How this research began
The start of the "American TV Series List"
The fragmentary nature of custom TV themes
Sources of TV Themes:
Although people of the "post-war baby boom" generation may identify with certain melodies they grew up hearing on radio and TV, it is not just for nostalgic reasons that this effort has been undertaken. Arguably the popular music of this period evolved from the best traditions of classical composition and arranging. This period of the 1930s through the mid 1960s yielded melodies that were artfully composed and arranged with craft and good taste. It was an oasis in time that should not be forgotten, so it can continue to nourish the spirit of our musical culture.
So part of this is a quest to identify and inspire new recordings of GOOD TUNES along the traditions of the days when American popular music was an inspiration to the world. Hopefully there will be a time when again American popular music could stand for quality and originality.
In this quest, some material at libraries and departments of special collections has revealed some surprises. The more obscure source material was sometimes fragmentary to begin with. The pieces that may have been associated with a particular radio or TV series may have been written for an entirely different purpose and "re-cycled" either by the original composer or by a music packager or producer.
Collecting and researching old TV themes grew out of a personal collection of over 45 years.
If you ever tried to find sheet music or recordings of the THEMEs to "My Little Margie" or "Treasury Men In Action" or any of the early TV series in the early 1950s, you might have called your local music store. And typically you would get a response that "it hasn't been commercially recorded" or "there is no sheet music yet." So you might have wondered if it wasn't commercially recorded or written down, then how was it recorded for use on TV? Who writes music that is NOT to be commercially recorded? What was going on here?
A local TV station audio engineer explained that there existed European and American "mood music" or "production music libraries" that were used only by TV and radio stations. Such libraries were the source of some of the obscure pieces heard on the air that were not "commercially recorded." The engineer provided a copy of the "master tape" used for local TV theme music, which also contained some network themes from the same production libraries. So the quest began in earnest, and the collection began to grow.
Some of the questions about THEMEs began to appear in TV Guide articles beginning in 1956. Some of these articles were in response to the obvious public interest in such obscure music. But it was indicative of a trend that finally got recognized by the commercial recording industry.
An early effort in 1956 by beautiful music arranger Hugo Winterhalter had the title "Great Music Themes of Television." It was the first time the commercial recording business gave recognition to the fact that some pretty great music came from this genre. When the soundtrack albums for "Peter Gunn", "Mr. Lucky", "Checkmate" and others came out and became popular in 1959-1960, there was a way to actually buy some of this music in a series of well-produced authentic-sounding LPs. And then there were the wonderful collections of TV tunes arranged by Ray Martin called "Impact" and "Double Impact" which arrived around this same period. Then Frank De Vol put out two albums of radio themes in 1961 - 1962. That burst of recording activity showed that the public was indeed interested in music used on radio/TV series.
These recordings were showing the quality and versatility of early radio/TV music. Finally the window on this obscure world was beginning to open just a crack.
We began calling and corresponding with television stations and production companies in 1960--the year credited as the start of the official "American TV Series Theme List". We learned of the existence of cue music/production music libraries such as Chappell, KPM, and their US distributors Emil Ascher and Thomas J. Valentino. We wrote and received catalogs from them, and bought a few 78rpm disks.
In 1964, in a mezzanine above a scene storage area at a local TV station, a collection of disks called the "Capitol Q-Series Library" was located -- a library of disks on 12" 78rpm reference disks (which used content produced by a company known as MUTEL.) Later this source helped us understand the nature of TV themes were "re-cycled" for low-budget productions.
In 1985, we published a reference book in the form of a
spiral-bound limited-edition report, called "TV Theme Guide", which
was our first attempt at publishing the list. Our knowledge of
publishing, printing and marketing was very limited. We used an early
data-processing computer and Xerox reproduction, and the book was not
a commercial success.
The idea of a web site featuring Light Music and "Classic Themes" was born very early in 1994. A few years later we realized that Old-Time Radio should also be included since some of those THEMEs were written by some of the same composers we found researching Classic TV THEMEs, so we began including "OTR" THEME information into a form that could be posted on the Web as well. Right now it is in an abbreviated form which will be expanded later to be the same as the TV THEME listings.
