Leon Theremin Advertises the First Commercial Production Run of His Revolutionary Electronic Instrument (1930)

“The theremin specif­i­cal­ly, and Leon Therem­in’s work in gen­er­al is the biggest, fat­test, most impor­tant cor­ner­stone of the whole elec­tron­ic music medi­um. That’s were it all began.” — Robert Moog

In the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the theremin — patent­ed by its name­sake inven­tor Leon Theremin (Lev Sergeye­vich Ter­men) in 1928 — became some­thing of a nov­el­ty, its sound asso­ci­at­ed with sci-fi and hor­ror movies. This is unfor­tu­nate giv­en its pedi­gree as the first elec­tron­ic musi­cal instru­ment, and the only musi­cal instru­ment one plays with­out touch­ing. Such facts alone were not enough to sell the theremin to its first poten­tial play­ers and lis­ten­ers. The inven­tor and his pro­tege Clara Rock­more real­ized they had proved the theremin was not only suit­able for seri­ous music but for the most beloved and well-known of com­po­si­tions, a strat­e­gy not unlike the Moog synthesizer’s pop­u­lar­iza­tion on Wendy Car­los’ Switched on Bach.

Pho­to by Sci­ence Muse­um Group
© The Board of Trustees of the Sci­ence Muse­um, shared under Cre­ative Com­mons Attri­bu­tion Non­Com­mer­cial-Share­Alike 4.0 License

For Theremin and Rock­more, demon­strat­ing the new instru­ment meant more than mak­ing records. When he arrived in the Unit­ed States in 1928, the inven­tor had just wrapped a long Euro­pean tour. He showed off his new musi­cal device in the U.S. at the New York Phil­har­mon­ic. “At first, Therem­in’s instru­ments were lim­it­ed to just a few that the inven­tor him­self per­son­al­ly made,” notes RCATheremin.

He then “trained a small group of musi­cians in the art of play­ing them.” The sound began to catch on with such pop­u­lar musi­cians as croon­er Rudy Val­lée, “who devel­oped such a fond­ness for the theremin,” writes Theremin play­er Char­lie Drap­er, “that he com­mis­sioned his own cus­tom instru­ment from Leon Theremin, and fea­tured it in per­for­mances of his orches­tra, The Con­necti­cut Yan­kees.”

Pho­to by Sci­ence Muse­um Group
© The Board of Trustees of the Sci­ence Muse­um, shared under Cre­ative Com­mons Attri­bu­tion Non­Com­mer­cial-Share­Alike 4.0 License

In the same year that Val­lée and Charles Hen­der­son released their pop­u­lar song “Deep Night,” Theremin grant­ed pro­duc­tion rights to the instru­ment to RCA, and the com­pa­ny pro­duced a lim­it­ed test run of 500 machines. As RCATheremin points out, these were hard­ly acces­si­ble to the aver­age per­son:

Fac­to­ry-made RCA Theremins were first demon­strat­ed in music stores in sev­er­al major U.S. cities on Octo­ber 14, 1929 and were mar­ket­ed pri­mar­i­ly in 1929 and 1930. Theremins were lux­u­ry items, priced at $175.00, not includ­ing vac­u­um tubes and RCA’s rec­om­mend­ed Mod­el 106 Elec­tro­dy­nam­ic Loud­speak­er, which brought the total cost of buy­ing a com­plete theremin out­fit up to about $232.00. This trans­lates to about $3,217 in today’s cur­ren­cy.

The pro­hib­i­tive price of the RCA Theremin would doom the design when the stock mar­ket crashed lat­er that year. Oth­er fac­tors con­tributed to its demise, such as a “sig­nif­i­cant mis­cal­cu­la­tion on the part of RCA,” who encour­aged “the per­cep­tion that the theremin was easy to play.” Adver­tis­ing copy claimed it involved “noth­ing more com­pli­cat­ed than wav­ing one’s hands in the air!”

As mas­ter­ful play­ers, Theremin and Rock­more might have made it look easy, but as with any musi­cal instru­ment, true skill on the there­in requires tal­ent and prac­tice. To adver­tise the new com­mer­cial design by RCA, Theremin him­self appeared in “the rel­a­tive­ly new medi­um of sound film” in 1930, play­ing Hen­der­son and Val­lée’s “Deep Night” (top). Drap­er and pianist Paul Jack­son recre­ate the moment just above, on a ful­ly restored RCA theremin nick­named “Elec­tra.”

Only around 136 of the RCA theremins sur­vive, some of them made by Theremin him­self and oth­ers by dif­fer­ent engi­neers. They are now among the rarest elec­tric devices of any kind. See one of them, ser­i­al num­ber 100023, fur­ther up, a res­i­dent of the Nation­al Sci­ence and Media Muse­um in Brad­ford, UK, and learn much more about the rare RCA Theremins here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” Played With 167 Theremins Placed Inside Matryosh­ka Dolls in Japan

Meet Clara Rock­more, the Pio­neer­ing Elec­tron­ic Musi­cian Who First Rocked the Theremin in the Ear­ly 1920s

Watch Jim­my Page Rock the Theremin, the Ear­ly Sovi­et Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment, in Some Hyp­not­ic Live Per­for­mances

Wendy Car­los Demon­strates the Moog Syn­the­siz­er on the BBC (1970)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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