Stars Will Shine Tonight

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(Pictured: Vince Edwards as TV doctor Ben Casey, from a 1964 episode with guest star Anne Francis.)

Here’s the second part of an unstructured ramble through the archives to find more TV themes that became radio hits. To read the earlier part, click here

—A couple of TV themes are so iconic that it seems as if they must have been big chart hits, but they weren’t, really. Gary Portnoy’s recording of “Where Everybody Knows Your Name (Theme From Cheers)” has 19 listings at ARSA, all but six from WNBC in New York City, where the song peaked at #10 during the summer of 1983, after it had run to #83 on the pop chart in the spring, at the end of Cheers‘ first year on the air. Steve Carlisle’s recording of “WKRP in Cincinnati” has a single listing at ARSA, from WIEL in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, at the end of 1981, at about the same time it went to #65 on the Hot 100. (Both Portnoy and Carlisle scraped onto the AC chart at #28 and #29 respectively.) Portnoy and songwriting partner Judy Hart Angelo also wrote the Mr. Belvidere theme; Carlisle was a native of Akron, Ohio, but is pretty obscure otherwise.

—The medical shows Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare are linked in history, premiering five days apart in the fall of 1961. The Ben Casey theme, by pianist Valjean Johns, ran to #28 on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1962. Valjean also recorded the Dr. Kildare theme, but it was Kildare himself, Richard Chamberlain, who hit with it, taking Three Stars Will Shine Tonight,” co-written by Jerry Goldsmith and backed by David Rose’s orchestra, to #10 on the Hot 100, also in the summer of ’62.

—One of the earliest TV themes to become a significant hit was also from a doctor show, Medic, starring Richard Boone, which ran on NBC from 1954 to 1956. Its theme song was written by Victor Young, who wrote such famous songs as “When I Fall in Love,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “Stella by Starlight,” as well as literally dozens of film scores, which gained him 22 Oscar nominations. In 1955, a few months after Medic premiered, Young’s frequent collaborator Edward Heyman wrote lyrics for its theme, and the retitled “Blue Star” was recorded by Felicia Sanders. Sanders had sung on Percy Faith’s “Song From Moulin Rouge,” which did 10 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Best Sellers chart in 1953. Her “Blue Star” went to #29.

—The Ventures cut a version of “Blue Star” in 1966, but their TV theme claim-to-fame is “Hawaii Five-O” in 1969. They got some airplay with a version of the Green Hornet theme (mentioned in my earlier post) in 1966, and the theme to the short-lived legal drama Storefront Lawyers (later retitled Men at Law), which ran in 1970 and 1971. In 1974, they hit the adult-contemporary chart with “Main Theme From The Young and the Restless” two years before the more famous recording of the same song by Barry DeVorzon and Perry Botkin Jr. known as “Nadia’s Theme.” In 1977, they recorded a single with the theme from Starsky and Hutch on one side and Charlie’s Angels on the other.

—Following up his #1 hit single “Calcutta,” Lawrence Welk took a version of the My Three Sons theme to #55 on the Hot 100 in the spring of 1961. Nashville bandleader Bob Moore, best known for the instrumental “Mexico” that same year, also charted in a few places with his version. It was a Top-10 hit at WRIT in Milwaukee and Top 20 at WLS in Chicago. (The greatest version of the My Three Sons theme, however, remains this one.)

—I’ll bring this discussion of TV themes to a close with Merv Griffin, who was a big-band singer before he became a talk-show host and TV mogul, and who once wrote a lullaby for his son. When Jeopardy! went on the air in 1964, Griffin repurposed that lullaby into the program’s theme music. (It’s apparently closest to its original form when it’s used as the “think” music during Final Jeopardy.) In 1970, he released it as a single titled “A Time for Tony,” on an album called Appearing Nightly. It didn’t get much airplay anywhere, but I am guessing Merv didn’t care. That single piece of music is estimated to have earned him something like $80 million over the years.

