The Eulogizer: Hollywood composer Fred Steiner, Houdini collector Sidney Radner

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Fred Steiner, 88, composed ‘Perry Mason’ theme

Hollywood composer Fred Steiner, whose work ranged from the gritty and unforgettable opening theme of “Perry Mason” to scholarly studies and a doctorate in musicology, died June 23 at his home in Mexico at 88.

Steiner’s work over four decades in Hollywood was comprised of scores of themes and incidental music for classic TV shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Rawhide,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” “The Bullwinkle Show” and others.

When asked to develop the music for “Perry Mason,” one of TV’s first lawyer shows, Steiner wanted to highlight “two key facets of his personality: suave sophistication and the underlying toughness” of the character. The music, now titled “Park Avenue Beat,” “pulsed with the power of the big city and the swagger of a beefy hero played to perfection by actor Raymond Burr.”

Steiner’s daughter, pop music composer and singer Wendy Waldman, wrote that her father “was the last man standing from what is really the golden age of film and television music. His crowd all came of age together and remained close for their entire lives: Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, my dad, Bernard Herrmann, Henry Mancini, Hugo Friedhofer, Alfred Newman and a host of others who defined the world’s idea of what movie and television music is supposed to be.”

Steiner, a New York City native, was the son of George Steiner, a Hungary-born composer whose work included the score of the Chrysler Show at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Fred Steiner began playing piano at 6 and cello at 13. He studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and many years later received his doctorate from the University of Southern California.

He worked on New York City-based radio shows in the 1940s, and became musical director for the ABC radio series "This Is Your FBI," which featured many up-and-coming Hollywood stars, before moving to the West Coast in the late 1940s, where he worked in film and television.

Waldman said Steiner and the other Hollywood composers, many of them Jewish, played chamber music in her house when she was growing up.

After a two-year stint in Mexico directing an independent record company begining in 1958, Steiner returned to Hollywood and picked up where he had left off. He provided music for “Return of the Jedi” in 1983, although he was not credited, and two years later was nominated, along with others, for an Academy Award for the score of “The Color Purple.”

Steiner, who is survived by his wife of 64 years, was “notable for his even temper and affable nature," film historian Tony Thomas wrote in 1991. "It is no exaggeration to claim him as one of the best-liked men in the film music community." 

The Fred Steiner papers — including original scores, recordings and notes — are in the collection at the University of Oregon.

Sidney Radner, 91, Houdini memorabilia collector

Sidney Radner, whose collection of props and artifacts used by Harry Houdini, helped preserve Houdini’s legacy, died June 26 in Massachusetts at 91.

Radner’s collection included straitjackets, manacles and his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell.

“If not for Sid, all that stuff would be gone,” said David Ben, artistic director of Magicana. “He made it possible for a generation of magicians and scholars to see the actual mechanical thinking that sprung from the mind of this American icon, who is still the all-time megastar of magic.”

Radner, himself an amateur magician who called himself "Rendar,” began acquiring the “Houdiniana” after befriending Houdini’s younger brother, Theodore, at a magicians’ convention in Massachusetts in 1935. In the early 1940s, Theodore sold him a large supply of Houdini’s items. Over the years he acquired more items, including “lock picks Houdini hid from his audiences by swallowing them, then regurgitating them, for escapes; cylinder pulleys, key wrenches, latches, levers and tumblers he used in various tricks.”

Radner was born in Holyoke, Mass., where his father ran a rug store. His son said Radner had been taken with magic from an early age “and had been drawn to the Houdini legend because both men had grown up Jewish in communities with few Jews. As a Jewish kid, I think magic was a kind of entree to the world for my dad, maybe the way it was for Houdini."

As a student at Yale, Radner had a “reputation for jumping handcuffed from diving boards,” but went into the family business. An additional interest in crooked gambling led him to help investigate card scammers on troop ships during his World War II service. He later wrote books about card games and gambling, such as “Radner on dice: How to win, how gamblers cheat, odds and percentages,” and “How to spot card sharps and their methods."

Radner eventually leased much of his collection to museums, including the Outagamie Museum/Houdini Historical Center in Appleton, Wis., and the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. Radner sold his 1,000-piece collection at auction for nearly $1 million in 2004 after the Wisconsin museum declined to renew its lease. Magician David Copperfield bought the Water Torture Cell.

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