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Top 25 TV theme songs

Sunday, October 19, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri and Rob Owen, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

When you press play on the topic of TV theme songs, your brain goes into channel-surfing mode. Soon your mind is a jumble of lyrics, skipping from "I'll be there for you" to "Hey, hey, we're the Monkees" to "... all of them had hair of gold, like their mother, the youngest one in curls."

It just takes six whistled notes to see Andy and Opie headed for the ol' fishing hole on the Andy Griffith Show. (PRNewsFoto)
Click photo for larger image.


1) The Andy Griffith Show
(470K MP3)

2) Mission Impossible
(470K MP3)

3) The Addams Family
(410K MP3)

4) Hawaii Five-O
(468K MP3)

5) Gilligan's Island
(459K MP3)

6) Cheers
(470K MP3)

7) The Mary Tyler Moore Show (470K MP3)

8) All in the Family
(459K MP3)

9) Friends
(469K MP3)

10) The Ballad of Jed Clampett(236K MP3)

The first nine samples are from "Tee Vee Toons Presents TV Guide 50 All Time Favorite TV Themes." The final song sample is from "Time-Life's Treasury of Bluegrass."

Visit the following sites to download MP3 players:

Real Player
Microsoft Windows Media Player

Picking the 25 most memorable TV theme songs is a monumental task guaranteed to annoy almost every reader who has a soft spot in his heart for a certain tune or, perhaps, show. Sure, you loved "Here Come the Brides," but does its signature song, "Seattle," hold up? And what about "The Doris Day Show," which recycled the Oscar-winning song "Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)" for its theme? And was "Green Acres" good or just impossible to shake, like damp toilet paper on your shoes?

Our ground rules were: Hearing a few notes had to instantly bring to mind the series. Even the most musically inept person should be able to hum or whistle a few bars. And the show had to have aired in prime time, which is why there is no nod to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Even with two of us, we had to strike some compromises, and that's why "The Partridge Family," "That Girl," "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" and "The Facts of Life" didn't make it. We knew some of your favorites (and ours) would be left off, but that's the peril of a finite list.

Here are our picks. Details about the songs' origins come from the books "TV's Biggest Hits" by Jon Burlingame and "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows" by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, plus our own research and song-clogged craniums.

1. "The Andy Griffith Show" -- Simplicity itself. A whistled theme by Earle Hagen that triggers the image of a sheriff and his red-haired boy (although we see them in black and white) toting fishing poles on a lazy, sunny day. Even Loulou, an 11-year-old African gray parrot, can whistle the song. She's become the focus of a lawsuit filed by a Virginia man whose parrot was accidentally set free and who, he is convinced, landed at a shelter and was adopted by someone else. He wants to question the bird in court and see if she can whistle this happy tune.

2. "Mission: Impossible" -- This Lalo Schifrin theme will not self-destruct from your memory, even decades after hearing it, especially with regular reminders from the big-screen "M:I" movies. The single spent 14 weeks on Billboard's "Hot 100" chart in 1968, and the show spawned two albums in the late 1960s.

3. "The Addams Family" -- The punchy punctuation of snapping fingers helps to make this Vic Mizzy theme distinctive. Children all over 1960s America gathered in front of their sets to sing and snap along. The theme was revived for the movie treatment in the early '90s.

4. "Hawaii Five-O" -- A pizza chain, using this theme's still strong association with Hawaii and those majestic, curling waves, is using a version of this Morton Stevens song to advertise a Hawaiian special. Back in 1969, the Ventures turned the theme into a Top 10 hit and a gold album. Book 'em, Danno.

5. "Gilligan's Island" -- Missed the first season or first run of this show about crazy castaways? Just listen to the Sherwood Schwartz-George Wyle tune, which provides the backstory about that three-hour tour. A three-hour tour, with enough evening gowns for three months.

6. "Cheers" -- This theme, written by Judy Hart Angelo and Gary Portnoy and sung by Portnoy, is as much a part of the series as the communal cry of "Norm!" or Sam's legendary luck with the ladies.

7. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" -- "Love Is All Around," by singer-songwriter Sonny Curtis, assured us that Mary Richards was gonna make it after all as we watched her pack up her belongings and drive to Minneapolis, where she famously tossed her hat into the air. "Who can turn the world on with her smile?" was a second-season addition.

8. "All in the Family" -- "Those Were the Days," when Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton sang about the way Glenn Miller played, songs that made the hit parade and how "guys like us, we had it made." The tune, by a pair of Broadway songwriters, celebrated a time when "girls were girls and men were men" and LaSalles ran great (there, now you know).