This series of posts on TV themes was based on a reader request. If you have a request, send it in. 

Did You Know That We’re All in This Together?

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(Pictured: Deadwood cast members Timothy Olyphant, John Hawkes, Ian McShane, Kim Dickens, and Robin Weigert at the 2019 movie premiere.)

Here in Wisconsin, we’re still on lockdown . . . for now. We’re waiting to see whether the governor’s Safer-at-Home order, which he extended last week to May 25, will be allowed to stand, or whether the 80 percent of us who favor the order will be forced to yield to mob rule. A tiny, unrepresentative group of protesters is noisily demanding that the virus crisis be declared over and the economy “reopened.” The legislature’s GOP majority is wedded to a single principle—that whatever the governor wants must be thwarted—and is taking a challenge of the extension to the state Supreme Court, where its 5-2 conservative majority is in the pocket of the state’s biggest business lobby. It doesn’t take a genius to guess the likely outcome.

The GOP’s April 7 murder election has already affected our virus curve, although the curve is still under control. A premature reopening of the economy will explode it. Well done, everybody.

Continue reading “Did You Know That We’re All in This Together?”

Blues of Different Hues

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(Pictured: the original cast of Hill Street Blues.)

A while back reader Wesley suggested I rank some of the most successful TV themes on the pop charts. But there are lot of rankings like that to be found on the Internet, and many of them are more interesting than anything I might write. Those lists contain lots of familiar suspects: themes from Hawaii Five-O, SWAT, Welcome Back Kotter, Happy Days, Friends, Greatest American Hero, Miami Vice, Laverne and Shirley, and so on. (One especially comprehensive list is here, with not just pop-chart hits but other iconic themes.) So I decided to cruise through the database at ARSA and find some other TV themes that strike me interesting.

—Henry Mancini wrote famous TV themes from Peter Gunn (although his recording didn’t chart) and Mr. Lucky in the 50s to Newhart in the 80s. In the 70s, he released singles featuring themes from Charlie’s Angels and the Glenn Ford western series Cade’s County, as well as “Bumper’s Theme” from The Blue Knight, a cop show starring George Kennedy. He also wrote and recorded the theme for the NBC Mystery Movie. If you watched Columbo, McMillan and Wife, or any of the other detective shows under that umbrella title, that music is likely to take you back to your parents’ living room on a Sunday night. Or maybe that’s just me.

—Mike Post turned three TV themes into hit singles: “The Rockford Files” (#10 in 1975), “Theme From Hill Street Blues” (#10 in 1981), and “Theme From Magnum P.I.” (#25 in 1982). He co-wrote “Theme From the Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not),” which went to #2 for Joey Scarbury in 1981. “Theme From L.A. Law” ran to #13 on the adult-contemporary chart in 1987 without making the Hot 100. (The latter is best heard in its TV configuration; the record that got played on the radio loses something in translation. I think it’s the slamming of the car trunk. Seriously.) Lalo Schifrin is best known for “Mission Impossible” in 1967, but his “Theme From Medical Center” got a tiny bit of airplay in 1971. Dave Grusin scored a number of TV shows and movies, but his only TV theme to became a radio hit was “Theme From St. Elsewhere,” which went to #15 on the AC chart in 1984.

—Two versions of the Batman theme were big hits in the spring of 1966: the Marketts went to #17 nationally (and #1 at WNDR in Syracuse, New York), and bandleader Neal Hefti, who wrote the theme, took it to #35. The producers of Batman put a spinoff on the air that fall, The Green Hornet (which famously starred Bruce Lee as Kato). Versions of its theme by Al Hirt, the Ventures, and B. Bumble and the Stingers all got a bit of airplay, but none made the Hot 100.

