Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Whistle stop

The name Earle Hagen may not ring a bell when first you hear it. But if you were watching television in the 1960s and '70s — or if you're a fan of TV Land or Nick at Nite — you're familiar with his work.

The composer of numerous TV theme songs and scores, Hagen died yesterday at the age of 88.

Hagen's theme music résumé reads like a list of Nielsen ratings all-stars from back in the day: I Spy (for which Hagen won an Emmy), That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mod Squad, Eight is Enough, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., and most memorably, The Andy Griffith Show, which featured Hagen whistling a happy tune as Andy and Opie head off to the ol' fishin' hole.

In addition to his extensive television work — it's estimated that his music appears in more than 3,000 episodes — Hagen also wrote scores for dozens of motion pictures, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He and cowriter Lionel Newman were nominated for an Academy Award in 1961 for scoring another Marilyn Monroe classic, Let's Make Love.

Even if he had never composed a note for the screen, either large or small, Hagen's place in musical history was secured when he wrote (with bandleader Ray Noble) the jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne" in 1939. Practically every jazz musician active in the past seven decades has covered Hagen's soulful, Ellingtonesque riff.

Earle Hagen's passing gets me to thinking...

Whatever happened to TV theme songs?

At one time, you couldn't have a successful TV show without a catchy theme. Sometimes, the theme music was infinitely better than the show it introduced. Everyone remembers Henry Mancini's theme from the '50s detective drama Peter Gunn, which still pops up in movie and TV show soundtracks to this day. Anyone recall the show itself? That's what I thought. (Another example: T.H.E. Cat, an otherwise forgettable mid-'60s show starring Robert Loggia as a reformed — yet conveniently named — cat burglar, had a wicked cool jazz theme by Lalo Schifrin that I can hear reverberating in my skull even now.)

When I was but a wee lad, I used to collect TV themes on my little reel-to-reel tape recorder — you whippersnappers will have to look that one up — and a cheap microphone I would hold in front of the speaker of our Zenith console set. In between songs, I'd throw in introductory patter in the mold of the AM disc jockeys I idolized — Casey Kasem and Wolfman Jack. (Look, I was an only child in a military family that moved every year or two. I learned self-entertainment skills early in life.) Who knew then that TV theme songs would one day go the way of... well... reel-to-reel audio tape?

Of course, there's a reason for the decline in the art of TV themes: It's called money. Those precious 15 or 30 seconds that would otherwise be wasted on a throwaway musical trifle can be sold to the highest-bidding advertiser, instead of offering attention-deficient viewers an opportunity to grab a snack or relieve themselves. When TV shows use themes these days, they're usually established pop hits (the CSI franchise's obsession with classics by The Who, to cite but three), not custom ditties designed to establish the program's unique mood.

Earle Hagen may have died only yesterday, but, sad to tell, the TV theme songs he loved died long before.

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4 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Anonymous Tom Galloway offered these pearls of wisdom...

While due to money, I think the reason for abbreviated tv themes is a bit more indirect. As the amount of time allocated for the actual show has shrunk to, if I'm recalling correctly for network shows, 22 minutes per half hour, showrunners have the choice of having, say, a one minute theme and 21 minutes of show, or a 10 second theme and an extra 50 seconds of show.

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Scott offered these pearls of wisdom...

Is it just me or have their been a lot of deaths posted here recently?

My favorite thing about the old shows was "incidental" music, especially on old sci-fi goodies like Trek or The Twilight Zone.

7:14 AM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Tom: An excellent point.

Don't forget, though, that the reason the amount of show time on the networks has decreased is that the amount of commercial time has increased.

Series created for pay cable services such as HBO, on which commercial time is a non-issue, more often take the traditional themed-opening approach (i.e., The Sopranos, Big Love).

12:11 PM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Scott: Celebrity and demi-celebrity deaths have been an essential element of our stock in trade since SSTOL began. People keep dying, and your Uncle Swan keeps noticing. :)

Genre shows always had the best music, didn't they? A lot of Western series had great scores, too.

12:19 PM  

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