his earliest credits as arranger and composer being for Lyn Murray, Ray Bloch and Robert Emmett Dolan. Van Cleave’s other shows during this period included CHESTERFIELD (1935-39), orchestrating and arranging for Andre Kostelanetz and Paul Whiteman and 99 MEN AND A GIRL (1939) for Raymond Paige. The following year he arranged and orchestrated for Leith Stevens on FORD SUMMER SUNDAY EVENING HOUR. The next five years saw him continuing his association with CBS, composing, arranging and conducting on COLUMBIA WORKSHOP OF THE AIR and THE MAN BEHIND THE GUN (both 1940-44), RADIO READERS’ DIGEST (1944-45) and MBS’ 1941-44 wartime propaganda show THIS IS OUR ENEMY, For ABC, he had his own show, 1944-45’s VARIATIONS BY VAN CLEAVE, for which Fred Steiner, whose father George played in radio orchestras, contributed some of his earliest arrangements for Van Cleave.

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Professor Normand Lockwood, composers Nathan Van Cleave and Fred Steiner
at Steiner’s father’s home, ca. 1944

Just prior to leaving for Hollywood in 1945, Van Cleave, who had been acting as music director on ABC’s THIS IS YOUR FBI, turned the show over full time to Fred Steiner (Steiner had actually been the uncredited composer since its inception two years earlier). Steiner continues: “Van was a superb arranger, the most amazing thing about him is that he did all his scores in ink, using an Esterbrook pen, which we all used in those days, Van had two of them, he had one with black ink and one with red ink with a special fine point – Esterbrook pens had interchangeable nibs. His was one of the fine ones, his handwriting was very lovely, very fine, very clear but it was unusual to work directly in ink in those days.”

Of his radio work, Van Cleave himself said that “speed was often of the essence” (1), which explains the fact of last minute changes to the orchestra parts of his scores. As is well known, radio shows were “live” and the composer could only work from the final draft of the script on the day the show was broadcast, because “the producer would be changing and worrying at it until the last moment” (2). Van Cleave would more often than not get the final script at between 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. on the day of the show and would have to start composing immediately for a rehearsal at 3:00 p.m. “It would almost be the rule for copyists to be running into rehearsal with music, still wet, an hour after I had started” (3). Whilst working for Van Cleave, Steiner was shown “he had a certain method for arranging, as I recall, actually kind of a logical one. Sketch out the melody, make a separate chart deciding which colors you would use in what part of a song, start off with full strings and then the next eight bars maybe go to woodwind. All this would be laid out on a separate piece of paper. He would go through and put the melody in, next go back with the bass and the other parts and then fill in the harmonies and the percussion parts. The piano part was usually laid out and entered last, but we used certain shorthand’.

Fred Steiner remembers another tool that was used for scoring and which gives another insight into the background of the man himself. “One of the things that Van introduced me to was a stop-watch, that’s a sweep ten second stopwatch, if you’ve ever seen one. It goes around the dial in exactly ten seconds and because of the mechanism, it’s accurate to a fortieth of a second. That is, each second is divided into forty segments and a very fast movement. Well, Van was one of these air raid wardens during wartime, you know, that had to go out at night, be sure that all the lights were out and as a plane spotter, learn how to identity all planes, friendly and enemy; one of the things that he used was his ten second watch, which had a luminous dial. His explanation was that you could identity the height and speed of the airplanes passing above with this very accurate stopwatch. The point is that we were using this stopwatch in our work, it was ideal for conducting and precise timing of live radio programmes. Van ended up giving me one, which I still have and still treasure. Van also showed me how to mark a script synchronising it with this ten second watch”. For this script marking, “he liked to use big black, thick pencils. There was a company that made an automatic pencil with a big thick, eighth inch lead, that he used for marking his scripts for radio shows. Being a young, starting out composer, you know, monkey see, monkey do, I had to buy one of those pencils. I bought Esterbrook pens the same as his and all kinds of things. I adopted his method of scoring as much as possible and I learned a lot about orchestration from him”.

