Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Classic TV Legacy of Casey Kasem

Most Saturday mornings you’ll find me driving around Las Vegas listening to a 1970s edition of American Top 40 with Casey Kasem on Sirius XM. I live in the past as much with music as I do with television.

Hearing Casey count down tracks from Fleetwood Mac, Andy Gibb and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils is a happy reminder of tuning into the same broadcasts when they originally aired, as well as a way to remember Kasem in his element, before recent months have turned him into a post-mortem punch line on par with baseball great Ted Williams. 

Kasem was certainly best known as a radio personality, but he also had a successful and somewhat bizarre acting career that also deserves commemoration. He was, to borrow a phrase from Nick at Nite back when that network was worth watching, part of our television heritage.

Here is just a sampling of the shows where he appeared and the roles he played over an eclectic career.

Norville “Shaggy” Rogers
Outside of daytime drama you rarely find an actor portraying the same character for 40 years. Casey Kasem created the voice of Shaggy for Scooby Doo, Where are You when it debuted in 1969, and kept coming back for revivals and adaptations and direct-to-video DVDs until 2009. That’s a lot of “Zoinks!” From 2010 to 2013, he voiced Shaggy’s father, Colton, in Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated.  

Kasem’s voice was often described as unmistakable. But to me Shaggy’s high-pitched quaver sounds almost nothing like the soothing, resonant voice you heard on the radio, or in voiceover the commercials he narrated for Heinz ketchup or Dairy Queen or Oscar Meyer. The difference was so distinct that Kasem often voiced secondary characters in Scooby Doo shows (like the various cops who drag the phony monster to jail) and if you didn’t know you’d never suspect it was the same performer.

Dick Grayson/Robin
This was Kasem’s second most famous animated character, one that predates his time in the Mystery Machine. He played an earnest Boy Wonder in 1968’s The Batman/Superman Hour, and reprised the role in Hanna Barbera’s long-running Super Friends shows. Super Friends and Scooby Doo were Saturday morning staples throughout the 1970s – no wonder my generation grew up with Kasem’s voice in our heads. 

Adolf Hitler
In 1974, when Don Rickles was the guest of honor on one of Dean Martin’s legendary roasts, Casey Kasem was introduced as “the man who writes every word that comes out of Don’s mouth.” Out he strolled as Hitler (not in Nazi garb, but in a purple smoking jacket), to claim that Rickles is “the only man who has bombed more places than I have.” It’s a bizarre moment but Casey does his best to commit to the character.

Peter Cottontail
Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971) was the first of three Rankin-Bass Easter specials, none of which are as fondly recalled as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Still, here’s a chance to hear Casey sing, and you try to find another actor who played both Hitler and Peter Cottontail. 

Charlie’s Angels
The season 3 episode “Winning is for Losers” finds the Angels on bodyguard duty, after a professional golfer receives death threats. Jamie Lee Curtis plays the golfer, the same year she starred in Halloween. And Casey Kasem appears as sportscaster Tom Rogers, who has a sinister secret but may or may not be the killer. Despite the appearances of Curtis and Kasem, the episode is most memorable for a scene in which petite little Kris Munroe (Cheryl Ladd) wrestles an alligator.

The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries
In the two-part thriller “Mystery of the Hollywood Phantom,” Kasem plays struggling actor Paul Hamilton who, as in Charlie’s Angels, may or may not be a murderer. In his first scene he impersonates Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo, and pulls it off surprisingly well. 

Saved By The Bell
Casey played himself in more than 50 television appearances, including two episodes of this awful but strangely beloved series. In “Dancing to the Max,” he appears as the host of a dance contest, which is somehow won by Screech. Apparently no one saw Elizabeth Berkeley on Dancing With the Stars. Or Showgirls.

These selections are just a small sampling of Kasem’s TV work – if you’re a viewer of the various retro TV channels you’ll also spot him in episodes of Fantasy Island, Hawaii Five-O, Ironside, Quincy and My Two Dads. And if you need a fix between reruns please join me Saturday mornings on the Sirius 70s on 7 channel. I’ll bet it’s been years since you’ve heard “Convoy” or “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” on the radio.

