Enduring Master

Dick DeBenedictis’s affinity for composition and piano has led him around the United States, from the best jazz clubs of New York and Atlantic City to the movie and television sets of Los Angeles. This past October he came back to South Hill to share his insights with current music students. 

DeBenedictis spoke at IC last fall as part of the Enduring Masters series, funded in part by the generous support of Jay ’72 and Judi Linden ’73. But his journey began with music lessons at home. “Mrs. Robinson would come once a week, and the lessons cost a dollar and a half,” he recalls.

DeBenedictis earned a bachelor’s in music from IC with minors in theatre and television-radio. He even had his own talk show on the IC radio station. After graduating, DeBenedictis looked for work in New York City, where he had a string of small-time gigs. He saw a want ad for a choreographer and was hired to play piano for classes.

“I was paid $2 an hour,” he says. “It cost me $3.50 to come from Long Island, where I was living with my family. So I lost $1.50 for every trip. I was desperate to find something.”

His big break came when he was hired to play piano at Roseland Dance City with Jimmy “Dancing Shoes” Palmer. They toured, and, while playing at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, drummer and composer Gene Krupa heard DeBenedictis play and offered him a chance to play piano on the jazz circuit.

After a brief USO tour, DeBenedictis played with the Sammy Kay Orchestra and, when he was tired of traveling, he played in Greenwich Village as the house pianist at the Bon Soir jazz club.

DeBenedictis was eventually offered a position at David Craig’s music theatre class at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film School. He used the position as a springboard to Broadway, where he produced dance music for Carol Burnett’s Bonjour and Fade Out–Fade In. This, he says, is what established him first as a dance director then an orchestrator.

“In dance, you support the movement, and you have to follow that movement, whether it’s a hit or a kick or a jump,” he says. “You tailor the music to fit the movement. It isn’t the other way around.” 

The work meant tight deadlines and busy schedules. “If you got the show on a Monday, you had to have the score on Friday if you were lucky,” he says. “That means you go into the spotting session on Monday and get the notes by Monday night, and you have to get the score to the copyist at least a day or two before [it was due].”

While working on the East Coast, DeBenedictis wrote for some big names including Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli. Then he moved his family to Los Angeles to pursue work at Universal Studios and began writing scores for television series, including Perry Mason, Columbo, Hawaii Five-O, and Matlock. In total, he recalls writing somewhere between 200 to 300 scores for various television shows and movies.

When synthesizers were introduced in the music industry and the market shrank, DeBenedictis left the business—a decision he doesn’t regret. Now he has time to focus on his own writing. He has scored five musicals of his own, as well as three original screenplays and three scripts.

“I’m just doing it because I love it,” he says.