We hope to improve over time the available knowledge of such music which is a valuable heritage that should not be forgotten.
There is one fact we have come to realize, in the course of trips
to research libraries, studying the actual manuscripts by media
composers like Alexander Laszlo, Jack Meakin, Miklos Rozsa, Nathan
Van Cleave and others. Contrary to the way most pop music tunes are
composed (with an "A" theme and a "B" theme and sometimes other
sections), many compositions written as Main Titles or End Credits
may not be whole compositions -- but exist only in a fragmentary
form. We assume that there exists somewhere a three-minute
composition from which these fragments derive. But that whole
composition may have never existed (unless some clamor for a "Theme
from" the movie or show requires the composer to sit down and put one
together after the fact.) We discovered that some of the most
recognizable melodies from that bygone era of Classic TV were
actually be composed only as a series of one or more short cues
lasting a few seconds before they "petered out" into a neutral chord,
or segued into another cue.
For example, let's suppose that a composer was hired to write for a variety show. When the show begins there might be an :15 arrangement of the sponsor's jingle, which seques into a :05 fanfare and timpani roll, which then may seque into a series of introductory vignettes or a :15 teaser, and then finally there may be a :15 snatch of melody as the star walks on which is his "Opening Theme" or "Play On", the melody of which is reprised over end credits and cast list. The longest cue in the above group may be the End Credits music which is heard behind applause, and not total more than :30 - :45 seconds at the most. And this was in the "Golden Age" of TV, before the current trend of talking right over the end credits about the next show.
So it is possible that the main melody for such a show, despite being heard for many years, never even has a "B" theme. Think of the melody for Billy May's "Bozo The Clown" theme, Ray Bloch's "Toast of the Town" theme, or Laszlo's "My Little Margie." Can you hum a "B" theme for any of these? Despite introductory and coda material and "A" themes, there really aren't a contrasting "B" theme or "bridge" section per se. They both are made from an easily repeated phrases with a few extensions. The whole tune may be no more than the length of an advertising jingle. In fact, if you listen to enough of the original versions on a CD of "Television's Greatest Hits", they even begin to start sounding like commercials after awhile.
So its short fragmentary nature, is one reason that a TV theme may not be recorded commercially. If the theme or show does become popular, then demand may be such that the composer will "revisit" his melodies, and find a way to expand the material for the purpose of a record, into a more standard song form, arranged to fit 2:30 to 3:00 minutes in length.
And if the show is so popular that an entire LP album is warranted, then sometimes the composer will develop fragmentary background themes into whole compositions, as was done for "Danger", and "Asphalt Jungle" and "Peter Gunn". There may even be new tunes developed "in the style" of the show which only appear on the LP...etc. Mancini admitted that some of the tunes developed for LPs found their way back into later seasons of the show -- a kind of "reverse pollination" effect to be sure.
Naturally, there are some other sources of themes such as Production Libraries which may have cuts of 1 - 2 minutes, which do not take a lot of work to expand. The only problem then is the licensing of the library track for its use as a commercial recording, which means it would not be as useful in the future, within the library by other producers, if the library will allow it to be licensed for home listening at all.
These facts taken together may explain why TV theme music remained rather obscure over the years, compared to feature film main titles, despite its omnipresence of these tunes in our collective memories.
Still, there are "diamonds in the rough" -- gems of melody to be found among the TV tunes of days gone by. That is why there are those of us who will dig and try to find the sources, so that someday perhaps this material might be expanded and licensed, and we can hear some of these great old melodies in a format that all can enjoy, and played by a good studio orchestra.
When we wrote our first book on the subject of classic television
themes ("The TV Theme Guide") in the early 1980s, we found that only
1/3 of the early TV series (from the 1950s and 1960s) used Main Title
themes commissioned expressly for them. It was surprising that the
actual percentage of several thousand themes surveyed was nearly
exactly 33%. That is in contrast to the later practice during the
1990s of many shows commissioning theme songs.
In the early days, writing original music for television was a specialty of a few composers, most of whom had practiced their craft writing cues for radio shows. Composers like David Rose, Mahlon Merrick, Milton DeLugg, Harry Sosnick, Jack Meakin, Albert Glasser and Ray Bloch were active TV composers in the 1950s. These men were often orchestra leaders who had previously supplied radio with the same services.