As you do, say a little prayer if you’re so inclined that Casey Kasem’s body will soon be at rest, as his soul ascends to the stars he always encouraged us to reach. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

The (Real) Home of Comfort TV

There is a fantasy shared by many of us who love Comfort TV, and that is the prospect of visiting the fictional worlds created in classic shows. What would it be like to attend one of those martini-drenched cocktail parties hosted by Sam and Darren Stephens? Or listen to the Partridge Family rehearse in their garage? Or to see snow falling over Major Nelson’s house in July, and realize that Jeannie is at it again? 

Impossible, of course. But there is a place that would bring one closer to realizing this dream than any other in our mundane real world. It’s in Burbank, California, on a section of the Warner Bros. Ranch known as Blondie Street. If classic TV has a home, this is it.

At first glance it looks like any other gently-curving street you would find in suburban cities throughout the United States – single family homes with attached garages and neatly-manicured lawns out front, some with a white picket fence surrounding the property.

But if you know your classic TV shows, it won’t be long before every house on the block begins to look familiar. Start with the Blondie home, built for use in a series of 1940s films based on the long-running comic strip. For TV fans, however, it is famous as the home of the Andersons in Father Knows Best, as well as the home of Major Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie

This is also where you’ll find the homes used on Hazel and Gidget, and the Oliver house that was home to both the Stones on The Donna Reed Show and the Mitchells on Dennis the Menace. Next door to the Blondie home is the Partridge Family home  – note the driveway on the right where the iconic bus was often parked. 

At the end of the street is the Higgins house, most famously used as the Stephens residence on Bewitched

There is a park on the other side of the street, which has appeared in all of the above shows and hundreds more. Its most famous feature is a circular, white stone fountain that should also be familiar to every TV fan. It was prominently featured in the opening credits of Friends
, but sharp-eyed viewers can spot it in dozens of other shows, from The Waltons to The Monkees.

If you want to know the full history of the Warner Bros. Ranch, there is an excellent website that details every aspect of the property, from its initial construction to the movies and television shows filmed there. Mischa Hof, with whom I’ve exchanged a number of emails over the past 10 years, created the site. It’s a labor of love for him, and I can’t imagine how much time and money he’s devoted to research and interviews that celebrate its pop culture heritage.

A few months ago I received an email from a woman named Janet who works on the Blondie Street part of the property. She asked if I would be willing to write a blog on the site and on Mischa’s work.

I immediately accepted, having wanted to visit the place for years. I’ve walked the perimeter of the property during more than one trip to Los Angeles (there’s a pretty good pizza place across the street), and peeked through the chain-link fence where you can glimpse some of the houses. 

Unfortunately, just two weeks after Janet extended the invitation, she was laid off after 10 years on the job.

I didn’t know much about Janet then –  I have since learned that she was much loved by her coworkers and those fortunate enough to tour the lot in her presence. 

It’s important that those who work in special places have an appreciation for their history, and for what they mean to people. This should be true whether it’s a metropolitan art museum, a Broadway theater, a venerable old sports arena, or Blondie Street. 

Janet got that. At the time of her dismissal she was working with Mischa on a “Friends of the Ranch” program that would have opened the street to visitors for the first time in its history. Now, that probably will not happen.

I’ll get there one day. I have a few somebodys who know somebodys who will be able to set something up. And as Blondie Street is still a valued part of the studio (you’ll also see it in more recent series like The Middle), I do not fear for its future. But it is without a caretaker now, and that concerns me.

There’s a reason we bestow landmark status on exceptional places. It elevates them above mere property controlled by a corporation, and protects them against the whims of the bureaucrat, the robber baron and the unenlightened. Blondie Street is a place to walk in the footsteps of television’s most beloved characters. It has the ability to reconnect adults with the blissful days of their childhoods.

Perhaps that’s not sufficient for the kind of safekeeping afforded to the Ryman Auditorium or the Old North Church. But if the home of Millard Fillmore can make the cut, so can the home of Samantha Stephens. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Love Boat: Sailing Away from Cynicism

My classic TV viewing is rarely influenced by current events. However, at those moments that the world situation seems more depressing than usual, I often find myself drifting toward less challenging shows.

When a temporary escape from dire headlines is warranted, the carefree appeal of a frivolous series like The Love Boat is particularly welcome. What sounds better to you right now – another story about Ebola, lone-wolf terrorism, school shootings and contentious political campaigns, or an open smile on a friendly shore? 