The Hollywood Years

Van Cleave had moved to California at the behest of Paramount, who “knew what a great arranger he was and they wanted him”. At Paramount, he served as arranger and orchestrator on various musicals, including WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) and FUNNY FACE (1957). For MGM, he worked on EASTER PARADE (1948). At Paramount, he also worked as orchestrator on such scores as Victor Young’s A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT (1949), David Raksin’s CARRIE (1952) and WILL PENNY (1968), Duke Ellington’s ASSAULT ON A QUEEN (1966) and for Aaron Copland on THE HEIRESS (1949). The latter film was directed by William Wyler, who was not happy with Copland’s main title and he instructed Van Cleave to do a new orchestration of J. P. E. Martini’s 19th Century waltz ‘Plaisir d’Amour’, a tune Copland had integrated into his score. Because of Wyler’s action, Copland refused to collect his Oscar for THE HEIRESS. Van Cleave, being under contract, was just doing his job, of course.

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Nathan Van Cleave and Fred Steiner’s cousin at Fred & Shirley Steiner’s 25th anniversary party, ca. 1969

Although Van Cleave was steadily working as arranger, “he always wanted to score a few films. Van was a very good composer. I’d been attracted to his music for these radio shows by its originality, its dramatic quality, its orchestration. So in spite of the fact that he was primarily known as an arranger, one of the great ones, he wanted to and certainly was capable of scoring films”. At Paramount, Van Cleave asked “the officials there, the administration, if he could score some films and sure enough, they did give him some. They were very low budget films and on several of them, again, he asked me to orchestrate for him”.

Among his film composing credits, Van Cleave worked on films such as 1950’s MOLLY (aka THE GOLDBERGS) and FANCY PANTS, 1951’s RHUBARB and LUCY GALLANT four years later. In the science fiction genre, like Jerry Goldsmith, the type of film aficionados mostly associate his name with, he composed scores for CONQUEST OF SPACE (1955), THE SPACE CHILDREN (1958) and PROJECT X a decade later. Perhaps his two most-recalled works in the genre are THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK and ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, from 1958 and 1964 respectively. On both occasions, Fred Steiner, who had also gone to Hollywood when THIS IS YOUR FBI moved production to California, assisted Van Cleave on the scores.

Colossal Composer

Amongst aficionados of the genre, THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK is a fondly-remembered SF B-movie, starring John Baragrey, Mala Powers, Otto Kruger, Robert Hutton, Ed Wolff and Ross Martin. The story concerned a Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist who is run over by a truck and whose brain is then placed in a huge mechanical body by his brain surgeon father. The Paramount film was produced by SF veteran William Alland and directed by Eugène Lourié.

When one watches the film, they may be struck by the unusual scoring, consisting of just one type of instrument – not strings, a la Bernard Herrmann’s PSYCHO, but piano. Fred Steiner assisted his friend once again, collaborating on the music, basing his piano arrangements on Van Cleave’s melodic material and also wrote one theme of his own. “I suspect it was just the very, very small budget. I guess he needed me for collaboration and that there had to be some money set aside for me,” Steiner recalls as the reason for Van Cleave’s choice. The score featured “three grand pianos and I think we also used an upright piano for variety of color.”

I believe that to modem-day viewers or perhaps to those music-conscious people at the time of the film’s release, using this one type of instrument makes the picture seem like a silent movie, if not for the dialogue and sound effects. It ultimately works against the film, which needed all the help it could get, as much of the more serious, contemplative elements of Alland’s idea were apparently glossed over by Lourié, whom Alland blames for the film’s failure. From the outset, one immediately recalls Bernard Herrmann’s Concerto Macabre from HANGOVER SQUARE as the main title consists of an ominous chordal structure, giving the audience a sense of dark mayhem to follow, in theory if not in fact. One wonders what audiences who saw the film forty-two years ago thought of the music (if, of course, it was noticed). The chief sound effect in the film is a loud, continuous electronic humming from the robot and the electronic equipment, which is an annoying presence. Van Cleave’s pianos play counterpoint to these sound effects and in some ways the music attempts to play the subtext of the story, rather than reiterating the onscreen visuals (the “supra-reality”, as composer Leonard Rosenman terms it). Van Cleave’s score is performed entirely from the piano keyboards and not from hitting the strings as Jerry Goldsmith would do in his 1977 MACARTHUR theme, nor are they prepared pianos. Van Cleave’s music is notable as not going the route of a “regular” genre score of the period written in the Universal style, which was usually an emphasis on cacophonous brass and use of theremin (or ondes martenot).

Castaway Composer

ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS was boasted as a scientifically accurate science fiction film (which it is not) but films are escapism, so forget all the rubbish about “that couldn’t happen”, this is an entertaining science fiction film of the period, which is still enjoyable today. The film was directed by Byron Haskin from the script by Ib Melchior, the author of ‘The Racer’, which was later filmed as the 1975 cult favorite DEATH RACE 2000. The obvious gimmick was basing the story on Daniel Defoe’s classic story, which still seems to resonate with people. Indeed, its influence is even felt today, with a similar feel in the early parts of the 1985 film ENEMY MINE.

