Theme Songs

Awhile ago I wrote about the death of Vic Mizzy, composer of The Addams Family theme. Thinking about his playful, finger-snapping song made me remember many other 1960s TV theme songs. As they began to replay in my mind there seemed no end. Of course, I spent more hours watching television during that decade than in any other.

Probabilities aside, I wonder if theme songs were more important to marketing series in the 1960s than later in the history of television. It wasn’t just the successful shows like the Munsters or The Addams Family that had unforgettable songs. There were plenty of shows whose catchy themes have outlasted nearly all the other memories about them.

I loved Richard Rogers powerful march for The Great Adventure, a short-lived American history anthology series that aired in the fall of 1963. And I can still hum the theme from the otherwise forgettable astronauts-meet-cavemen series It’s About Time (“It’s about time, it’s about space, About two men in the strangest place.”)

This represented a change in emphasis from 1950s series which often chose public domain classics, the way Alfred Hitchcock Presents used “Funeral March of a Marionette.”

There were memorable exceptions, of course, such as Henry Mancini’s theme for Peter Gunn. The Rawhide theme so engraved itself in a generation’s memory that it became the subject of a joke in the movie Blues Brothers, being the only country-western tune they knew. And the lyrics to Car 54 Where Are You? were fodder for endless Mad Magazine parodies. (Proving what a small world it is, when Car 54 ended its two leads went their separate ways, Fred Gwynn to The Munsters and Joe E. Ross to It’s About Time.)

We know that in the early days of television some decisions were made in the hopeful expectation that a show would go on for years, like the most popular radio programs had. Originally, when networks launched a prime-time show they ordered a full season’s worth of shows, a 39-episode run. The shows that bombed died a lingering death.

Few science fiction TV shows can boast scripts more powerful than their themes. I still enjoy hearing the opening music for The Time Tunnel but I never need to see another episode.

The instrumental opening of Lost in Space, a tune far superior to the silly stories, is one of the most science-fictional-sounding themes of any show in the genre. With the cadence of a navigational instrument desperately pinging for traces of the familiar, its repeating cycles dramatize the unfulfilled search for home.

Ironically, while Star Trek was a much better-written show, if the theme by Alexander Courage hadn’t played over images of a starship zooming past would I have thought of it as science fiction music? I doubt it. That shrill and breezy tune sounded like the excited humming of a classroom of high school girls preparing for a formal dance featuring Xavier Cugat and his orchestra.

Since the Sixties there seem to have been far fewer TV themes that have remained a vivid part of the popular culture. Nearly everybody can sing The Brady Bunch Theme song. (Well, I can’t. I alone remain pure…)

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5 thoughts on “Theme Songs

  1. A lot of the reason for the decline in theme songs is the shortening of episode lengths. Showrunners seem to have decided that a short 10-15 musical bit with the show title is all they need…although a fair number of dramas also do a “Previously on…/Here’s what you need to know…” opening montage to set up the show similar to how the story-oriented theme songs used to.

  2. Except for the fact that I do know the Brady Bunch song – what I cannot remember is why on earth I watched that show – my tastes and memories are very close to yours. Loved the Addams Family song (so disappointed that it went basically unused in the movie), still remember the song for It’s About Time (do you also remember the jumpy theme music for Mr. Terrific?), agree that the theme songs were by far the best thing about Time Tunnel and Lost in Space and one of the worst things about Trek Classic.

  3. I’m happy to say I can’t remember the words to the Brady Bunch either. I doubt very much I ever sat through the entire opening song, or much more than ten seconds of it. (The time it took me to jump up from the chair and change the channe.) I was never all that big a fan of “family” sitcoms. I did like “Leave it to Beaver” but only rarely watched “My Three Sons.” My interest fell off drasticaly after that…

    Through most of the ’70s I didn’t watch TV at all, so mercifully missed one of the least interesting decades of Television history.

  4. Oh… nearly forgot about the Star Trek theme. The first season played the familiar theme music as performed by a theramin, or something like it, and it DID sound like SF music! But in the second season they Latinized it and added annoying “swooshes” to the Enterprise as it flashed by. There’s something to be said, occasionally, about elitist attitudes, and not dumbing down the media for the masses, with “democratizing” as the excuse.

  5. One of the podcasts I listen to is “The Deuce Project”, a 2-hour show from the college radio station WIDR in Kalamazoo. They play all sorts of SF-oriented music, from novelty songs to hiphop to mashups to theme music. One of their episodes from last year had a modern take on It’s About Time.

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