Escapism was always one of the series’ selling points, even if viewers were only escaping something as mundane as winter. From 1977 to 1987, the show embarked on each new season as autumn leaves began to fall, and sailed through the months when days were shorter and weather forecasts promised blizzards and cold, bleak temperatures.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs I can still recall watching The Love Boat on Saturday nights and gazing, longingly, at the bright sunshine and clear blue skies as the Pacific Princess sailed out of port. As each week’s swimsuit-clad voyagers lounged on the Lido deck, sipping tropical drinks and discussing day trips into Mazatlán or Puerto Vallarta, it felt like a virtual vacation from the frozen wasteland outside my bedroom window. 

Critics hated it, of course. It didn’t have the gravitas of Hill Street Blues (as if that was the objective). How dare any series possess no higher aspirations than showcasing nice people in attractive scenery, and simple stories of romance. But in the era that brought us the Iran hostage crisis, the last throes of the Cold War, the Unabomber, the murder of John Lennon and other depressing news, I’m sure millions of viewers appreciated the break. The show came along at a good time.

And the timing was also favorable when it came to casting. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of Hollywood’s golden age stars were still performing, even if opportunities to do so were not as prevalent. The Love Boat‘s prestigious passenger list includes June Allyson, Van Johnson, Lana Turner, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland, Greer Garson, Joan Fontaine, Stewart Granger and Ginger Rogers.

Television stars past and present filled out the remaining roles, along with a few frequent travelers who qualified as celebrities, though at the time we didn’t know why, exactly: Bert Convy, Mary Ann Mobley, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and the ubiquitous Charo, who seemed to check in at least once a month. 

The Love Boat crew was as responsible for the series’ success and longevity as its guest stars. I can’t prove it, and have not found any polling on the subject (academia is shockingly bereft of scholarly research on The Love Boat) but for me it was the friendly and reliable presence of Gavin McLeod, Fred Grandy, Ted Lange, Bernie Kopell and Lauren Tewes that anchored the series though episodes good and bad.

What a wonderful job that must have been. With the stories carried by the passengers, your captain, yeoman purser, doctor, bartender and cruise director received scripts with one-third of the lines they would have to memorize on a typical hour-long series. Kopell and Grandy had so much free time they also wrote several stories. And once or twice each season a crewmember would get to play a moment that required extra depth and effort, and they were always up to the task.

I had it bad for Julie McCoy, who seemed like one those sweet and wholesome girls that you would be proud to take home to mom. That says something about my naiveté as a viewer, because in nine seasons she invited a lot of guys back to her cabin. At the time I thought they were just getting together to sip hot chocolate and play some board games. 

As with any long running series, even one with such a pliable premise, The Love Boat eventually began to lose its mojo. I never thought Jill Whelan was the Cousin Oliver of the cruise lines, but most people didn’t get why Vicki was necessary. Lauren Tewes’ one-season departure disrupted crew chemistry, and the late addition of the Love Boat Mermaids and series-killer Ted McGinley (as ship photographer Ace) smacked of desperation.

But even in its least inspired moments, The Love Boat was a refreshing oasis of optimism in a desert of cynicism. It was weekly wish fulfillment that reassured all of us losers that there really was someone out there for everyone. 

And if nothing else, it was a time capsule for an era of film, television and popular culture that we rightly recall as magical. Artist Andy Warhol sailed on the Pacific Princess. So did Donna Reed and Dolly Parton, Hulk Hogan and Lillian Gish, the Hudson Brothers and the Pointer Sisters. Luise Rainer, who won back-to-back Oscars in 1936 and 1937, appeared on The Love Boat (playing twins!). Janet Jackson was there at the beginning of her career, and it was where Janet Gaynor, the first Best Actress Oscar winner in 1928, gave her final performance. 

The first two seasons of The Love Boat are available on DVD. In discouraging times like these, the rest of the run cannot be released too soon. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Top 20 TV Theme Songs of the 1980s

As with last year’s series of blogs on essential television series by decade, this series on theme songs will also conclude with the 1980s. Not only is this the last decade that qualifies as Comfort TV, it’s also the last one where a theme song was an essential part of the viewing experience. It might be an interesting challenge to try and find 20 great songs form the 1990s, but I fear the selections would be pretty scarce after Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files.

The 1980s doesn’t seem like that long ago – to me, anyway – yet think about how times have changed. Back then an ode to a bar as heartening as “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” was actually commended, and not condemned for encouraging alcoholism. 