Another group of composers were already veteran workhorse composers for low-budget B-pictures who took any music jobs offered to them when TV began, so they simply added TV writing to their credits --William Lava, Dave Kahn, Joseph Mullendore, and Herschel Burke Gilbert are three examples of this. In the next decades of the 1960s and 1970s, composers including William Loose, Earle Hagen and Mike Post had careers following in the tradition of specializing in writing for TV.
The main difference was that the journeymen who wrote during the early days of TV often did so working for a "music packager" like David Chudnow of MUTEL or Raoul Kraushaar of Omar Music who had established a connection with TV producers. Whereas the latter-day TV music specialists became their own "packager" who established their own connections with producers, and may have even hired their own "ghost writers" to supply episode cues when they got too busy.
Great composers from the world of motion picture music sometimes dabbled in the live TV medium, but themes from these legendary film composers were rare. However, Alex North did compose the "Playhouse 90 Theme". Bernard Herrmann wrote themes for "The Twilight Zone" and "Have Gun Will Travel." Victor Young wrote theme music for shows sponsored by "R-C-A Victor." And Max Steiner's music for the film "The Fountainhead" was adapted for the "Warner Brothers Presents Theme". But in those early days (as now) a dichotomy existed between composing for film and for television. There were not too many legends of Hollywood music scoring involved in helping the early networks. Part of this may have been due to the prestige factor which separated film composing from writing for the "small screen", and part of this may have been a practical result of the fact many networks were headquartered back East in those early days.
Up and coming arranger/composers who were starting to establish their own careers (and work cheaper than the legendary names) were eager to get experience in the any medium. This is how Johnny (John) Williams, Henry Mancini, and Jerry Goldsmith found themselves writing for television in their youth. These men didn't remain specialists in TV music, but continued to work their way into scoring for motion pictures -- which was perceived as more prestigious within Hollywood (but no one outside of Hollywood may care about that distinction.)
Certain songwriters were asked to contribute vocal themes, a trend which started in the late 1950s. Ray Evans, Jay Livingston, Jerry Livingston (no relation), Mack David, Vic Mizzy and the Sherman Brothers are examples of this kind of "theme songwriter." Although these songwriters would not be called upon for episode scoring as much as the other composers who wrote "underscores", they could sometimes pen a catchy theme song in a popular music style.
A statistical analysis revealed that 2/3 of the series in the 1950s could not afford or did not choose to commission original Main Title/End Credits themes. The remaining 1/3 of TV series themes came from a variety of outside sources, such as those seven (7) ways which follow:
TV series being transplanted from radio, would often keep the same
theme if it was closely identified with the star of the show. This
was especially true in the case of established stars like Fibber
McGee and Molly, Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, Groucho Marx, and
Kate Smith. Of course in many cases, other opening or closing themes
were composed for their TV series, to supplement familiar signature
This was also the case with the early TV soap operas which began on radio. The characters on these soap operas were as familiar as stars, to the regular listeners. The melodies which introduced them was integral to the continuity of life as any other element of the show. So, when the TV version of the series began, several soap opera themes were the same as on radio. For example, composer/organist Charles Paul provided music for both radio and TV versions "The Guiding Light", one of the more successful transplants from radio to television.
Depending upon the contract with the original composer for writing the radio theme, an extra fee for using such music on television may or may not be included, since the network may already have a contract stating it is also the music publisher, and may have some auxilliary use clause in the fine print requiring no further payment.
Old familiar warhorses were sometimes chosen, such as "There's No
Business Like Show Business", which embody the spirit of a variety
show, and may not offend anyone. Classical themes like the "Overture
to William Tell" became associated with The Lone Ranger, although the
galloping effect seen on screen may have been the main reason this
rollicking music was chosen, rather than any subliminal connection
between the legends of archer William Tell and the Lone Texas Ranger.