Some of the themes mentioned at ARSA are a bit unusual:

—In 1960, bandleader Al Nevins released “Blues for G String.” In 1962, RCA reissued it as “Night Theme,” after it became a “TV late movie theme song,” as Billboard put it in a capsule review that February. I have seen at least one source that says it was the theme for NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies, and I’m inclined to think that may be true. Saturday Night at the Movies premiered in the fall of 1961. It was the first network series to show relatively recent theatrical movies in color, and it became a big ratings hit.

—In 1966, there came an album called Bob Crane, His Drums, and His Orchestra Play the Funny Side of TV: Themes From Television’s Great Comedy Shows. The album features Crane’s Hogan’s Heroes co-stars Werner Klemperer and John Banner on the cover, and includes not just the Hogan’s Heroes theme (which was released as a single backed by the F Troop theme),  but themes from Get Smart, My Three Sons, The Green Hornet, Candid Camera, and others. None of it charted, but you can probably understand why Epic Records took a chance on it.

“Lou’s Blues (Theme from Lou Grant)” by Patrick Williams charted for two weeks at WBLK in Buffalo at the end of 1982.

“Score,” the original theme for ABC’s Monday Night Football, written by Charles Fox, was released as a single in 1972, but it doesn’t seem to have charted anywhere.

I have more TV themes on my list, so stay tuned for a future installment along this line.

“In the Privacy of Our Own Lives”

 

For the last several months, Antenna TV has been running Maude in the early evenings, and I catch it from time to time. Recently, the channel repeated the famous two-part episode “Maude’s Dilemma,” in which she finds herself pregnant at the age of 47 and struggles with the decision of what, if anything, to do about it.

When Maude tells her daughter that she’s pregnant, Carol responds: “You don’t have to have the baby.” Maude says, “What am I supposed to do? Trade it for a volleyball on Let’s Make a Deal?” Carol says, “You don’t have to, Mother. It’s legal now.” Just “it,” for the moment, although later, Carol uses the word in question: “When you were young, abortion was a dirty word, but it’s not anymore.” By the late 60s, a number of states had either decriminalized or legalized abortion under certain circumstances; New York state, where Maude is set, had revised its law in 1970, allowing abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy.

(It’s interesting to me that some of the same states that were first to modify their abortion laws 50 years ago to permit them are among those that have passed draconian anti-abortion laws in recent months.)

There is no character in the episode who explicitly argues against abortion, although Maude’s own uncertainty offers a degree of balance to the issue. (At the request of CBS, there’s a brief appearance by a overworked mother of four who is pregnant with a fifth, yet happily accepting of it.) The majority of the episode is devoted to Maude and her husband, Walter, failing to communicate. Each one believes that the other knows what they want and that there’s no need to ask. For a while, any of four outcomes seems possible: they both want the baby, they both don’t, she wants an abortion and he doesn’t, and vice versa. In the end, however, they finally talk about it directly, and Maude admits she doesn’t want the baby. Walter says, “For you, Maude, and for me, in the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing.”

The episode ends there. And in the next week’s episode, the cast moves on to another sitcom situation, the abortion unmentioned.

When “Maude’s Dilemma” aired in November 1972, about two months before the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide, a couple of CBS affiliates refused to carry it, but apart from that, it caused no widespread controversy. After Roe v. Wade, however, the outrage machine cranked up. Maude had become one of the biggest hits on TV in its first season, and before “Maude’s Dilemma” was repeated on August 14 and 21, 1973, religious organizations put pressure on individual CBS stations. Affiiates in Milwaukee, Boston, New Orleans, Seattle, and 20 to 25 other cities refused to air the repeats. Even with the affiliate defections, however, “Maude’s Dilemma” attracted an audience of 65 million on its second time around.

“Maude’s Dilemma” was a brave episode of television for 1972, even after the taboo-breaking success of All in the Family. And it was especially brave considering that the first part of “Maude’s Dilemma” was only the show’s ninth episode. It’s entirely possible that it was produced before the series had even premiered. The network’s first reaction to the script outline was, in producer Norman Lear’s words, “You’re out of your mind. You’re crazy.” But CBS didn’t step in and stop it. There was a sense, as critic Noel Holston wrote, that the legal decisions had settled the abortion issue.

