Who’s Earle Hagen, you say? Well, even if you haven’t heard of Earle Hagen, it’s likely you’ve heard him, or at least heard what he wrote. Earle Hagen, who died this week at the age of 88, was a big band musician and an Oscar-nominated composer of film scores, but he’s probably best known for the whistling theme of The Andy Griffith Show.
It was his most famous theme, but by no means his only one. Think of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle, That Girl, Make Room For Daddy, I Spy. He wrote them all. And therein is the story.
Maybe we don’t all recall what the theme to That Girl sounded like, but we certainly remember that other single girl of the 60s and 70s, Mary Richards. And how else would we have known that Mary could turn the world on with her smile if we hadn’t heard it in the theme? Oh, we would have figured it out sooner or later, but to have it presented to you right there in the beginning set the tone for everything that was to follow. And it was reassuring – after just one episode, we had to agree that she was going to make it, after all.
There was a time – perhaps it still exists – when the theme song was more than the start of a TV show. The martial strains of Hogan’s Heroes, the exotic rhythms of I Spy, the ethereal otherworldliness of Star Trek, the swinging 60s hipness of The Saint, Dick Van Dyke’s trip over the ottoman – these didn’t just provide background music for the opening credits. They were part of the show itself, as familiar as any cast member. Hum a few bars of the theme to I Love Lucy – you’ll find someone who recognizes it. You felt comfortable with the idea of going to Cheers, because it was the place where everybody knew your name. Would you have been quite so certain that Joe Friday really meant business if it weren’t for those opening notes of the theme to Dragnet? And the whole premise of The Brady Bunch was given in its opening lyrics – who needed a pilot?
Alas, in our ever-present need to squeeze more and more commercial time into an hour of television, even the openings seem to be somehow diminished. For example, you might not remember the theme to The Fugitive, but it was a memorable opening nonetheless. In just a minute or so we found out that Dr. Richard Kimball had been tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for the murder of his wife. No need to worry, however, for we were assured that the good doctor was innocent, and a few seconds later we would see the train wreck that freed him on route to the death house. We also knew that there was a cop out there who was determined to bring Kimball back to justice, and that he would stop at nothing in pursuit of this goal. And it all had to be true, because William Conrad himself was the narrator, the same Bill Conrad who performed the same function (albeit slightly less seriously) on Rocky and Bullwinkle. What else did you need to know in order to enjoy the following hour?
It’s true that there are still recognizable TV themes today, but too many of them are little more than existing hit singles adapted for series use. I stand second to no one in my admiration for the work of The Who, for example, and frankly their music is the best think about the CSI franchise; but you can’t convince me that it serves the same purpose as the themes of the past. A great TV theme didn’t just appear for the opening credits and then disappear until the end of the episode – it remained present through the entire program, weaving its way through the action, a partner with the scriptwriter in telling you the story. And because the notes were familiar, you could trust the emotion they were producing in you. There was no subterfuge involved; you might as well have the actors themselves telling you what was happening, because the music was every bit as much a part of the cast as they were.
Now, of course, a show’s closing credits are gone altogether – squeezed into a narrow sidebar in order to give the network time to promote the rest of its garbage. And the opening credits – well, they’re functional, occasionally glitzy, certainly adept at giving you the names of the stars, if nothing else. And maybe there are still some good, original themes out there, ones that can tell you a story with their music and lyrics. But if we can’t depend on our scriptwriters to tell a good story anymore, should we expect anything more of our theme composers?
Eventually, even the opening titles will probably fade away, replaced by superimposed credits at the start of the episode, so we can squeeze in those extra 30 second commercials. And it will be a shame. Because we shouldn’t just look for the next great comedian or action star – we should be looking for the next Earle Hagen as well.
And that’s not just whistling in the dark.