In the early 1960s, Dimitri Tiomkin signed back-to-back contracts to score two pictures, Panic Button and Hole in the Rock. While he did not ultimately provide music for either film, a look at what took place behind-the-scenes provides a fascinating glimpse into the business world of film composers.
Hole in the Rock
Tiomkin was engaged in 1961 to score Hole in the Rock, an independent film from a start-up production company in Utah. A geological formation, Hole in the Rock is a narrow and steep crevice in the western rim of Glen Canyon, in southern Utah in the western United States. The dramatic film was to be based on an expedition in the 1870s by Mormon pioneers who famously crossed the Colorado River gorge at that point to settle the town of Bluff, Utah. The film was to be the first project of Ensign Pictures, specially formed to produce feature motion pictures in the state.
A common stock offering was announced by Ensign in March 1961 to raise US$440,000. The following month a paid advertisement in The Salt Lake Tribune, citing great demand for independent films, heralded the investment opportunity “Offered to Bona Fide Residents of Utah only” to “Participate in the Future of Utah’s Promising New Motion Picture Industry.” Along with prominent Utah businessmen, the company’s officers and directors included two experienced film hands, Vernon T. Whipple and Kermit J. Sessions.
Whipple was a television producer-writer who worked in Hollywood and at one time served as director of BYU’s student program bureau.
Sessions, named vice-president in charge of production, had attended the University of Utah and brought to Ensign executive experience with Columbia Pictures in production management and contracts. At the time he was married to Adoree Evans, later better known as actress Rachel Romen (1933–2013).
The Ensign corporation opened offices in Salt Lake City around April 1961. Hole in the Rock was budgeted at two million dollars, with shooting to take place on location in southeast Utah in the fall of 1961. The screenplay was to be written by a Utah-born screenwriter, Clair Huffaker, who had experience writing Westerns.
To maintain historical accuracy the company may have consulted David Eugene Miller (1909-1978), the noted Utah historian. Miller’s papers at the Utah State Historical Society include correspondence with Ensign Pictures.
Ensign took additional office space at General Services studios in Hollywood in July to begin pre-production work. (Today, the site at 1040 N. Las Palmas Avenue in Los Angeles, is home to Hollywood Center Studios.)
Huffaker completed the script by the end of July and opened negotiations to produce the picture. (His two-picture contract with 20th Century Fox may have prevented him from assuming the role of producer.)
Meanwhile Kermit Sessions sent a letter in October 1961 to Leon Lance, an artist’s manager and writer’s representative in Hollywood, seeking Lance’s help in securing Tiomkin to write the music score. Of the project, Sessions wrote,
First of all I am enclosing a copy of the screenplay for you to have and look over. As you know it was written by one of the best western writers in Hollywood, Clair Huffaker. Just recently he finished for 20th Fox Flaming Star, Comancheros, and Star In The West.
The screenplay is based on an actual trek that took place back in 1879-80. It deals with one of the greatest pioneering achievements ever accomplished, which was taking a wagon train of 80 wagons and over two hundred pioneers down through southeastern Utah and across the Grand Canyon, going down 2000 feet of cliff.
If you remember we discussed who I wanted to do the music for the picture and I mentioned that there was only one man I felt capable of scoring this and that was Dimitri Tiomkin, due to the fact that we have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir willing to to [do] the background music. I don’t know of [if] you know this, but they turned down doing the sound track for the ALAMO. As you know I think Mr. Tiomkin is one of our greatest talents today, and if there is anyway you could speak to him or have him read our script I would consider it a personal favor. I am sure he would enjoy working with the Mormon Choir as he could exploit his great talent to a new high.
Sessions didn’t know that Tiomkin had, in fact, worked with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the past for a U.S. Army orientation and information film, produced by the Frank Capra Unit of the Army Signal Corps in Hollywood during World War II. The music was performed by the Army Air Force Orchestra, and includes a track with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in one of its earliest documented performances for a film.
A pro forma letter between Volta Music and Ensign Pictures dated November 7, 1961, was signed by Stuart Brown on behalf of Kermit Sessions. Brown served as the business manager for Ensign and was a certified public accountant. Sessions, Brown, and Lance all met with Tiomkin at the composer’s home that day to discuss the terms of employment to score the film.
In retrospect, a brief news item on November 2, 1961, “Utah Film Firm Seeks Couple For First Movie,” in the Salt Lake Tribune may provide the first inkling that Ensign was committing some rookie errors in casting and publicity. The news item said for its first film effort, Ensign was seeking a boy and girl from Utah for “featured” roles and Whipple was quoted as saying, “No particular talent is necessary.” The company also, perhaps prematurely, announced Tiomkin as the film’s composer although the meeting to negotiate terms at the composer’s house had yet to take place.
About a week later, on November 8, another Utah newspaper, the Snowdrift published in Ephraim, announced the boy and girl were to be between the ages of 16 and 25, to play “supporting” roles in the picture.
No further publicity for the potential film appears after November. During the last week of December 1962, a classified ad ran in the Ogden Standard Examiner offering stock in Ensign Pictures. Under “Business Opportunities” it appears as if someone was trying to unload unwanted—and perhaps worthless—shares.
Years later, Sessions biography in the International Television Almanac, 1979 edition, lists his association with Ensign as lasting from 1962 to 1964.
