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


  1. Is it just me, or does “Funeral March for a Marionette” sound just like the Leave It to Beaver theme slowed down?

    1. Never thought of that, but you're right!

    2. Better Late Than Never:

      In the '50s, MCA-tv's musical director was a man n med Dave Kahn. His job was to create libraries of music tracks for use on the various TV shows that MCA was producing as Revue Studios - the forerunner of what eventually became Universal Television.
      It was Dave Kahn who composed the library of cues that we all remember from the original Hitchcock show - stings and fades which were used week after week.
      Kahn also scored the Gounod theme for its weekly use on Hitchcock, as it was heard for the first four seasons anyway.
      Leave It To Beaver came along a few years into the Hitchcock run; it was Dave Kahn's job to track the music for that show as well as come up with a theme tune.
      You can pretty much take it from there ...

      Side Note:
      Sometimes, you can hear some of the whimsical Beaver tracks pop up in the more comedic Hitchcock shows.
      Really ...

  2. The theme to "THE DONNA REED SHOW" was actually track TC-430 in the Capitol Records High-Q Library of pre-recorded tunes available for use on any radio or TV programme that was willing to pay to use it. In other words, the version you liked was actually a generic piece of music. This same track also was played during episodes of "LEAVE IT TO BEAVER" and "THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET."

    1. Yep - I remember being surprised to hear it during an Ozzie & Harriet show. But regardless of how the tune became attached to the series, I still think it was an ideal match, particularly in its original version.

  3. Wow! List of 1950’s! Of course I am excited to watch this list of best theme songs of 1950’s time. You know why it was the golden time period of 1950’s.I wish I could also be a part of that ancient time. It would be fantastic.