Hill Street Blues
Another outstanding (and Grammy-winning) theme from Mike Post, the genre’s most prolific and successful composer. Good thing he came up with something this appealing for Hill Street Blues, since it would have to play long enough to introduce what seemed like 30 or 40 regulars in every episode. 

The Golden Girls
“Thank you for Being a Friend” was written and recorded by Andrew Gold in 1978, and then revived (with new vocals by Cynthia Fee) for this beloved sitcom. It’s a perfect fit.

Miami Vice
If any television theme screams 1980s, it’s this electronic musical assault from Jan Hammer. Probably not the sort of piece you listen to very often anymore, but then not everything that seemed cool 30 years ago has managed to retain that status.

And while some compositions like the Miami Vice theme have their moment in the sun and then fade into history, others endure for hundreds of years. The Wings theme is actually the Rondo movement from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A, written in 1828. Sadly, it only lasted through the series’ first season and half of season two. 

The Greatest American Hero
The Joey Scarbury hit “Believe it or Not” is one of those songs that are kind of awesome and kind of terrible at the same time. But who didn’t love the pop culture boost it received from George Costanza’s answering machine on Seinfeld?

Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors
‘80s kids grew up with cartoons created primarily to sell toys. The themes were mostly generic, but the intro to Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors had an over-the-top hair metal vibe that still sounds great. And the toys were underrated too.

Twin Peaks
Perhaps no other series used music to establish tone and atmosphere as effectively as Twin Peaks. The extraordinary theme and score by Angelo Badalamenti created a sense of foreboding that hung over every scene. It’s impossible to think of the show without it. 

It’s a Living
With its full orchestra and soaring vocal arrangements, this lively theme sounds like something written for a classic 1940s Broadway musical. 

St. Elsewhere
Dave Grusin’s lilting jazz theme for this always excellent (and always low-rated) drama was the best of his many television works, which also include the themes for Maude, Good Times and It Takes a Thief

Bob Newhart’s second successful sitcom had a subversive streak that belied its bucolic setting. But its simple, beautiful theme had no such undertones. It’s just a really sweet and cozy piece of music from Henry Mancini, a composer who also contributed to my list of top 20 themes from the 1950s.

The Winds of War
Technically this was a miniseries, but there were 14 episodes between The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance, and that’s more than some shows manage. The magnificent theme was created by Robert Cobert, whose work with series producer Dan Curtis dates back to their days on Dark Shadows

If you look back over TV history, you find that all of the coolest shows have music that complements this admirable quality. Do the songs become cooler by association, or do they succeed on their own merits? With Moonlighting the answer is obvious. One can groove to Al Jarreau’s jazzy theme without ever meeting David Addison, Maddie Hayes or Miss DiPesto.

My Sister Sam
Not a lot of happy memories associated with this situation comedy, given the tragic murder of costar Rebecca Schaeffer. But it was a good show with much potential, and a theme in Kim Carnes’ “Room Enough for Two,” that under different circumstances would be much better known. 

This soothing piece by W.G. Snuffy Walden always reminds me of Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
Here is the first theme song to send up the very concept of the theme song. Shandling’s self-aware series was a forerunner to the kind of meta-television we take for granted now. 

Highway to Heaven
David Rose wrote music for three shows starring Michael Landon ­– Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. And each time it set the appropriate mood for the stories that followed. I like the trumpet on this theme better than the one on Dynasty

The A-Team
A rousing march and one last curtain call for Mike Post, who (with long-time partner Pete Carpenter) scored a big part of our classic TV heritage.

Beauty and the Beast
One of television’s most beloved cult series was graced by a theme (by Lee Holdridge) with all the romance and gravitas of a classic film score. Check out the beautiful rendition by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

Duck Tales
Those infectious “Woo-hoos” have stuck with Generation X the same way that “Watch out for that tree!” can still make a Baby Boomer smile after all these years. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Top 20 TV Theme Songs of the 1970s

I haven’t perceived a significant change in approach to TV themes from the 1960s into the 1970s, beyond a more prevalent use of pop songs to encourage crossover promotion. There are still plenty of outstanding contenders to choose from, and several worthy examples that fell just short (my apologies to One Day at a Time, The Waltons and Land of the Lost, among others).