Van Cleave, using a full orchestra and added electronics, went for a sound combining patriotic, “American” themes and also eerie tonalities depicting the unexplored Martian terrain. The opening credit sequence commences with a trumpet fanfare and swirling strings as a spaceship rockets through space. As the red planet Mars comes into view and the title card appears on screen, Van Cleave’s theme sounds like a distinct forerunner to Michael Kamen’s theme from the twelve part mini series FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON.

For ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, a quest-like theme for haunting electronics, strings and slowly beaten timpani makes its appearance in the score whenever Chris Draper, (Paul Mantee), his dead captain’s pet monkey Mona and later his alien companion “Friday” (Vic Lundin) trudge over the dusty, rocky surface of Mars.

Van Cleave again called on the services of his Man Friday Fred Steiner, who reveals another interest his mentor had. “The electronic sounds (in CRUSOE), I don’t remember who created them. Van was very much interested in recording technology and the newest kinds of equipment that were available. I remember one time, he did a marvellous thing. He built a giant speaker; he mounted some little three or four inch speakers, real cheap ones. He mounted, I don’t know, maybe sixteen or twenty of them, on a board of some kind, maybe plywood or whatever, fastened them to this board and in so doing, he was able to create a sound. It would reproduce the lowest frequencies, even though these were very tiny speakers. I went to his house a couple of times and I would see him fooling around with all kinds of speaker set-ups, trying to get an unusual sound, with economical means. I would not be surprised if Van himself were involved in creating whatever electronic effects were present in ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS. I can’t imagine Van not having a hand in it somewhere.”

Van Cleave’s and Steiner’s work for ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS results in a perfect SF score, one which has been overlooked in favor of other scores in the genre, all of which are notable for their integration of electronics and other-worldly sounds into the orchestral framework, such as Russell Garcia’s THE TIME MACHINE (1960), Ron Grainer’s THE OMEGA MAN (1971) and Jerry Goldsmith’s STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979).

Television

Whilst simultaneously working for motion pictures, Van Cleave also worked in television on such shows as THE RICHARD BOONE SHOW and the original (and best) THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Again, like his science fiction films, this genre anthology series is one of the most famous entries on his resume. He scored twelve episodes, more than any other composer on the series, which included Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, Jeff Alexander, Leonard Rosenman, Franz Waxman and Van Cleave’s protégé Fred Steiner: “I orchestrated for him on some of those scores for TWILIGHT ZONE… he was under pressure.”

Further Insights

We are now into the final stretch of our journey with Fred Steiner as navigator through the twilight zone of Van Cleave. “I must say that Van, fine composer and arranger that he was, when it came to arranging he worked in ink and so on (though I believe later on he changed over to pencil, like we all did) but anyway, he arranged very quickly but he composed very slowly. He was slow starting; he was, like certain composers, very unsure of himself. So he would sometimes get himself into a bind for the schedule and call on me to help once more.” Lack of time has always been a problem in film composing, one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated elements of a film. “Also by this time, I wouldn’t say anything more, than to say that Van had developed a kind of a drinking problem. What brought it on, I don’t know. At Paramount, one of the rituals there was the lunchtime ritual, going over to this restaurant across the street from Paramount. (Everybody) would gather over there and it was called the two, three or four martinis lunch, I’ve forgotten which, but it was at least two martinis for lunch and it was like every day (sounds weary just thinking about it) I won’t mention any names but some of the people in the music department were definitely alcoholics. Anyway, Van did develop a kind of a drinking problem, whether that interfered with his composing, I don’t know but somewhere along the line he also developed a problem with his heart, with something they call ‘fibrillation’. He would have had to stop his work because his heart was racing and take some kind of medication. So all these things contributed to (the) slowing down of his creative process.”

Van Cleave passed away in California on the 2nd of July 1970. Fred Steiner recalls the time: “His death came very suddenly and very unexpectedly and I was just devastated. I got a call from our mutual friend Gus Levene. Van had, as was his custom, got up early in the morning and went out into the back yard to mow the lawn and he never came back. I guess Doris missed him, went out and found him lying outside; he had had a sudden heart attack and was gone, I suppose, almost instantly.”