9. "Friends" -- Brace yourself. Between now and May, when NBC closes the Central Perk coffeehouse and sublets Monica and Chandler's palatial apartment, you will be hearing a lot of "I'll Be There for You," by composer Michael Skloff and lyricist Allee Willis and performed by the Rembrandts.

10. "The Beverly Hillbillies" -- Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed, which quickly told us how Buddy Ebsen's character rose from a poor mountaineer to a millionaire living amid movie stars and swimmin' pools. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs sang Paul Henning's "The Ballad of Jed Clampett."

11. "I Love Lucy" -- As a favor to producer Jess Oppenheimer, composer Eliot Daniel cranked out the tune in an afternoon. "I wrote the first phrase of the song so that it matched 'I love Lucy and she loves me.' ... It came pretty easily after I got that first phrase." Harold Adamson wrote the full lyrics, sung by Desi Arnaz in the May 11, 1953, episode in which Lucy mistakenly thinks everyone has forgotten her birthday.

12. "The Jeffersons" -- George and Louise Jefferson moved on up, to the East Side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky and finally got a piece of the pie, along with a theme song by Jeff Barry and Ja'net DuBois.

13. "Flintstones" -- The kicky song as we know it, with the opening lines of "Flintstones! Meet the Flintstones! They're the modern Stone Age family," didn't arrive until the start of the third season. The tune was by Hoyt S. Curtin, crowned the "king of television cartoon music" by Burlingame, with lyrics by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.

14. "M*A*S*H" -- The evocative theme "Suicide Is Painless," with music by Johnny Mandel and lyrics by Michael Altman, originated with Robert Altman's 1970 movie. For the TV show, Mandel created an instrumental arrangement, minus the lyrics with this dark refrain: "That suicide is painless, it brings on many changes and I can take or leave it if I please."

15. "Dragnet" -- Four of the most recognizable notes anywhere, that signal a story that is true but with names that have been changed to protect the innocent. The theme, by Walter Schumann, is variously known as "Dragnet," "Dragnet March" and "Danger Ahead."

16. "The Brady Bunch" -- One catchy tune by Sherwood Schwartz and Frank De Vol and one grid with room for nine smiling faces provided all the background anyone needed about how a widow with three girls, a widower with three boys, a housekeeper (and Tiger the dog) came to share a home.

17. "Batman" -- Neal Hefti once said he sweated over this theme more than any other single piece of music he ever wrote, and he never was satisfied with it. He struggled because the campy show combined straight-faced leads with over-the-top villains and comic-book dilemmas.

18. "Bonanza" -- Jay Livingston and partner Ray Evans had won three Best Song Oscars when asked by Jay's brother, Alan, to craft a tune for the Western revolving around the Ponderosa ranch. It took a Lorne Greene album to share the lyrics, including, "We've got a right to pick a little fight, Bonanza!"

19. "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" -- The master of suspense reached back -- way back -- to French composer Charles Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette," from the 1870s, for the basis of his distinctive theme.

20. "Leave It to Beaver" -- Composer Dave Kahn wrote this theme without ever seeing the pilot about the Cleaver clan. "I was just told it was a kids' show and, basically, what it was all about," the book "TV's Biggest Hits" reports.

21. "Peter Gunn" -- With a theme by Henry Mancini, how could you go wrong? RCA released two popular albums called "The Music from Peter Gunn" and "More Music from Peter Gunn" to satisfy fans of this detective drama starring Craig Stevens.

22. "The Patty Duke Show" -- Lest there be any confusion about the lookalike cousins, this theme spelled out how Cathy had lived most everywhere, while Patty had only seen the sights a girl could see from Brooklyn Heights. Sid Ramin wrote the music, and Robert Wells filled in the lyrics.

23. "The Greatest American Hero" -- "Believe It Or Not" by Joey Scarbury climbed to No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart in 1981. It was revived, to comic effect, by George Costanza in a "Seinfeld" episode in which he sang a version of it as his answering machine message.

24. "The Twilight Zone" -- Bernard Herrmann, master of moody music, including the shrieking strings in "Psycho," wrote the original theme and scored the pilot, but then CBS decided to assemble two unrelated pieces by Marius Constant, a French avant-garde composer. That became the signature sound for the anthology.

25. "The West Wing" -- A show set in the White House demands a theme that is properly presidential, and the instrumental by W.G. Snuffy Walden fits the ticket. He has a long list of TV credits, dating to the theme for "thirtysomething" and then skipping across the dial for the next couple of decades.

Five that just missed

"Hill Street Blues," "Mister Ed," "WKRP in Cincinnati," "Laverne & Shirley" and "Happy Days." And here are the modern mainstays that might land on a future list: "The Simpsons" and "Malcolm in the Middle," with its line, "You're not the boss of me now."

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at or 412-263-1632. Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582.

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