We begin, however, with what is arguably the best television theme song of all time.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The season one version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme is more than just a catchy tune or a means to introduce characters; it told the story of a generation of women breaking free from traditional stereotypes (“How will you make it on your own?”), and encapsulated a transitional moment in the culture. In subsequent seasons the lyrics changed to a celebration of the charms of Mary Richards, thus rendering the theme less substantive but still memorable. 

The Incredible Hulk
We are currently awash in superhero films and TV shows, all scored with some variation on a bold, John Williams-like orchestral fanfare. So it’s surprising that one of the first successful transitions of a Marvel character into television, particularly one as powerful as the Hulk, would rely instead on a poignant piano piece called “The Lonely Man,” which focused more on the misfortune of the scientist inside the monster, so affectingly played by Bill Bixby. 

Makin’ It
As I wrote in an earlier piece on TV theme songs that were better than the shows they introduced, “Makin’ It” was a Saturday Night Fever homage rip-off that debuted in February of 1979, and was canceled one month later. But the theme, performed by series star David Naughton, deservedly reached #5 on the Billboard chart. 

The Rockford Files
This is the first classic TV theme written by Mike Post (with Pete Carpenter). Post would go on to create equally memorable songs for several other series, including Hill Street Blues and Magnum P.I. While the song itself is distinctive, it’s really the jarring hodgepodge arrangement that puts it over. I’d wager that before this no one had written anything for blues harmonica, dobro, electric guitar, synthesizer, flute, French horn and trombone. 

Welcome Back, Kotter
Gabe Kaplan’s sitcom already had a theme selected, when former Lovin’ Spoonful lead singer John Sebastian submitted his effort. Producers quickly made a switch and the theme, Sebastian’s only solo hit, topped the Billboard chart in May of 1976.

The Love Boat
Is it cheesy? Sure it is. But this Paul Williams-Charles Fox composition set the right tone for a series that delivered breezy (and cheesy) romantic stories. The Jack Jones vocal adds an extra touch of Vegas schmaltz. Has anyone boarded a cruise ship in the last 30 years and not had this playing in their head?

As with The Incredible Hulk, Taxi has a theme that offers a counterpoint to the series it introduces. The show featured loud, outlandish characters, a seedy setting and crass (at least for its time) punch lines, but it opened with “Angela,” a gentle, melancholy wisp of electronic jazz composed by Bob James.

Every cop show should open with this blistering theme. Every single one. It would even make the lousy shows better. 

The Odd Couple
Neal Hefti’s theme has that instant earworm quality of the best TV theme songs, and once it gets inside it doesn’t go away easily, as illustrated in the most perfect Friends cold open in that series’ history. 

The Young and the Restless
A haunting, graceful piece of music with a complicated history. It was introduced in the 1971 film Bless the Beasts and Children as “Cotton’s Dream.” A new arrangement by cowriter Perry Botkin, Jr. was first heard on The Young and the Restless in 1973. But after ABC’s Wide World of Sports used “Cotton’s Dream” to score a compilation of gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s routines from the 1976 Olympics, the music became forever known as “Nadia’s Theme.”

The jubilant “Different Worlds” made the top 20, and you can still hear it performed live if you happen to catch the amazing Maureen McGovern in concert. Since Angie has been out of circulation for so long, there’s still a freshness to the tune that is unachievable by themes from more popular shows. 

The NBC Mystery Movie
Here we see an example of the exceptional craftsmanship we used to take for granted in television. Rather than a simple voiceover and teaser clips from each week’s mystery movie, NBC created a brief but unforgettable segment with a shadowy figure brandishing a flashlight, a cloud-filled orange sky, and an eerie whistling theme composed by Henry Mancini. 

“Suicide is Painless” was first heard in the film version of M*A*S*H, but worked equally well as an introduction to the long-running series. Mike Altman, the 14 year-old son of the film’s director, Robert Altman, wrote the lyric, which was never heard on the show. The song was so successful that it earned the teenager more than $1 million, more than ten times what Altman received to direct the movie.

The Bob Newhart Show
Classic TV fans may best know Lorenzo Music as Carlton the unseen doorman on Rhoda. He should be best known for co-creating The Bob Newhart Show and writing its theme, “Home to Emily.” Multiple arrangements were tried during the series’ 6 seasons, but it’s the longer version, with that soaring trumpet that plays as Bob indeed arrives home to Emily, that makes the track unforgettable. 

