News Column

TV Shows Go, but Theme Songs Live On

September 15, 2013


Not all composers are as well-known as their songs. Take Gary Portnoy, for instance. Or Lalo Schifrin. Or the writing team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Not to mention -- snap, snap -- the immortal Victor Mizzy.

Mizzy wrote the kooky/spooky theme song, snaps and all, for the television series "The Addams Family." His other TV hit, one of the few that was written as a duet, was the theme for "Green Acres" -- sung, in character, by the show's stars Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor.

Livingston and Evans had two big hits, too, with their rousing theme from "Bonanza" and, perhaps the only song introduced each week by a horse ("of course, of course"), the theme from "Mr. Ed."

As for Portnoy and Schifrin, they may be in a class by themselves. Portnoy's theme from "Cheers" (aka "Where Everybody Knows Your Name") regularly tops lists of the best television theme songs of all time. And Schifrin's heart-racing theme from "Mission: Impossible" usually isn't far behind. In fact, it's still as popular and recognizable today as it was when the TV show began airing in 1966, thanks in part to the Tom Cruise films based on the series and the video games based on the films.

Most-heard theme? That would most likely be the instrumental for "I Love Lucy." The show ran on CBS from 1951-1957 and has aired around the world, in endless syndication, since 1959.

Each September, as a new television season kicks off, it's hard not to recall some of the best series theme songs of the past and, for some, their lyrics. In 1984, onetime Tenafly resident John Javna jumped on the first wave of nostalgia for these tunes with his book "The TV Theme Song Sing-Along Book." Today, lyrics to almost all of these shows can be found online and many of the opening sequences can be played on YouTube.

Of course, for fans of the shows, no research is necessary. Like certain commercial jingles, the tunes are permanently etched in our brains, from the ones that provided their show's premise ("The Brady Bunch," "F-Troop") to those generic enough to become hit singles, like "Best Friend" from "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" and "Believe It or Not" from "Greatest American Hero."

A few of the composers -- like Jackie Gleason, who wrote the theme to "The Honeymooners" -- were one-theme wonders. Others, like Frank De Vol ("Family Affair," "My Three Sons," "Gidget" and "The Brady Bunch") were prodigious.

When we asked readers their favorite classic TV tunes, top vote- getters were Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man," as well as the themes from "Hawaii Five-0," "The Patty Duke Show," "Rawhide," "Golden Girls" and "The Flintstones."

Jeannine Albano of Little Falls can still recite the entire theme to "The Beverly Hillbillies." And Howard Rudolf of Fair Lawn said he can't go hiking without humming the "Andy Griffith Show" theme.

At least two popular theme songs were reworked during their show's original run. The theme from "Gilligan's Island" eventually changed the lyric "and the rest" to "the Professor and Mary Ann." And "All in the Family" star Jean Stapleton rerecorded the lyric "Gee, our old LaSalle ran great" for that show's theme song -- "Those Were the Days," another duet -- after viewers complained that they couldn't understand what she was saying.

With memorable themes comes unique notoriety. The songs of Tony- nominated actress/singer/composer Ann Hampton Callaway have been performed by Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli and Patti Lupone, among others. But, she is still best known for writing the theme for the 1990s sitcom "The Nanny" -- which she sang with her sister Liz Callaway. The composer said she began writing the theme after viewing a tape of the sitcom's pilot and talking with the show's star and co-creator, Fran Drescher.

Employing her own hilarious Drescher impression, Callaway recalled Drescher's sole request: "I wancha ta tell people how I got the job as the nanny in 42 seconds."

Callaway savored the job and noted, "I was happy to get to do something a little jazzy -- a kind of bluesy swing song. And people know it everywhere. I was doing a show in Berlin, asked if they knew 'The Nanny,' and the whole audience sang along!"

Callaway added that it was fun to do an "old-fashioned' theme, with lyrics, a la "The Patty Duke Show," "The Flintstones" and "Gilligan's Island" -- before admitting that the one she really loves to sing is the theme from the 1960s "Batman" series, which had only one word in it ("Batman!").

With apologies to "Cheers," not everyone knows Callaway's name. But they know at least one of her songs by heart. "And," she added, with a laugh, "when they find out I wrote it, they sing it to me. It's wonderful."

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