Trio dans le Studio: Ann Mason Stockton, Catherine Gotthoffer and Dorothy Remsen on the Harp in Film (1999)

Ann Mason Stockton had Ol’ Blue Eyes pegged right from the start.

“I played with Frank Sinatra on one of his first films,” recalls the harpist. “Sinatra was still with Tommy Dorsey then, so this was one of the first solo recordings he had ever done. And I still remember how impressed I was with that young man. Not so much for his voice, though, but for the way he phrased the songs: he placed the words so that the pauses were where they made sense with the lyrics. He didn’t breathe where the music would have made sense for him to breathe. It really was incredible. I had never heard anyone sing that way before.”

Few others had heard such sweet sounds either when Stockton and Sinatra shared studio space during the production of Las Vegas Nights in 1941, two years after Stockton participated in her first motion picture scoring session — for Victor Fleming’s monumental Gone With the Wind. Sinatra, of course, went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest names, starring in over 70 Hollywood productions through the ensuing half-century and playing a key role in turning Las Vegas into an entertainment hub to rival anything found on either American coast, not to mention Nashville.

And Stockton? Well, Stockton played on for another 50 years as well — lending the sound of her strings to over 800 motion pictures and an uncountable number of television and radio spots along the way. Stockton performed under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox for many of her film projects (primarily through the ’50s), while also freelancing for a variety of other studios throughout her career as well. She even earned a rare screen credit for her integral, atmosphere-defining performance in John Huston’s The Dead (1987) before gracefully stepping off of the Hollywood sound stage for the last time after completing her work on The River Wild in 1994.

While her lengthy curriculum vitae may make it seem as if Ann Mason Stockton was once the only harpist with a slate hung in Hollywood, the massive and multifaceted entertainment industry actually generated — and continues to generate — work for many, many performers. A famous photo from the 1965 scoring session for MGM’s Academy Award-winning Grand Prix, to cite one extreme example, shows eight harpists packed tightly together onto a soundstage, while Stockton actually recounted a nine-harp line-up in a 1967 American Harp Journal article.

Not surprisingly, both the Grand Prix group picture and the American Harp Journal article provide links to two other significant harpists from Hollywood’s storied musical history. The first, Catherine Gotthoffer, anchors the proceedings from her front, right-hand position in the Grand Prix photo while the second, Dorothy Remsen, actually co-authored the Journal article (entitled “Motion Picture Recording”) with Stockton.

While Gotthoffer and Remsen arrived in Hollywood in the early ’50s, some 20 years later than Stockton (who as a native Californian had to travel a less-tortured path to get there), both performers compiled credits nearly as lengthy and certainly as illustrious as their compatriot. Gotthoffer spent most of the ’50s working as a contract harpist for MGM, where she played in such seminal films as Singin’ in the Rain, Gigi and any number of musicals, including both Broadway adaptations and many of Elvis Presley’s immensely popular early movies. Her later work included parts in My Fair Lady, Roots, The Godfather, The Godfather II and The Black Stallion, as well as appearances at thirteen Academy Awards Shows and numerous Grammy and Emmy Award productions. Remsen, for her part, made her mark with Walt Disney Studios — debuting with the nature documentary Water Birds in 1952 and performing in hit after hit for the studio until her retirement in 1993.

And on that note, enter music historian Russell Wapensky, a man who has dedicated years to researching aged union contracts in an attempt to ensure that long-serving, oft-suffering members of the Professional Musicians Local 47 of Hollywood were receiving the credit (and royalties) that they had earned through their efforts. Wapensky’s labor of justice eventually turned into a labor of love, and the fruits of his research are now forming the basis of a book documenting the history of America’s most listened-to (if least-often credited) labor union — which counted Ann Stockton, Dorothy Remsen and Catherine Gotthoffer among its members.

On January 6, 1999, Wapensky gathered the three harpists in Dorothy Remsen’s home and with trumpeter Les Remsen (the husband of the hostess) behind the camera, conducted a nearly three-hour long interview to support his book project. The results of the free-wheeling, loosely-structured discussion are fascinating, demonstrating not only the three very unique voices and histories of the conversationalists, but also providing crucial insights into the ties that bound and sustained them over their lengthy careers in a creative environment well known for quickly devouring its own.