There’s no indication as to why the film stalled and was not made; however, the most likely scenario is that Ensign failed to raise enough money to finance the production. The initial sale of stock would have raised only about one-fifth of the film’s proposed budget.
Another possibility is that a filmable script never materialized.
For Tiomkin’s fortunes, it’s too bad the film was not produced, as his contract granted him five percent of the producer’s profit, in addition to what would have been a payment of $50,000 for his services.
There is a cryptic sentence, “Please meet with Longstreet and proceed,” within a note dated November 7, 1961, unsigned, but probably from Tiomkin’s agent.
That would be the writer Stephen Longstreet (1907–2002). Longstreet, a prolific writer of books and screenplays as well as a jazz aficionado and artist, spent time in Paris during the 1920s, as did Tiomkin. A drawing by Longstreet once graced the wall of Tiomkin’s home.
A letter from Stuart Brown to Tiomkin on November 9 noted that Tiomkin would receive his deferred payment “at the same time that Stephen Longstreet’s deferment is paid.” There is no mention in the press that Longstreet was involved with Hole in the Rock. Longstreet did however adapt the screenplay for the film Panic Button.
In January 1962, Tiomkin signed a three-page contract to provide a music score for Panic Button. It was to be the first film produced by Ron Gorton (1933–2003), who after leading a diverse life as an athlete that included a stint with a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball farm team, decided to become a moviemaker.
Tiomkin’s contract was with producer Gorton and Yankee Productions “in association with Seven Arts.” Seven Arts Productions, founded in 1957 by Ray Stark and Eliot Hyman, was a production company that made films for release by other studios. Yankee Productions was incorporated in Connecticut in July 1960, with the sole business of producing the motion picture, Panic Button.
The contract called for Tiomkin to write the music score and three songs, the producers would pay for demo records of the songs, there was to be no interpolated music, and in paid advertising Tiomkin’s name was to be the same type size as that of the director of the picture. Other particulars, such as pre-recording actor-singer Maurice Chevalier in Europe are mentioned.
Agent Marc Newman (1908–1980), brother of composers Alfred and Lionel, represented Tiomkin.
Two months after signing the contract, in March 1962, Tiomkin had an eye operation at the Children’s Hospital in San Francisco.
By the end of April he was apparently ready to begin work on the film.
Harry E. Sokolov, vice president at Famous Artists Agency, sent a telefax to Al Martin, the attorney for Yankee Productions in New York, on May 1, 1962, conveying that Tiomkin is “ready willing and able to perform services in accordance with contract.”
A reply came from Sidney M. Levin, an attorney at Stillman & Stillman, that read in part, “in order that there shall be no misunderstanding on the part of anyone, I am writing to advise you that Seven Arts is not a party to the Tiomkin contract, and assumes no obligation with respect thereto.” He goes on to explain that the role of Seven Arts was limited to making payments to the producer as advances against its share of the boxoffice receipts.
There ends the paper trail from Tiomkin’s viewpoint. From the AFI Catalog, we know that the film was released with a music score composed by Georges Garvarentz.
Several years after the film was released, a tax case came before the U.S. Tax Court related to an investor who wrote off as a loss money invested in the film. Ironically, the storyline of Panic Button concerns a businessman who plans to solve his tax problems by financing a film. Life imitating art.
To summarize the United States Tax Court case: Henry A. Childs and Carol M. Childs v. Commissioner, filed April 9, 1968.
Henry A. and Carol M. Childs filed a joint tax return claiming income tax deductions for a net operating loss of nearly $10,000 attributable to a loss sustained from the worthlessness in 1963 of 915 shares of stock of Yankee Productions. After the IRS disallowed the deductions the Childs went to court. The case centered on whether the loss was a capital loss under section 165 of the code, as the IRS determined, or was an ordinary loss under section 1244, as the Childs contended.
Yankee was authorized to issue 1,500 shares of a par value of $100 per share. Pursuant to approval by the Yankee board of directors at regular and special meetings and not through a public offering, the Childs invested $59,000 in 915 shares over a two-year period beginning in 1960. Prior to December 31, 1963, Yankee did not earn or realize any gross receipts from any source, so on December 31, 1963, all of the stock of Yankee owned by the Childs’s was deemed worthless.
The court ruled against the Childs because when they purchased the shares, Yankee did not have in existence a plan for the issuance of stock, as described in, and within the meaning of section 1244.
While Yankee Productions may never have been profitable, at least it completed and released a film, unlike Ensign Pictures. In either case, Panic Button and Hole in the Rock were not destined to become part of Tiomkin’s filmography. Soundtrack buffs can only imagine what a Dimitri Tiomkin score for these films would have sounded like.
“Seven Arts Productions,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
“Hole in the Rock (rock formation),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
“Zion Savings Elects Officers,” [notice of common stock offering for Ensign], The Salt Lake Tribune, March 14, 1961
[Ensign Pictures advertisement], The Salt Lake Tribune, April 13, 1961
“Ensign Pictures to Produce Feature Films in Utah,” Boxoffice, April 24, 1961
“Utah Writer To Pen Script For New Movie,” Ogden Standard Examiner, April 25, 1961
“Ensign at General Services,” Hollywood Reporter, July 10, 1961
“Huffaker In Line To Produce ‘Rock’,” Variety, August 1, 1961
“Utah Film Firm Seeks Couple For First Movie,” Salt Lake Tribune, November 2, 1961