The Dukes of Hazzard
The saga of two good ol’ boys never meanin’ no harm, as performed by balladeer Waylon Jennings, was the fulfillment of what Dukes creator Gy Waldron told me he wanted from his show, back when I interviewed him for my book on the series. He wished for episodes to unfold like a great country song. That didn’t always happen, but the song that opened every show was a keeper.

Barney Miller
In the beginning there was that bass line. And then there were drums, and an electric guitar, and by the time the horn section had its say you were primed and ready for another visit to the 12th Precinct. 

The Partridge Family
I think almost everyone prefers the “Come on get happy” version that played in seasons 2-4, over the “When we’re singing” theme from the first season. Either way it’s certainly one of the songs that epitomizes 1970s pop culture. 

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters
All of the Sid & Marty Krofft shows have memorable themes – H.R. Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos, Land of the Lost, Lidsville, etc.  I’ve selected “Friends” from Sigmund and the Sea Monsters as the pick of the litter, fully cognizant that the rendition by series star Johnny Whitaker does not bolster my case. 

The Jeffersons
Obviously a great song, with its spirited lead vocal (by Good Times star Ja’net Dubois) backed by a gospel chorus, but this is also a theme that resonated more deeply with African American communities, as a sign of long-overdue changing times. Beyoncé covered it on her 2013 tour.

Westerns had all but disappeared on television by the 1970s.  Dallas is rarely classified that way, but its dynamic theme certainly recalls the glory days of the genre.

Next: The Top 20 Themes of the 1980s

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Top 20 TV Theme Songs of the 1960s

By the 1960s, producers and networks recognized the value of a memorable theme song, ushering in the golden age of this singular musical genre.

The resulting embarrassment of riches means that some truly wonderful themes, from Bobby Sherman’s “Seattle” (Here Come the Brides) to Dave Brubeck’s jazzy intro to Mr. Broadway will not make the cut. I also couldn’t find room for Man in a Suitcase, Lost in Space, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, I Dream of Jeannie, T.H.E. Cat or many others that deserve recognition.

Some may argue that a few of my top 20 qualified not by musical merit, but on the enduring popularity of their respective series. I won’t completely dismiss the point. But consider that since these are also the shows rerun most frequently in the past 50 years, we should by all rights be weary of their songs by now. And still, before yet another encore presentation, I don’t hit the fast-forward button on the DVD player. That should count for something.

Mission: Impossible
Here’s the first of many inescapable selections. Lalo Schifrin’s propulsive theme provides the perfect introduction to the breakneck pace of this tension-filled espionage series. 

The Brady Bunch
Written by series creator Sherwood Schwartz, the song and its accompanying opening credits sequence has been embedded into the DNA of American baby boomers.

This is the one TV western theme that most closely captures the magic and majesty of a great western film score. Thankfully, the version with lyrics performed by the cast and shot for the series’ pilot was pulled before the episode aired. But it’s a fun curio now. 

The Munsters
Why would anyone think a surf rock theme would be appropriate for a sitcom about a family of horror movie monsters? Sometimes, genius ideas turn up in the strangest places. 

Route 66
The series shares its name with a 1940s song that was a hit for Nat King Cole and The Manhattan Transfer. But it didn’t have the right vibe for this portrayal of restless youth hitting the open road. Enter the famed composer and arranger Nelson Riddle, who delivered a smooth, jazzy instrumental that earned a Grammy nomination. 

How many generations of kids grew up running around a playground with Neal Hefti’s famous “na na na na na na na na” riff running through their heads? Another classic that is indivisible from the series it introduced.

The Beverly Hillbillies
Just once, try not to focus on the lyric with its famous “swimmin’ pools, movie stars” references, and instead savor the first class bluegrass picking of Country Music Hall of Fame inductees Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. 

Jonny Quest
There is not an abundance of melody in Hoyt Curtain’s percussion-driven theme, but it sets the perfect tone for this sophisticated action series. The heavy drums evoke the primitive settings of many Quest adventures. Curtin allegedly wrote the trombone parts in a way that were impossible to play correctly, to get back at musicians who chided him for the simplicity of his previous compositions.

The Monkees
Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote the first Monkees #1 hit (“Last Train to Clarksville”) also composed the show’s theme song that, nearly 50 years later, is still being played on tour by the band’s surviving members. Micky sings lead, but it’s just not the same without Davy Jones. 

