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November 7, 2003
Remembering Herschel
Friends and family gather to celebrate larger-than-life composer Herschel Burke Gilbert
by Jon Burlingame

Herschel Burke Gilbert, composer of television's The Rifleman and Burke's Law, was remembered as a creative composer, executive and community activist at a memorial service attended by more than 150 friends, fellow composers and family members on Sunday, October 26, at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City, California.

Gilbert died June 8 of complications from a stroke. He was 85. A past president of The Film Music Society (in its earlier incarnation as the Society for the Preservation of Film Music), he had continued to serve on its Board of Directors until his death. He was among the most active and outspoken supporters of the Society's work in preserving film and TV music for future generations to hear and study.

Gilbert's son John, who has taken the reins of the composer's classical label Laurel Records, served as host, sharing anecdotes about his father and playing excerpts of several obscure but wonderful scores from Gilbert's films.

Included were The Scarf (1951), Witness to Murder (1954), While the City Sleeps (1956), Crime and Punishment USA (1959), plus music from two of his three Oscar-nominated films, The Thief (1952) and The Moon Is Blue (1953) and, of course, TV's The Rifleman (1958-63).

John Gilbert cited his father's "penchant for innovation and new sounds for particular effects," and reminded the crowd that Rifleman star Chuck Connors once complained that Gilbert's music was getting more fan mail than the star.

Speakers included John O'Connor, a college buddy who played in Gilbert's Milwaukee jazz band; Al Saparof, who did a stint with Gilbert in Harry James' band; and Eli Haimowitz, who studied at Juilliard at the same time at Gilbert. Other speakers, notably producer Arnold Laven – who, with partners Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy, produced The Rifleman and later The Big Valley – talked about Gilbert's unique combination of creativity and pragmatism.

This writer cited Gilbert's five years as musical director for Four Star Productions and his unique approach to scoring various series in production: Commissioning A-list composers – from Jerry Goldsmith and Arthur Morton on Black Saddle to Elmer Bernstein on Saints and Sinners and Nelson Riddle on The Rogues – to write entire libraries of music in advance to cover myriad dramatic situations, then have it performed by a full symphony orchestra in Munich, Germany.

Also mentioned were Gilbert's own contributions to television music of the late '50s and early '60s, notably his kicky theme for Burke's Law with its breathy female voice, the elegance of The Dick Powell Show theme, the martial intensity of Robert Taylor's Detectives and his delightful waltz for The June Allyson Show. His Western Heritage Award-winning songs for the "Damon's Road" episode of Rawhide later turned up in Mission: Impossible with Barbara Bain playing a cabaret singer.

Several members of the Board of Directors of The Film Music Society, past and present, were on hand to honor Gilbert and convey condolences to his wife Trudy. Current president Christopher Young was among the composers present.

© 2003 Jon Burlingame

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