The seeds of those three conversationalists’ success under pressure were planted long before they arrived in Hollywood, of course — and the Wapensky interview illustrates that one common trait shared by Stockton, Remsen and Gotthoffer was that each had an early knowledge of exactly what she wanted to be: a harpist.

“I grew up in New London, Connecticut, where my mother was a piano teacher,” Remsen recalls. “So I started playing the piano when I was about four. And I think I learned by osmosis: I don’t remember many formal lessons, although my mother would have me go to the front door and ring the doorbell just like other students! Then when I was about nine, I wanted a bicycle and I didn’t get one — but I did get a xylophone. And in a couple of years I was proficient enough at it that it was arranged for me to play on a children’s broadcast from WTIC in Hartford.

“My grandmother played my accompaniment for that broadcast,” continues Remsen. “We wandered into the studio and sitting there in the corner was a harp. And I met the lady who played the harp and my grandmother joined into the conversation . . . and then and there it was arranged that I should take harp lessons. Her name was Mildred Godfrey Hall and she taught me for four years. She was like a second mother to me.”

Remsen ended her studies with Hall when she enrolled in the Eastman School of Music, where she met her husband-to-be, trumpeter Lester Remsen, and studied harp under Eileen Malone. Les and Dorothy graduated and were married just as World War II was radically reorienting America’s social, economic and entertainment orders — which forced Les Remsen to set aside lucrative New York City performing opportunities while he did his part for his country as a member of the Marine Corps Band. The Remsens stayed in Washington, DC (the Marine Band’s home base) for six years, during which time Dorothy began to perform regularly with the National Symphony, conveniently alternating maternity breaks with fellow harpist Sylvia Meyer.

The Remsens both began seeking auditions again once Les had completed his national service. “As it turned out, there just so happened to be an opening for harp in Minneapolis where Antal Dorati was conducting,” Dorothy recalls. “So I called him up and we had a very nice conversation and he said ‘Yes, I remember you, you played in that National Symphony concert with Yehudi Menuhin,’ even though that was years before. So it was arranged that I would go to Minneapolis while Les came out here to Los Angeles; he auditioned for the Philharmonic there and went to the University of Southern California to get his doctorate.

“But after one year in Minneapolis, which was the year that they had the worst winter they’d ever experienced there, we decided it was best for me to live where it was warm,” continues Remsen. “And [conductor] Alfred Wallenstein knew that I had played in Minneapolis and was pleased to have someone experienced come in to play second harp because at that time they just used whoever was available. After that, May Cambern helped me get my job as Disney: she was phasing herself out as she and her husband were traveling a lot and she said to the studio ‘There’s a new harpist in town, why not try her out?’

“So I went to Disney and my first film was Water Birds,” Remsen concludes. “And it was quite a great experience. I remember the contractor coming up to me and saying ‘Now, I think you will find a couple of 5/4 bars and I hope that won’t be confusing to you’ and I said “No, no I don’t think that will be a problem for me’ and that was that. So May helped me get my start, she was just a very sweet lady and was so kind to me then. I went to a party at her house when I first got to California, I remember — and that’s where I met Catherine for the first time.”

Catherine Gotthoffer’s road to Hollywood had been almost as lengthy as Remsen’s — and it, too, was marked by an early love for her instrument and the obligatory war-time interlude. “We moved from Kansas, where I was born, to California when I was about five years old,” explains Gotthoffer. “Mother thought violin was the most beautiful instrument in world so I started studying violin at that time. And she was a collector of antiques, so I must have been about 10 or 12 when, on one of her antiquing forays, we ended up in a shop that had a harp in it and I started thinking ‘Oh, okay, now we’re talking . . . this is it!’

“My parents weren’t very affluent and it was quite a stretch but after my persistent nagging we did in fact get that harp . . . with the stipulation that I keep playing the violin along with the harp,” continues Gotthoffer. “So I very dutifully did that all through high school — and I played violin in the Peter Meremblum Youth Orchestra, which was a very famous training orchestra. When I graduated from high school I was concert-mistress of that orchestra and I played a harp solo . . . and then I went home and took the violin and I put it in the case and I never took it out again.”

Gotthoffer actually made her cinematic debut with the Meremblum Orchestra: Paramount’s They Shall Have Music (1939) found Orchestra members and famed violinist Jascha Heifetz providing background color to a Horatio Alger-styled story about a runaway New York boy who overcomes adversity (and himself) through music. The proceeds from that production allowed Gotthoffer to seriously consider college or music school. She chose the latter on the recommendation of a trusted musical advisor, making a right-at-the-deadline application to the Julliard Institute of Musical Arts — and surprising herself by being accepted into the program.