The Wild Wild West
Hopefully I’m not the only one who hears shades of Aaron Copland in the heroic strains of the Wild Wild West theme, composed by Richard Markowitz. The less said about the rap version attached to the movie remake, the better. 

Room 222
In the 1960s, it will still acceptable for a television series to take a few moments to introduce itself, rather than plunging right into the first scene. The opening credits sequence to Room 222 runs 1:30, during which 4 cast members are credited, and we watch dozens of students walk to and from school to the gentle strains of a theme composed by the great Jerry Goldsmith. I always thought a flute carried the melody, but I’ve now read several opinions that it was a recorder. 

The Banana Splits
Saturday mornings in the late ‘60s and early 1970s were a time of cartoons and frenetic, psychedelic live-action shows created for kids already hyped up on sugarcoated cereals. The energetic “Tra la las” of the Banana Splits theme were the perfect fix for our habit. 

Hogan’s Heroes
Jerry Fielding wrote several exceptional TV themes, including those for McHale’s Navy and The Bionic Woman, but none more enduring that this rousing military march.

Star Trek
A heroic theme, written by a man appropriately named Alexander Courage, that gave the original adventures of the Starship Enterprise a grandeur that the show’s special effects could not match. Series creator Gene Roddenberry added a completely unnecessary lyric that even many hardcore Trekkers have never heard, in order to fleece Courage out of half his royalties.

Gilligan’s Island
Sherwood Schwartz’s other great theme for his other great (in popularity if not creativity) situation comedy was a whimsical sea shanty that introduced seven stranded castaways. Actually, just five in the first season – The Professor and Mary Ann were dismissed with “and the rest” until a season 2 addendum gave them equal credit. Bonus points for its underrated additional verse that plays over the closing credits.

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
Harry Nilsson had 8 top 40 hits. “Best Friend,” his joyful theme to The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, was not one of them. It should have been. The song was never released as a single, perhaps because it was adapted from an earlier Nilsson composition called “Girlfriend.” 

The Addams Family
With respect to composer Vic Mizzy, this one probably works better as an instrumental. Surely people more fondly recall the harpsichord and the finger snaps than the “altogether ooky” words.

Hawaii Five-O
When networks remake TV shows, they always think they know better than the artists that created the original series. So it’s a testament to the quality of Morton Stevens' Hawaii Five-O theme that CBS found no way to improve upon it when McGarrett and Dan-O were rebooted in 2010. 

The arrangement behind those wonderful animated opening credits has an ethereal quality appropriate for a classy supernatural sitcom. But this is one case where the lyrics actually work even though they are never heard in the series. 

The Andy Griffith Show
A few whistled measures of Earle Hagen’s “The Fishin’ Hole” is all some of us need to be transported back to the idyllic town of Mayberry, where there’s always an apple pie cooling on a window sill, and chicken and dumplings for Sunday dinner.

Next: The Top 20 Themes of the 1970s

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Top 20 TV Theme Songs of the 1950s

I must still be in a musical mood after getting reacquainted with all those singing TV stars, so let’s spend the next few weeks on theme songs.

Last year I did a series of pieces on the essential shows of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. I’ll take the same approach with theme songs by decade. I think twenty is a good number, because it’s enough to cover the essentials but will still force some dreadful choices about which tunes to omit.

Of the four pieces, this first one on the 1950s was the most challenging; my knowledge of the TV of this decade is not as deep, and many of the themes from this era are obscured by voiceover narration and lengthy sponsor plugs. A lack of diversity resulted in countless shows featuring generic orchestral melodies and brass fanfares, so as a result I’ve been force to cheat with a couple of the choices (which will be acknowledged in those respective entries).

Ready? Here we go.

The Twilight Zone
It’s the most unique and progressive composition on this list, so even though the entries are not ranked in order The Twilight Zone still deserves the top spot. Composer Marius Constant’s dissonant, avant-garde mix of guitars, bongos, saxophone and French horn doesn’t sound like any other 1950s music on TV or anywhere else. 

The Lone Ranger
Yes, this is my first cheat. The theme is Rossini’s stirring William Tell Overture, but no other classical music piece is more closely associated with a TV show than this one.

As with The Twilight Zone, most TV fans can still name this tune in four notes. Composed by Walter Schumann, the somber theme was actually titled “Badge 714” and was first heard on the Dragnet radio series.