Although David Rose was to go on to write over 20 series themes, his
novelty instrumental "Holiday For Strings" was already a popular
piece back in 1943, prior to its use as the theme for the "Red
To use a piece of music not in the Public Domain as a theme song, a "synchronization license" must be secured from the publisher, which is shared by the composer. This is in addition to the normal blanket ASCAP and BMI useage fees paid by the networks.
When a series was a musical/variety series, the singer/star of the show may have a favorite song, or use one of his/her hits. So Rosemary Clooney used "Tenderly", and Jane Froman used "With a Song In My Heart". Surprisingly, a song which may not have been the biggest hit might be chosen to emphasize that the star is continuing past the days of the hit with his/her career. Then you sometimes wonder why a star chooses a particular song. Judy Garland chose a closing theme song called "Maybe I'll Come Back" rather than "Over the Rainbow".
Cue Music/Production Music libraries from England had been used in
the radio and film production fields prior to network TV. These
libraries of 78rpm disks had names of music publishers with whom they
were associated, including "Chappell", "Boosey & Hawkes",
"DeWolfe", "W. Paxton & Co." and "KPM (Keith Prowse Music.)". The
libraries included compositions written and recorded expressly for
film and radio use in Europe between the 1930s and 1960s by British
composers who were known for Light Music and film scoring.
This included such British composers as Eric Coates, C. King Palmer, Frederic Bayco, Robert Busby, Ronald Binge, Jack Beaver, Wilfred Burns, Felton Rapley, Robert Farnon, Bruce Campbell, Clive Richardson, George Chase, Michael Reynolds and French composer Roger Roger. Sometimes, to avoid British musician's union rates, the recordings for these libraries were even made in France and Denmark, where orchestras of high quality worked for relatively low rates.
In the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s these British Production Music libraries were marketed to television producers via American selling agents, such as "Emil Ascher" and "Thomas J. Valentino" in New York, and "Regent Recorded Music" in LA. The producers of low-budget TV shows only had to buy the discs, and pay a needle-drop license fee to use the piece on the soundtrack of a television series (a procedure called "tracking" which the AFM musicians union fought for years to prevent.)
Music Packaging Services such as Raoul Kraushaar's "Omar Music",
David Gordon's "Gordon Music", Alexander Laszlo's "Guild Production
Aids" and "Structural Music" libraries, David Chudnow's "Mutel (Music
for Television), and the Capitol "Q"-Series Library licensed by David
Chudnow. Such services were in essence re-cyclers of music. Composers
who worked for these companies worked on a "buy-out" basis for a
smaller fee. Sometimes this meant composer credits were hidden so as
to bypass AFM (Musician Union) rules, and share ASCAP and BMI
royalties with the packager.
These companies used contractors in Europe, Mexico, Germany and Japan to record the scores. This is a sensitive area for those composers who may have used pseudonyms in the past to be a part of this system, who have become more well-known, such as David Rose, Jerrald Goldsmith, and others. Such packagers operated out of Los Angeles area. The primary reason such packagers were attractive to some producers was that they operated on a "flat-rate" basis, both for what they paid the composer, and for what they collected as a license. Naturally the rates were competitive with what one could obtain through other sources.
In the case of a few enterprising individuals, a Music Library
could be produced and marketed by a single individual who acted as
composer, music producer, and publisher/packager. In the days prior
to synthesizer studios, this was indeed a remarkable achievement. The
customer for his product was primarily for the low-budget TV
producer, but occassionally larger organizations used his cue library
to supplement episode scoring.
This was the case with Alexander Laszlo, a Hungarian-born composer who worked in Los Angeles in the 1950s. His "Structural Music Library" was used by several producers of syndicated TV shows "Waterfront", "My Little Margie", and others. His clients also included Four Star Television, and Revue division of MCA during their early years. A nephew of Laszlo confirmed that his recordings were made overseas in a large radio studio in Stuttgart, Germany. Laszlo, who was 50 by the time he arrived in Hollywood, acted as his own composer, orchestrator, recording producer, and selling agent under the name "Alexander Music", and his own publisher to collect ASCAP royalties under the name "Guild Publications."
A few TV series may used themes from motion pictures. The TV
series "Peyton Place" and "Love and Marriage" both used the motion
picture themes of the same name since both TV series were derived
from the movies.
