Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Rodney Whittenberg | Philadelphia composer and filmmaker

Interview :: Rodney Whittenberg
by Ruth Weisberg, 1 Sep 2006

Rodney Whittenberg is an Emmy Award-winning Philadelphia composer and filmmaker. He is the founder and president of Melodyvision Entertainment Group, a full-service music, sound and recording facility providing production services, content, and education for the arts and entertainment communities since 1985. To find out more about Melodyvision:

Rodney Whittenberg can be reached at: [email protected] or by phone: 215-848-5215

PCG: What were the influential and motivating factors that got you into the music and film industry?

RW: My father Luther was a huge influence on me. He taught me how to be a creative self-starter. As a kid growing up in West Philadelphia, my dad—who wanted to be a singer and loved music—worked as a salesman at Sears. In fact, he was the first black salesperson at the Sears store in West Philly. He was also somewhat of an entrepreneur. He also bought many burned down houses and then rehabbed them. My early childhood was filled with my dad saying to me, 'Hey Rod, let's go play Build a House!' By time I was 6 and 7 years old, I was helping him run 220-volt electrical lines, soldering pipes, and hanging up paneling.

PCG: Your dad's penchant for music must've also had an impact on you.

RW: Oh, it was huge. About the same time I was helping my dad rehab these old houses, I remember he had made up a song. It was a cool country ditty called, 'Practice Makes Perfect.' My dad grew up very poor, 5 kids sleeping in the same bed, with no money for taking piano lessons or going to college. Anyway, he believed strongly enough in himself and the song he wrote and wanted to send it to black country music star Charle Pride.

PCG: And did he?

RW: Being the creative self-starter, my dad looked in the telephone book, found a local composer/arranger, and made an appointment to see him. I went with him. When I walked into the guy's house, there were musical instruments everywhere! We walked up some stairs, and there was a room with a microphone and a big reel-to-reel tape recorder. My dad sang his song into the microphone. Then the guy asked me to sing into the microphone, too. I had never done anything like that before. Hearing my recorded voice in playback, I was forever changed. Right then and there, I knew I wanted to be involved in music production, too. Also, as a family we went to the movies quite a lot, and I fell in love with film. So throughout my childhood, there was always this presence and passion for music and film. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be involved with both.

"Hearing my recorded voice in playback, I was forever changed. Right then and there, I knew I wanted to be involved in music production..."

PCG: So these were the life events that set the foundation for you to follow your dreams of being a musician and a filmmaker.

RW: Yes. Oh, by the way, he did send his song to Charlie Pride, who sent a very nice rejection letter. Before my dad passed away in 2004, I recorded him singing the song. As a tribute to him, I placed "Practice Makes Perfect" into a documentary where I was on the production team.

PCG: Creativity, talent, initiative and sweat equity certainly count for a lot. What about professional training?

RW: As I got a little older, my dad saw that I had an interest in electronics. As it turns out, Sears offered correspondence courses in electricity and electronics to its employees. My dad signed up for them, but it was actually me who took those mail-order courses! By the age of 11, I was building synthesizers and amps, and I used them with my first rock band, "Rip Cage." By time I was in high school, I was thoroughly in love with music and the arts. However, Yeadon High School didn't have courses or classes for my level of interest and involvement, so I enrolled in music classes at Temple University. Here I was, this high school kid taking university-level classes, and I learned so much about music history, theory and composition. I also attended the University of the Arts, where Camille Paglia was not only an amazing professor, but became a good friend and mentor.

PCG: I've always said that if you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life. You'll also never work harder at your craft.

RW: How true. About fifteen years ago, I started Melodyvision. My dream was to score music for film and television, produce and direct movies, and to work with great people—and it's all happening!

Left to right: Rodney Whittenberg and Laura Thomae in attendance at the Emmys.

PCG: What about that industry motto that says it's not always what you know, but who you know?

RW: I believe that, too. When I was a kid growing up in Yeadon, I hung out with a close circle of friends who were all interested in music, cinema and the arts. While other kids in my neighborhood were into sports and football, my pals and I would hop downtown and go to places like the Philadelphia Art Museum and the TLA. Then we'd sit for hours afterwards and discuss the music, art and films we'd seen together. Like me, they're all now working professionally in the industry, only they're scattered all over the country, while I stayed in Philly. From my close circle of childhood and college friends, one is now a casting agent, another is a feature film screenwriter, one is a set designer for Saturday Night Live, another is an actor. When it came to starting and growing my company and developing key connections, which as you know, are so critical in this business, I already knew people who were in the industry. This helped pave the way for even bigger and better commissions and connections.

PCG: Any outstanding projects you've worked on that particularly resonate with you?

RW: Yes, quite a few, actually. And they're all unique, diverse, and creatively challenging. Some recent stand-out projects are scoring the soundtrack for the History Channel's "Spanish-American War"; producing the new album and managing the local group Time for Three; composing the music for the documentary, "Hard Coal," which played to rave reviews at the Philadelphia Film Fest; and post production and performing the closing credit music for the documentary, "The Camden 28." Melodyvision is one of the sponsors of the Howard Stern Film Festival, with First Prize having me score the music for the winner's next film. On September 6th we're releasing Philadelphia musician and music therapist Laura Thomae's original song, 'Alleluia', which is already getting airplay on WXPN. I produced the song, and my business and writing partner, Jack Faulkner, did the vocal arrangements. We brought in some of the city's top musicians to sing background vocals. The song will be a CD single to benefit the music therapy program at Keystone Hospice, so I'm very proud of my work with this particular project.

PCG: Talk about landing the movie role of a lifetime—how did you wind up on the silver screen with Katharine Hepburn?

RW: My latest film scoring project is for Bryn Mawr College, which has just established the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center to honor Katharine Hepburn and her mother, who both graduated there. There will be a series of special events at Bryn Mawr College and the Kimmel Center. We are composing the music for the 18-minute film that will premiere at the Kimmel Center gala on September 9th. It'll feature highlights of Katharine Hepburn's film clips. Barbara Walters has been very helpful with this project. She contributed rare TV footage of her interviews with Hepburn, as well as footage with other celebrities and actors who either knew or worked with her, and those clips will also be in the film. Working on this project is an enormous honor for me, and a huge one, musically. I wanted to create music for this film that is classy and sweeping, and very reminiscent of film music from the 1940's. It'll incorporate elements of jazz, swing, and Gershwin. Katharine Hepburn was the prototype for the successful, independent woman on screen, and we're going to embody that musically in this film tribute.

"Philadelphia is the huge new mecca for attracting-- and keeping — all different types of people in the creative arts."

PCG: What are your impressions about the Philly creative landscape?

RW: I've always felt that Philadelphia has long been undervalued and overlooked. Yet look at all the talent that's homegrown or has settled here. People are starting to recognize the huge pool of talent we have here in this city. Philadelphia is the huge new mecca for attracting-- and keeping—all different types of people in the creative arts. Whether it's art, music, print or some combination of multimedia, we now have legions of people seeking new opportunities here, who all want to make and leave their creative mark. We truly are kicking some creative butt!

PCG: Including you.

RW: I find it so exciting that technology and relationships have made this little business of mine that exists on the 3rd floor of a home in Germantown to be able to compete on the national and global scale. Every time I am working on projects for clients in New York or Los Angeles, I always think of those people who once told me, 'You can't do that kind of national work from Philly.' Much of what I do is so fascinating, exciting and rewarding. As my father always told me-- anything is possible--if you work hard at it.

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