“I started doing student work, making fifty cents an hour, once I got there in 1940,” explains Gotthoffer. “I have letters from that period where my mother was sending me $7.50 per month for harp strings. And I met my husband Bob there; he was a trumpeter like Les, so I guess harpists and trumpeters must just go together. Then, of course, the war came along and he went into the navy while I did student work at Julliard and ran the switchboard and worked for the dean. I managed to string my three year course over five years, getting free lessons and free everything else at the school . . . I got a graduate scholarship with full tuition, meal tickets, everything. Plus I had the experience of studying with Marcel Grandjany all that time, which was wonderful.”

“I remember one of the programs scheduled by the graduate school orchestra during that time included the Introduction Allegro of Ravel and Anne Everingham was supposed to be the soloist,” Gotthoffer recollects. “Well, Anne got an offer from the San Francisco Orchestra and for some reason she had to leave immediately even though this Ravel was scheduled to happen in two weeks — and I got the tap on the shoulder to play it, despite having just begun to learn it. So the night of the program, Mr. Grandjany came backstage and his hands were sweating more than mine; he was king of supervising and being a loving mother hen and everything. And there I was standing in the wings and the Julliard Graduate School Orchestra’s conductor, Mr. Steffel, realized how nervous I was and he came over to me and he said ‘Just keep breathing’. And I’ve thought of that many times since then: ‘Just keep breathing’.”

Gotthoffer obviously learned that lesson well: after World War II ended, she was an in-demand performer in New York City’s Latin Quarter and Biltmore Hotel, after which time she and Bob relocated to Dallas to play together in that city’s Symphony Orchestra. While their affiliation with the Dallas Symphony lasted through the early ’50s, they found themselves leading an increasingly nomadic existence as they supplemented their Texas-based Orchestra season work with summers in California (where Gotthoffer’s mother still lived) and short-term studio jobs with WOR and WNBC in New York City. In 1951, Catherine decided to try and relocate the couple’s permanent base of operations half-a-continent westward.

“I wrote to MGM at that point, giving them my resume and asking them for consideration if there were to be a harp vacancy,” recalls Gotthoffer. “So eventually there was one while I was in Dallas, so they called my mother’s house where we lived in the summer and she called me in Dallas to tell me about it. Fortunately, as it turned out, the audition at MGM was during a Mozart festival in Dallas . . . which meant I had the two weeks off. So I flew out here to audition, but didn’t have a harp here, so when I arrived I called a gentlemen who kept harps at his warehouse so he could take out harps where they needed to be when people called him.

“So I called and said I need a harp and he brought it to MGM for me,” Gotthoffer continues. “And the whole thing was kind of a jumbled up affair. I walked into the sound-stage and there was group of 20 or 30 people there: Nicholas Rocha, Adolph Deutsch, Georgie Stoll, Andre Previn, Jeff Alexander, all the leaders of the MGM Orchestra. I played Mr. Grandjany’s Rhapsody, which was my war-horse, then some jazz, then Claire de Lune, then they asked me to talk about my experience. And everyplace I worked in New York, someone on that jury had worked there and asked me a question so that if I hadn’t in fact done it I wouldn’t have know the answer. Then they started calling out requests, which was incredible.”

“Now, the harp I was playing had red strings and I usually play white, so after the audition they called me and said they wanted like to hear me again — but they asked me if I could get a better instrument,” Gotthoffer concludes. “So I called out there and said I need a really good harp and when I got to MGM there was a different one there — and I loved it! I played for MGM again and afterwards they asked me to wait and then Johnny Green, who was the head of the department, came back and offered me the job. And I remember that harp that I played: it had a written number on it, ’45,’ I think . . . and I’m almost certain that it was Ann’s harp, actually.”

It was, indeed, Ann Mason Stockton’s harp — and its availability for Gotthoffer’s MGM audition is somewhat surprising given the multitude of motion picture studio sessions that Stockton was regularly supporting at the time. That wealth of assignments, of course, was a function both of her prodigious talents and of her proven reliability: by the time Remsen and Gotthoffer began working regularly on Hollywood’s sound stages, Stockton had already amassed nearly a generation’s worth of performing experience within the greater Los Angeles music community.