“Maude’s Dilemma” wasn’t the last time episode writer Susan Harris sparked controversy. In 1977, she created Soap, which outraged various self-appointed guardians of decency even before it premiered due to its explicit sexuality. And it wasn’t the last time she worked with Maude stars Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan, either. Harris also created The Golden Girls.

The full episode of “Maude’s Dilemma”—not the hacked-up Antenna TV version I saw—is available at the top of this page and at YouTube, at least for now. If you watch at YouTube, you will want to avoid reading the comments, as they demonstrate the utter shitshow that the abortion debate has become since the days when abortion was viewed as settled law, when it was a decision that properly belonged “in the privacy of our own lives” and nowhere else. Given what seems to me the likelihood that Roe v. Wade will be overturned in 2020, “Maude’s Dilemma” is worth watching in 2019.

Still Movin’ on Up

This website has a TV category and we use it to deviate from the normal run of stuff around here. This post started as a Twitter thread, but I’ve turned it into a full post, since not everybody who visits here uses Twitter or follows me. (If you use Twitter and don’t follow me, what’s up with that?)

As a child of the 70s who grew up with the original shows, I found ABC’s live, one-night-only reboot of All in the Family and The Jeffersons earlier this week to be a worthwhile 90 minutes, if not a flawless one. Here’s what I think I think:

The cast was studded with stars: Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei played Archie and Edith, with Ellie Kemper and Ike Barinholtz as Gloria and Mike; Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes were George and Louise Jefferson, with Kerry Washington and Will Ferrell playing next-door neighbors the Willises. But Harrelson, Tomei, and Foxx made the creative decision to play the characters the way Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, and Sherman Hemsley played them in the 70s, instead of finding their own interpretation. Tomei couldn’t help but be charming as Edith, but Harrelson’s attempt to capture O’Connor’s body language as Archie made him look like he had some sort of spasmodic condition. While Foxx’s Hemsley was uncannily accurate, it got in the way of the storytelling. Sykes, Kemper, Barinholtz, Washington, Ferrell, and other members of the supporting cast were better. (Honesty compels me to report, however, that I’m predisposed to like whatever Ellie Kemper does. I’d watch her sit in a chair and read a book for two hours if somebody would put it on TV. And Wanda Sykes is usually the best part of whatever she’s in.)

One of the things inexperienced radio jocks do is to correct every mistake they make—if they flub a word, they repeat it, and often explicitly call attention to what they’ve done. But you learn with experience that unless your mother is listening, nobody is paying attention as closely as you are, and you eventually let the small flubs go by. Foxx fluffed a line about 15 minutes into the show and stopped to say, “It’s live. Everyone sittin’ at home just thinks their TV messed up.” He said it while staying in character, which caused the whole cast to break up. But the original fluff was so small that The Mrs. and I didn’t catch it at first, and when we backed up the DVR, we could still barely detect it.

I am just cynical enough to wonder if the producers didn’t ask him to intentionally blow a line just to remind people the show was live. When Sykes fluffed another line later in the show, she just kept going.

The Jeffersons episode contained two instances of the word “nigger,” which were awkwardly bleeped. In a brief documentary that followed the live show, Kerry Washington said she was “proud” of the way the cast and producers had decided to bleep the word instead of altering the original 1973 script. But bleeping the words was a cop-out. One of the stated goals of presenting these programs in 2019 was to show how their subject matter still resonates. The intrusion of modern political correctness made that resonance less pointed than it might otherwise have been.

The best part of the whole thing might have been Jennifer Hudson’s show-stopping performance of the Jeffersons theme. Either that or the surprise appearance of 87-year-old Marla Gibbs, who returned to her 70s role as Florence the maid, and who got the single funniest line of the night, when she notes George and Weezy’s deluxe apartment in the sky and the Willises’ maid and says, “How come we overcame and nobody told me?”