In some cases, there was no direct relationship between the film and the TV show. "My Friend Irma" used a haunting bluesy theme (a cue later titled "Sentimental Rhapsody") from the movie "Street Scene", even though the film and series were not related. The private eye series "Meet McGraw" used "One For My Baby" from the Fred Astaire film "Sky's The Limit", to establish a kind of film noir atmostphere. Both of these pieces had some minor success as popular recordings before, which may also have contributed to their appeal.
In yet another case, apparently an obscure film tune was simply one the producer's liked and felt was appropriate for the mood of the series. For example, the theme for the soap opera "First Love" was from the British film "Eight O'Clock Walk."
And of course, the sponsor may have established a commercial
jingle which he wanted to use as the theme of the program in which he
invested. In the early days of TV, sponsorship of entire programs was
the norm. Spot commercials during "breaks" were not the primary means
of advertising. So the first blockbuster network hit TV show, Milton
Berle's "Texaco Star Theatre" began with what was, in effect, a gas
station commercial. A male singing group dressed as gas station
attendents came out in front of the curtains and sang the same song
every week with the orchestra, "We Are the Men of Texaco". This was
the Texaco advertising jingle which had been heard on radio for
Similarly, the "Dinah Shore Chevy Show" began with the star singing the sponsor's jingle "See The USA in a Chevrolet." It would seem odd for a star of a TV series today to do that, mixing program content with commercialism. But in the first decade, program sponsorship was integrated into many facets of the program. The music was just another facet, for many early series producers. Some early producers were actually departments of the sponsor's advertising agency.
Many people have helped us in our efforts to collect information over the past five decades. We are indebted to San Diego area broadcast personnel L. Scholes, K. Teeples, B. Stevens and D. Erwine; The Horowitz family who ran the "Groovy Treasures" record store in San Diego during the 1980s; and Mr. E. Durbeck of Encinitas; who were all directly or indirectly "instrumental" in helping get our collection efforts started.
We acknowledge the friendship and invaluable assistance of fellow
enthusiast T. Perrone who generously located Copyright information
and research materials at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC
which help place the time sequence of various themes, and verify
We also thank fellow collectors R. Clark, M. Koldys, G. Newton, F. Patten; CD producer and production library expert P. Mandell; Librarian and soap opera music expert D. Jackson; author and game show expert D. Schwartz; and D. Ades of the Robert Farnon Society for their help in obtaining information on rare recordings.
After the Web Site appeared, many individuals contributed unique information and materials for further research (in some cases their families included composers of radio/TV music); these include E. Anderson (daughter of Leroy Anderson), R. Guenther (nephew of Mahlon Merrick), J. Mack (daughter of Jack Meakin), J. Rines (nephew of composer Joe Rines), A. Schiller (nephew of Alexander Laszlo), and J. Thompson (son of composer Bob Thompson) and D. Livingston (son of Jerry Llivingston.)
Last but not least, we are also very grateful to the staff of the American Heritage Center, at the University of Wyoming (at Laramie) for providing me access to the papers and manuscripts of radio/TV composers Alexander Laszlo, Albert Glasser, Nathan Van Cleave and others for which we were able to do in-depth research. The gracious and helpful staff of this wonderful facility included L. Olson, C. Bowers, M. Richards, and M. Sprinkle.
We also appreciate the value of the few books written on this obscure subject of TV Theme music by S. Gelfand, C. Pattillo, and J. Burlingame, whose information helped us verify titles in some cases, and clear up some discrepancies which crept into our data. Likewise, we found a few innacuracies in these sources, but the use of multiple sources remains the best way to verify the truth, about a relatively closed world of the TV theme.
Much of the fun for us has been to discover the names and origins of signature pieces used for TV themes and to discover the identities of their composers. After a while, many of the same names appear. A picture emerges of the talented composers working tirelessly in the early days, who provided themes for American TV music from Europe, New York and Hollywood. The start of the nascent medium of TV was a fascinating period, and so we present for your enjoyment, the "1950s Classic TV Series List."
To the 1950s Classic TV Series
To the TV Composer List
To the Light Instrumental Music Hall of Fame
To the Old-Time Radio Theme List