“My family happened to live next door to a young girl of 14 who was studying the harp,” the Santa Barbara native recalls. “So as my mother tells it, when I was little — three or four years old — I was spending a lot of time over there with Fern, for that was her name, sitting in a chair that Fern provided for me while she was practicing. And I would just sit and watch her practice, so when I was five my parents gave me a Clark Irish Harp for my birthday and that was the beginning of the story. The harp has always been a part of my life; I can’t remember a time without the harp. ”

The precocious talent quickly worked her way up through two regional music teachers before arriving on the doorstep of Alfred Kastner, then first harp with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “The only harpist I really listened to when I was young was Mr. Kastner,” explains Stockton. “My mother was very eager to have me hear good music, so I attended Philharmonic and symphony concerts and opera quite regularly, so I would see him there. But other than that, listening to other harpists wasn’t really a part of how you learned back then. There was none of the competitive spirit to studying music then that you find now.”

Stockton’s diligence in her studies resulted in her being awarded a scholarship to attend the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, during her sophomore year in High School. “I was there for a summer and that was a very inspirational thing for me, just a marvelous experience,” Stockton enthuses. “Beverly Hills High School awarded me $100 and that allowed my mother, my brother and I, all three of us, to drive over and back to Michigan for the camp. That’s hard for young people today to believe, I know! But it was just marvelous: we played in orchestra all the time there and every week we auditioned. There were nine harpists, all nine of us played in the orchestra, but we had to audition for first harp every week–and I modestly say I was first harp each one of those weeks. So I learned a great deal of orchestral harp literature at Interlochen as I was just saturated with music for ten weeks. I consider that a turning point in my life.”

After graduating from High School, Stockton attended San Mateo Junior College before relocating to San Francisco — and setting her harp aside for a spell. “It was not really a part of my life just then,” Stockton confirms. “I played at a PTA meeting or something but it just wasn’t a part of my life. It was a period of personal development for me, I might add, as I realized that I could be accepted and liked for what I was instead of just for playing the harp. People liked me. I had friends. And I didn’t play the harp.”

“But after a couple of years a cousin who was a few years older than me said ‘What are you doing up here while your harp teacher is down there in Los Angeles? That’s where you belong.’ And that made a lot of sense to me,” Stockton continues. “So I went to UCLA and did my last three years there. And part of that time I was playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. May Cambern was the second harp and she had decided to go into the commercial field, into films and recording, so there was an opening for second harp for me there. Mr. Kastner was first harp, of course. So I auditioned and got the job and that launched me, my first experience; 1935 it was.”

Acclaimed harpist May Hogan Camburn went on to introduce Ann Stockton to the world of Hollywood music-making — as she would also do years later for Dorothy Remsen and Catherine Gotthoffer. “May was always wonderful to me, she really took me under her wings,” Stockton confirms. “She took me to my first experience of observing a radio show — and my first studio call was at RKO when May could not do a date and so recommended me. And that started my whole career in films — because it was so enjoyable but also because it seemed so easy at the time! It was nice: I was sitting there and we did the session and that was it, nothing like at an evening concert where you’re sitting around forever, waiting to play.”

So was motion picture studio work always that simple for the three harpists? Hardly.

“I remember working with [studio composer and conductor] Les Baxter — who never rehearsed anything,” begins Stockton, opening a floodgate of memories from her counterparts as well. “He made you read it through once and then that was a take, very loose, very laid back, but the music was all very complicated and difficult.”

“His main concern was for the budget,” adds Gotthoffer with a laugh. “He wanted to get everything done in three hours. You almost had to record nonstop to record the amount of music he wanted.”

“He usually had nine-hour schedule worth of work to be finished in six hours,” Remsen seconds. “So you just had to read through the music and record it, record it, record it. I remember one time when we had a six hour session and got to ten minutes before the sixth hour; we were on the last piece in the book and Les said ‘Okay turn on the machinery! Let’s get this done!” And I started to play and nobody else played! I kept playing and playing and the orchestra never played — and it turns out I was playing a solo but the sheet didn’t indicate that was the case. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, when I got to the second page, Les had copied the right hand part separate from the left, so the beats weren’t lined up. The notes were all scrunched up and everything, just awful — and here it was, ten minutes to six and it had to be done. One of the other fellows came over at the end and said ‘Good thing you didn’t break a string.’ And he was right!”