The sharp, topical writing of these shows was a powerful reminder of how network TV could reflect the cultural and political realities of the 1970s without being preachy—and a reminder also that shows like these simply couldn’t be made today. The live 90-minute special was a huge hit (by standards of 2019, if not 1973—10.4 million viewers), and that likely means that we’ll see more live, one-time-only reboots of classic sitcoms. But there are precious few shows that would repeat as well as All in the Family and The Jeffersons did.

If you watched the live show, please weigh in with your opinions of it below.

The Rhythm of the Day

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(The first part of this post has been sitting in my drafts file since at least 2015. I used part of it for a post at my radio station’s blog, back when I used to contribute to that, but this is its first time here. I have added some relevant links that have appeared since I first wrote this.)

I am a big fan of Mitchell Hadley’s It’s About TV, especially his posts digging into old editions of TV Guide. They’re the spiritual cousin of my One Day in Your Life posts. The big events get attention in history class, but perhaps we can better understand how it really felt to live while those big events were unfolding if we imagine them projected against the backdrop of life’s daily details. After all, that’s how we actually experienced them.

There are two kinds of TV Guide posts at It’s About TV—discussions of a particular week’s issue and day-by-day summaries of the listings themselves. Educational programs and news early in the morning, soap operas and game shows all day (with a break for local news at noontime), cartoons and off-network repeats for kids in the late afternoon (and a surprising number of movies—it was once common practice for stations to air a movie from, say, 3:30 to 5:00), network primetime, and a couple of shows or a movie after the late local news before sign-off.

The rhythm of our days is defined more by television than we realize, I think. For many Midwesterners, the 10:00 local news marks the end of the evening and time to go to bed, so you get in your eight hours before rising at 6 for another day. When I travel in the Eastern time zone, I never get used to the idea that primetime is an hour later out there.

Television used to define the rhythm of our days in other ways. During the week, the TV stations marched in step, with a different program every 30 or 60 minutes. Saturdays were not entirely like that. Game of the Week started at 1:00 and got over sometime between 3 and 4, and it would be left to the local affiliates to pick up afterward. Ours would frequently start an episode of Star Trek right after the game and show it without commercials so it would end at 4:00. One of our local stations would occasionally bust out an episode of Twilight Zone as a time-filler, and it was always a treat to stumble upon it, unlisted in TV Guide. 

Late at night, TV stations stopped bowing to the tyranny of the half-hour. They’d start a movie at 11:40 or 12:20, as if to say, “It’s late, we’re off the clock, who cares.” Late-night TV looked different, too. There were not nearly as many regional and national commercials as there are now. Most of the ads you saw late at night were for local businesses, produced by local stations. It was common for a single business, often a car dealer, to sponsor the late movie, and get a spot—often repetitive, silly, or annoying—in every break. You’d see a lot of public service announcements, too, often on grainy film scratched from repeated use, or slightly out of focus.

I liked to watch the TV stations sign off, play the National Anthem, maybe put up color bars, or just go to static. At that point, there was nothing left to watch, and you might as well go to bed. Or fall asleep with the light of the unblinking screen until the early news, Sunrise Semester, or some noisy cartoon restarts the rhythm for yet another day.

One More Different Thing: I was sorry to learn of the passing this week of Earl Thomas Conley. During the 1980s, only Alabama and Ronnie Milsap recorded more #1 country hits than Conley. His 1981 #1 hit “Fire and Smoke” is an all-time fave of mine, as is the insanely great “Your Love’s on the Line” from 1983. As a country-radio jock during the first half of the 80s, I knew that whenever a new Conley record showed up in the studio, it was going to be good. While I didn’t love every one of them, few stars of the time had a higher batting average with me.

When a new generation hit at the end of the 80s—the Class of ’89, which included Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson—Conley’s star dimmed, but he stayed on the road for years thereafter. He’d suffered from dementia in recent years and died at 77.