Conclusion

Nathan Van Cleave is perhaps a more deserving entry than most in this column, as he was active across three of entertainment’s Golden Ages: radio, television and cinema. That he is often overlooked in favor of the giants of film music in the Golden Age, Max Steiner (no relation to Fred), Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and so many others should not reflect on the quality of his music. It is a pity that there is only one of his projects available on CD, the TWILIGHT ZONE 40th Anniversary 4CD set, which features music from five of his episode scores. When a Van Cleave movie or a ZONE is showing on your local television station, check it out and you will find music of the highest order. Van Cleave left his musical archive to the University of Wyoming, which consists of his own compositions for radio, television and film, his orchestral works such as ‘Dances from Satanstoe’ and ‘Rhapsody for Trumpet and Orchestra’ and arrangements for Andre Kostelanetz, Paul Whiteman and more: “Any student of contemporary music for the performing arts cannot help but benefit from observing the meticulous scores of this prolific man, whose career spanned so many forms of music and artistic development (4).”

When asked if Van Cleave had any favorite scores of his own, Fred Steiner feels it is hard for any composer to answer such a question but “if Van had any, I would tend to suspect that they were the scores that he did at Paramount with the full-sized studio orchestras, very ambitious scores, full-blown scores, perhaps one such as LUCY GALLANT. He may have also had a soft spot for some of the underscoring he did for those radio shows, the wartime propaganda, dramatic radio stories, the ones whose music so impressed me when I was in college.”

Fred Steiner will always remember Van Cleave with fondness: “Van was really a wonderful, generous, extremely talented man who was recognized by his colleagues, as so many composers are but for various reasons, not by the industry per se. He was not the kind of guy who would push himself or go to cocktail parties or – you know, that kind of thing. He was extremely modest, quiet spoken, and had a great sense of humor. He loved people and loved his children and I think it’s impossible to find one of his colleagues who won’t say that he was one of the nicest musicians who ever put pencil to paper’.

Notes

  • All quotations from Fred Steiner are based on his ad-libbed taped answers to a questionnaire submitted by the author.
  • Quotations 1 – 4 are from the University of Wyoming’s biography of Nathan Van Cleave.

Acknowledgment

  • First and foremost, my deepest thanks go to Fred Steiner, without whose help this article would not have been possible.
  • Thank you also to Jeff Bond, senior editor of Film Score Monthly.
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Comments

  • Steve Owen on said:

    Fascinating read about “Van” Cleave…a fine musician…Thanks to Fred Steiner for the great insight, who I knew briefly..” (RIP)

  • Armand Di Scenna on said:

    Nice work ! Had loved Van’s work on Twilight Zone, and have had trouble finding out more about him and his work — kudos !

    • Dirk Wickenden on said:

      Hi Armand

      Thanks for your very kind words, glad you enjoyed it!

      Dirk

  • A.J. Averett on said:

    A wonderful tribute, which I only just happened upon; many thanks.

    As many fans of the movie will know, the Criterion Collection released a stunning restoration of “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” in January of 2011 (https://www.criterion.com/films/821-robinson-crusoe-on-mars).

    Two months later, Film Score Monthly released the complete soundtrack, in stereo, mixed-down from the original 35mm three-track scoring master; it included a comprehensive twenty-page booklet (http://www.filmscoremonthly.com/cds/detail.cfm/CDID/473/Robinson-Crusoe-on-Mars/).

    Alas, they only produced a single run of three-thousand copies, which (not surprisingly) sold out some time ago; however, used copies do occasionally turn up for sale (Amazon.com was offering five — at very premium prices, as of this post).

    • Dirk Wickenden on said:

      Hi A J

      Thank you for your kind words. I do have the Criterion DVD of Robinson Crusoe on Mars, though my analysis of it was written using my VHS of a TV broadcast at the time.

      FSM approached me to supply photos of Nate Van Cleave for their CD release and also quoted from my article for their CD release of Colossus of New York/The Space Children.

      Actually on FSM Online (their subs only part), is a companion piece to the published article on Van Cleave, which was a two part Fred Steiner interview. There was so much info Fred gave me, I decided to split the Van Cleave from the Steiner.

      Thank you and regards,

      Dirk

  • Ted Dougherty on said:

    Great article, I found it while trying to research Van’s father. We own the house in Bayfield WI Van was born in & would like to get in touch with his children or grandchildren. One of his kids or grandkids had considered buying the house in 2007 & had brought some family photos of the home from about 1908 – 1912. I’d welcome any help.

    Best regards, Ted Dougherty

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