At least on that occasion, Remsen had someone to commiserate with when the day was done. She wasn’t always so lucky. “I also remember coming back from vacation one time and having a call waiting for me from Disney,” she continues. “So I went down to the studio and the harp was on the stage, right up in front — and there were no other instruments there. Then [music supervisor and conductor] Irwin Kostal comes up and says ‘Since you were out of town when we did this soundtrack, we saved the harp parts for when you got back.’ And I felt like saying ‘Well, you didn’t do me a favor,’ but instead I just spent the whole day with headphones on, listening to prerecorded tracks and recording the harp parts for what turned out to be Mary Poppins.”

“The thing is that sometime you do you best work under those kinds of circumstances,” adds Stockton, as Gotthoffer and Remsen nod their heads in agreement. “Sometimes that the first run through is the best — and if it’s written down, we’ll play it. That’s the way we are.”

“And that’s why the contractors and the conductors just got so used to having us walk in there and playing whatever was put in front of us,” Remsen notes. “It’s not that they were unthinking or unfeeling, they just assumed that whatever it was, it would get played. And most of the time it did.”

“Oftentimes the copyist wouldn’t even have the part until right before it was time to play,” continues Gotthoffer. “Particularly if it was a solo, in which case they would copy it last since they had to get all the other parts out of the way. So at the end of the day, they’d walk in, plop it on your stand and expect you to do it in one take.”

“And the rest of the orchestra would be excused and there you’d be,” concludes Stockton. “I remember during Schindler’s List when [conductor] John Williams dismissed the orchestra and I had a 75 bar piece to play. It had momentum, like a waltz, just constant playing — but it was at the end of day and I was tired and ready to go home. And I assumed it was an orchestral part, but I think it turned out to be a solo, although when I actually saw the film I was so involved in the story that I didn’t even hear the piece!”

As demanding as a film’s written soundtrack could be, sometimes the harpists’ greatest challenges came from outside of the scores — as was the case when Gotthoffer worked on Elizabeth Taylor’s 1954 film Rhapsody. “There were lots of scenes in a music conservatory in that film,” she recalls. “So Johnny Green comes in one day with a whole stack of harp music for me to play, so he could decide what he wanted afterwards. And most of it didn’t really matter that much, because the film was set in a conservatory and there were going to be all sorts of other instruments playing — so it would sound like you were walking down a practice hall or something. But that was how Johnny was, very meticulous, so there was no detail that he let slip by.”

Remsen, too, had her own difficult experiences creating source music for films. “One day I was covering up the harp at the end of the day and the contractor says ‘I think they have something for you to play, you’d better not leave,'” she explains. “So I said ‘Okay, do you know what it is?’ and he said ‘No, no I don’t, but I know they have something in mind for you.’ Well, what they had in mind for me was Claire de Lune and I didn’t dare trust my memory, so I asked them to bring me the sheet music and they brought me the piano part–in the key of D, of course. Now, this makes the pedaling different and I’ve been sitting under the lovely air vent at the Fox studios all day long and I hadn’t once played in D, so there I was trying to get into tune, and I wasn’t very happy about it.

“And they waited and waited and finally someone says ‘What’s the problem over there?'” Remsen continues. “And I said ‘you’re just going to have to wait: I haven’t played in this key all day and I have to retune the harp. So just wait.’ So then it turned out that I didn’t have to do the center section of Claire de Lune, so we finally got it done. Then they looked at me and said ‘Okay, now we need you to do The Wedding March, we’ve got the music around here somewhere.’ And by this point, I just couldn’t believe what was going on so I just said ‘Don’t bother, turn on the machinery, I know that one!'”

“That brings up a good point about the harp,” Stockton offers at the end of Remsen’s tale. “Harp is very different from the piano as there are logistics involved in harp performance, namely the pedals, and that really does make a difference. So a lot of times an arranger is thinking that he or she is helping you by doing all these inharmonic changes in the score, but they’re really not. I remember one score that had the simplest harp part, but they made it so complicated that I couldn’t read it — because when I sight read, I just depend on my knowledge of harmonic structure. So I’d rather see a double sharp than see a change in the middle of the score, since at least you have a structure that you’re following that way. Or another thing that arrangers will do sometimes is they’ll write everything that’s supposed to be in treble clef in the bass clef with the treble clef on it and everything that’s supposed to be in the bass clef in the treble clef with a bass clef written on it.”