Western shows dominated television in the latter half of the 1950s. It’s debatable whether  Rawhide was the best of them, but it certainly had the best theme, especially with those memorable whip-crack punctuations. It was recorded by Frankie Laine, and revived for a new generation by the Blues Brothers in 1980.

American Bandstand
TV’s most prominent early rock-n-roll showcase had a boogie theme that was not as rebellious as the new music genre it helped to popularize. But it endured for more than 30 years, and enjoyed a 1970s revival after Barry Manilow added a lyric.

The Jackie Gleason Show
“Melancholy Serenade” was not created for the comedian’s classic variety show, but it was composed by Jackie Gleason himself and performed by his orchestra, which recorded several best-selling instrumental albums in the 1950s and ‘60s. 

Peter Gunn
Henry Mancini’s jazzy theme, played by guitarist Duane Eddy, is another of the most instantly recognizable ‘50s themes, and set the perfect tone for this hard-boiled crime series. It’s been covered dozens of times by jazz and blues musicians and, like the theme from Rawhide, was also featured in the Blues Brothers movie.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents
It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate introduction to this macabre anthology series than “Funeral March for a Marionette,” by the French composer Charles Gounod. 

The Mickey Mouse Club
“The Mickey Mouse Club March,” composed by genial head Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd, is one of the great singalong tunes of TV’s golden age. If you were a kid at the time you probably still remember all the words.

Johnny Staccato
Here’s a case where both the series, a Greenwich Village crime drama starring John Cassavettes, and the jazzy music (by Oscar-winning composer Elmer Bernstein) should be much better known and celebrated than they are. The show lasted only one season but is available on DVD. 

The Donna Reed Show
Multiple versions of the same theme were heard throughout the series’ eight seasons, but the best one was the first, with its slower tempo and refined, string quartet arrangement, which builds to a lovely harp glissando as Donna Stone cheerfully sends her family out into the world.

The Rifleman
You don’t get to hear as much as you might like of Herschel Gilbert’s theme at the start of each episode, best remembered by Chuck Connor’s rapid rifle fire. But the longer version played over the closing credits and was better than anything in series costar Johnny Crawford’s discography.

M Squad
The brassy swing of Ernie Wilkins’ theme was popular enough to be covered by both Harry James and Count Basie. It was also the inspiration for the music heard in the Naked Gun movies and Police Squad! TV series, which I guess was meant as a compliment. 

The Lawrence Welk Show
Your grandmother’s favorite appointment TV was all about the bright, shining sounds of champagne music, exemplified in its opening theme, “Bubbles in the Wine.” What once seemed corny now sounds sweetly nostalgic and reassuring.

A lot of 1950s themes tried to tell the entire story of the show in a few measures of music. Bronco offered one of the better examples of this. In just 90 seconds you’ll hear three verses and a chorus that provide a thorough introduction to Ty Hardin’s cowboy hero, Bronco Layne. 

Here’s another cheat – the theme to this TV adaptation of the movie I Remember Mama was adapted from the Holberg Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

Leave it To Beaver
While I confess it’s not one of my personal favorites, the Leave it to Beaver theme is certainly one of the quintessential TV tunes of its era, and instantly conjures images of the family sitcom at its most wholesome.

The other heroic masked rider of 1950s TV didn’t have Rossini in his corner like the Lone Ranger, but he did have the expert tunesmiths at Disney, who created a stirring theme that became a top 20 hit for The Chordettes. 

I Love Lucy
For more than 60 years the I Love Lucy theme has been one of the medium’s most familiar melodies. The composer is Eliot Daniel, who wrote it as a favor for his friend, series producer Joss Oppenheimer – as long as Oppenheimer agreed to keep his name off the show. At the time Daniel didn’t think much of television and figured I Love Lucy would never last. He changed his mind by the second season (and happily collected royalties for the next 40 years). Lyrics (by Harold Adamson) were added for a memorable third season episode. 

The Deputy
Who would have guessed that an uncommon theme would be the most interesting part of a TV western starring Henry Fonda? The show was fairly typical of its time and genre despite Fonda’s gravitas, but the sound of that electric guitar was something no one would associate with westerns until Ennio Morricone began scoring the Sergio Leone films.

Next: The Top 20 Themes of the 1960s