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“The Cut” is a weekly reporters notebook-type essay by an Ideastream Public Media content creator, reflecting on the news and on life in Northeast Ohio. What exactly does “The Cut” mean? It's a throwback to the old days of using a razor blade to cut analog tape. In radio lingo, we refer to sound bites as “cuts.” So think of these behind-the-scene essays as “cuts” from Ideastream's producers.

From Maple Heights to Hollywood: Henry Mancini's 100th birthday

Composer Henry Mancini, center, poses with country singer Merle Haggard, right, and Lainie Kazan at the 1970 6th Academy of Country Music Awards in Hollywood, Ca., March 22, 1971.
Composer Henry Mancini, center, poses with country singer Merle Haggard, right, and Lainie Kazan at the 1970 6th Academy of Country Music Awards in Hollywood, Ca., March 22, 1971.

If it seems like “The Cut” has become my personal repository for Ohio’s obscure connections to the arts, you may be right. With the recent passing of singer Eric Carmen, from Lyndhurst, I thought I might tell of my encounters with the former Raspberry. Or perhaps a connection to “The Simpsons” which has been lurking near Playhouse Square. I could even fashion my 9,000th story about the solar eclipse.

Instead, I’m marking an anniversary: this Tuesday would have been Henry Mancini’s 100th birthday.

“But, Kabir, what does that have to do with Ohio?,” some might ask.
“Here’s a bag of money,” said no one, yet.

Well, Mr. Mancini was born in Maple Heights, Ohio, on April 16, 1924. According to the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, his family moved to Pennsylvania five years later. From there, he became one of the most successful composers of the 20th century. He created themes which have embedded themselves in our collective memory, even if the names aren’t always remembered: “Moon River,” “Peter Gunn,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “Baby Elephant Walk” and “The Pink Panther,” among many others.

One piece which is still tattooed on my brain is the “Viewer Mail” theme for “Late Night with David Letterman,” commissioned in 1988. The show’s head writer at the time was another Cleveland native, Steve O’Donnell.

“He’s that kind of large, popular, successful talent that's like a McCartney or a Mozart,” he said. “I think the really good artists have a sense of when doing something a bit eccentric will be good for them.”

O’Donnell credits writer Randy Cohen with the idea to create a theme and bring in someone who “was not super hip… like from a rock band, but had pop credentials.”

An orchestra was booked for the November 4, 1988, show to perform the new pizzicato-laden theme. Introduced as a “genius” by bandleader Paul Shaffer, O’Donnell recalls a sense of excitement that the multiple Oscar and Grammy winner was coming to Studio 6A in New York.

“He was suave, he was gentlemanly, he was professional and it was exciting for all of us… who thought ourselves younger and cooler at that time than the Mancini world,” he said. “Having an orchestra on our set; we were used to having two guitars, a drum and a keyboard.”

After that debut performance, the theme was performed by everyone from Anthony Newley to Johnny Mathis to the Red Army Choir.

“They didn't really know what they were saying,” O’Donnell said. “They learned it phonetically. There’s all these sturdy, bulky communists, and they're bellowing but they're also indisputably inspiring.”

Henry Mancini passed away just a few years after the Letterman performance, on June 14, 1994. A decade later, he was honored by the United States Postal Service with a 37-cent-stamp. Currently, there's a display about his life, and a letter from the maestro himself, at the Maple Heights Historical Society. Founder Heather Gyekenyesi said its a popular stop for Mancini mavens, and includes information about his boyhood home at the corner of Friend Ave. and Broadway. Although no events are planned in his hometown, the centennial is being marked online with a 100-song playlist at his official website. In June, the Hollywood Bowl opens its season with a Mancini tribute concert featuring Michael Buble and Dave Koz.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.