“They’re trying to help you play these easy notes,” adds Remsen with a knowing smile.

“Right. But I always used to tell people to just leave the playing to us,” continues Stockton. “The composers just needed to write it and we would cope with it. That’s why we were there. We knew how to deal with our instrument. And the composers, well, they’re the ones that had the creativity and were able to write the scores — and if what they wrote was not physically impossible to do, then we would probably find a way to do it.”

Sometimes the harpists’ expertise with and understanding of their instruments actually led them to be enlisted for an even more unusual cinematic role: drama consultant. “I had to teach Debbie Reynolds to look like she was playing the harp one time,” recalls Gotthoffer. “And I spent quite a bit of time working with her to make it look natural when she played on screen. Then later I did a TV show with Burl Ives, something Biblical if I recall, where Burl had to play the harp as part of his performance. So I coached him before the show and then they wanted me to be there on the set when they were filming to make sure his performance was going to mesh with the recorded standby tracks.”

Gotthoffer also recounts another pair of experiences where her ability to mesh disparate elements served her well — although in these cases, instead of integrating play acting with an off-screen musical performance, she was involved in weaving entirely different musical traditions into a cohesive whole. Never mind that those other musical traditions normally included neither harp nor written score.

“Duke Ellington brought out his musicians for a 1966 Sinatra picture called Assault on a Queen,” she begins. “He had his jazz musicians there and he had our [studio] jazz musicians there — and then he had a harp, just to prove it was an ‘A-list’ movie. And I should note that a lot of the arrangers had us there for that reason: we were window dressing a lot of the time to impress the producers, who felt like they had a really big orchestra when they saw the harp. So anyway, there was a harp coda that led to a solo in this score, but beyond that there very little written music. And once we finished the parts that were written out, Duke started scoring the movie the way he would a jazz session, just pointing at people and having them play. ‘I can’t do this,’ I thought. ‘All these jazz greats in the room and he’s gonna point at me?’ So what did I do? I positioned myself so I had the harp right between me and Duke — and there was no way he was going to be able to catch my eye.

“Duke moved, I moved — and I got out of that one alive,” Gotthoffer continues with a laugh. “And another interesting project in a similar vein was when I worked with Quincy Jones on Roots [1977]. Now, Jerry Fried did some of the scoring for this project, but Quincy really set the tone. He used to just fool around a bit to get the sound that he liked–so I went to this session and they had a harp and an African harp and a whole bunch of other African instruments there. And that was it! Quincy just kind of put it together as he went. And that was just great fun!”

Gotthoffer’s enthusiasm and sense of fun ultimately pervades the long view of all three harpists’ careers. For each of the difficult, stressful, lonely or dispiriting moments that they endured, there were an abundance of rewarding, challenging and triumphant occurrences to provide the balance and harmony that made their work so worthwhile, for so many. The full measure of the three harpists’ accomplishments can perhaps best be appreciated by the off-hand comments that the trio toss out throughout the Wapensky interview — dropping monumental names and revelatory observations with the casual air bred through repeated, respected association with the giants of the entertainment industry.

“Michael Jackson was a very serious performer. I was impressed at how easily he took direction and how respectful he was of the musicians and of Quincy. He really had a wonderful attitude,” offers Gotthoffer as an epilogue to her Quincy Jones anecdote.

“Otto Klemperer was conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic when I auditioned,” recalls Stockton during another segment of the interview. “And I will never forget how tall he was, with those beady black eyes of his. He stood at the pillar of the harp and he proceeded to watch me very carefully play and he hummed and made all these strange humming and growling sounds. I was 18 then and it was quite an experience.”

Then Remsen: “I especially enjoyed working with Igor Stravinsky,” she recalls. “I was involved in a lot of Stravinsky’s Columbia recordings — and let me tell you, he challenged everybody.”

