On Film: the theremin's good vibrations | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Film: the theremin's good vibrations 

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"My dad let me stay up and watch The Day the Earth Stood Still and that was it for me," says 41-year-old Steven Martin, recalling how he became interested in the theremin. "I just ran around the house making sounds like that."

Martin recently wrote, directed, and produced Theremin, An Electric Odyssey, a documentary about Russian inventor Leon Theremin and the electronic instrument he created.

The theremin was originally intended for concert-hall recitals, not for cheesy 50s science fiction flicks. In the late 20s Leon Theremin's Carnegie Hall performances garnered headlines like "Soviet Edison Takes Music From Air" and "Hands Create Radio Music." Musicians played his theremin by waving their hands through an electric field generated by radio tubes. The tremulous tones it emitted were amplified by loudspeakers. "It's an air guitar for real--you have to get into a real weird head space in order to play one," says Martin.

He interviewed Theremin, who claimed that Lenin and Einstein were among his fans. Stalin, though, was not, and Theremin--whose inventions included an antikidnapping alarm inspired by the Lindbergh baby case--was himself kidnapped from Manhattan by Soviet agents in 1938 and sent to a gulag. He was then put to work developing electronic surveillance equipment for the "ministry of inside things," as he referred to the KGB.

Theremin stopped performing, but Hollywood used his device in movies like Spellbound (1945), The Lost Weekend (1945), and It Came From Outer Space (1953). Martin's documentary includes clips of a theremin recital on The Mickey Mouse Club and of Jerry Lewis bumbling into a plugged-in theremin in The Delicate Delinquent (1957). The film also shows how the theremin found its way into rock 'n' roll in the 1960s. Brian Wilson incorporated it into songs on the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds and on the hit "Good Vibrations." Martin films rocker Todd Rundgren simulating the hand motions of a theremin player while mouthing the sounds of the instrument.

Martin says Leon Theremin was "the last of a breed I call the artist as scientist." His tribute--Theremin, An Electronic Odyssey--opens today at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, and runs through December 21. For more info call 871-6604.

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