And still the list goes on, from harpist to harpist to harpist, a veritable litany of all that has been and all that is in our collective cultural memories. “I did a lot of Bing Crosby recordings . . . Unforgettable with Nat King Cole . . . Gordon McRae, Oklahoma, Yma Sumac . . . the Fanny Brice Show and the Lucky Strike Hit Parade . . . Spike Jones was the drummer . . . Mel Blanc, what a talent he was . . . Doris Day did a session with Les Brown . . . the Love Me Tender soundtrack at Fox with Elvis Presley, with Lionel Newman conducting . . . Mahalia Jackson . . . Doctor Zhivago . . . Bernard Herrmann . . . Frank Sinatra’s My Way . . . the Guys and Dolls soundtrack . . . Friendly Persuasion with Gary Cooper . . . Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson . . . The Flinstones . . . Percy Faith . . . To Kill a Mockingbird . . . Elmer Bernstein’s first picture . . . Bonanza, the first big adult Western . . . Roger Williams . . . Henry Mancini . . . West Side Story with Johnny Green . . . Victor Feldman . . . Judy Collins . . . Barefoot in the Park . . . Andre Previn . . . Tony Bennett . . . The Magnificent Seven . . . Bruno Walter . . . the first Twilight Zone that ever came out . . .”

And so on, through thousands of sessions between them, some remembered, many forgotten, few that didn’t move someone, somewhere when they were first heard. Amazingly, however, even with that vast collective catalog, each performer was able to cite one work that stood above all of the others — the single legacy point that each could offer to summarize the essence of their experience and their style.

“My favorite harp part was in The Dead [1987], John Huston’s last film before he died,” begins Stockton. “It was based on a James Joyce story, so he wanted an Irish background musically to open and close the film and he chose to have a harp solo, a beautiful Irish folk melody. He gave me complete freedom in how I wanted to do it. They didn’t restrict me to the time; the producer said ‘We’ll fit the credits to what you play.'”

“It was The Black Stallion [1979] for me,” adds Gotthoffer. “What a beautiful solo! Carmine Coppola had a loose way of doing things and in The Black Stallion he just kind of turned me loose: there was music, but it was up to me to work out the timing and decide what pieces would go where.”

“Steven Spielberg’s E.T. [1982] was the most outstanding solo I ever had,” concludes Remsen as the other two harpists nod approvingly. “And they know that, because even though we tended to be completely anonymous, since it was rare and very special when musicians would get credit in a film, once we all got to know each other we could usually recognize each others’ work, credited or not. I mean, I could go to a film and say ‘I bet Ann played that’ or ‘I bet Catherine played that’ and I’d usually be right.”

So how did Stockton, Gotthoffer and Remsen get to know each other? As has been the case for so many other harpists, it the American Harp Society that brought them together — then sealed their bonds.

“Thank heaven for the Harp Society,” enthuses Remsen. “Because we never really would have gotten to know each other back then without it, since we rarely had the chance to work with other harpists within the studios.”

“Yes, the Harp Society is really what brought us all together,” Stockton agrees. “And we can thank Catherine for that, since she was actually the one who was contacted by Mr. Grandjany when it began out here.”

Gotthoffer picks up the story. “It started as an outgrowth from an international competition in Israel in 1959,” she explains. “A regular who’s who of talent. So afterwards the participants decided they would go back to their countries and start Harp Societies in their own homes. So Mr. Grandjany called me about setting up a chapter in the Los Angeles area and I, being the dutiful student I had always been, his word was my command, I started trying to organize a chapter. And it was the beginning of a wonderful camaraderie since there was usually only one of us on a stage: I’d see Dorothy’s harp trunk or Ann’s harp trunk but they weren’t there. So we got acquainted that way and it’s been wonderful over the years.”

“The first organizational meeting was out at Catherine’s house in the valley and we finally got to meet and know all of these people who were only names — some very impressive names to us, of course — before that time,” concludes Stockton.

Gotthoffer, Remsen and Stockton pause to smile at the recollection, perhaps realizing that Wapensky’s video would serve a similar purpose: helping another generation of harpists know the trio as performers and individuals — rather than just as the three most impressive names in the history of the harp in film.


A note on sources: This article originally appeared in the American Harp Journal. The transcriptions made from the video recording of Russell Wapensky’s three hour interview with Dorothy Remsen, Ann Mason Stockton and Catherine Gotthoffer form the nucleus of this article. Each of three harpists also prepared written autobiographical sketches that were instrumental in documenting the breadth of their respective careers. The American Harp Society Website was helpful in confirming name spellings and organizational relationships, while the Internet Movie Database was indispensable for referencing movie titles, release dates, studios, conductors and composers.


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