Saturday, September 17, 2011

TV Theme Songs that Evoke a Sense of Place: A Top 10 List...(Part 1)

A song lingered in my head for a few hours the other day, and I found myself wandering like an ethereal spirit someplace different, specifically on a beach in Hawaii. It was quite literally like an out-of-body experience. I could feel the warm air, the bright sun, the light sea breeze...I could even hear the waves crashing, and after a moment I realized that Steve McGarrett just might walk through the door into the computer lab where I was struggling to finish a long program review document.
That's what music can do for you, especially when it is tied to powerful visual images, and to a great extent, youthful memories. It got me thinking about TV theme songs and how they sometimes evoke a sense of place as much as they evoke characters, dramas, and comedies. It didn't take me too long to come up with my personal top 10 themes. It took quite a bit longer to find them all, but here they are:

These are not in any particular order, but the first two probably represent the top of my list. Hawaii Five O has the most unforgettable opening theme of any television show in history. Composed by Morton Stevens and performed by the Ventures, it is one of the few songs that can stick in my head all day and not drive me up the wall. You may or may not know that there is a new Hawaii Five O on CBS right now. It's ok, and I tune in to see the scenery backdrop, but I was upset that they took the opening theme and cut it half! The first night the show was on, I actually went online just to bring up the old theme and play it all the way through.

The show itself hasn't aged so well though. The plots were more sophisticated in my memories than in fact, and the actor's behaviour at a crime scene was appalling. Acting was stiff and wooden; watch an old episode some time and notice that whenever there is an office discussion of the case, everyone but McGarrett stands with their hands firmly at their sides, never moving. Any plot that required hippies or protesters was, um, clumsy and stereotypical. Still it was one of my favorite shows of all time.

I read somewhere that when Hawaii Five-O went off the air in 1979, after twelve seasons, there was an entire institution of studios and film crews left in Hawaii who had nothing to do anymore, so they more or less invented a new series. It was about some happy-go-lucky private investigator who lived in Hawaii who was named, um, something like Remington, or Colt, or Magnum, or something like that.

Oh, it was Magnum, and the opening theme is second on my list! The show, half comedy and half drama is one of my enduring favorites, and now that the DVDs are out, I realize the show has weathered the years quite well. They made great use of the landscape in most episodes, especially since a helicopter flight with the character T.C. was often an important plot point. One got a real sense of the geography of the islands, especially Oahu.

If you are only marginally familiar with the series, you may not know that the whole first season of episodes had a totally different theme song. It wasn't very good at all (check it out below).

Third on the list is one of those songs that will, in fact, drive you nuts in a few minutes if it gets stuck in your head, but it evokes a sense of place as sure as any other song on this list: The Gilligan's Island theme. Although the specific locality of the "island" is never mentioned, it existed on a studio lot in Hollywood. But the pilot for the series was shot on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i, and I've been there. I've been to the real Gilligan's Island!
So my question is, instead of trying to get off their island, why didn't they just go up the beach to the housing development?
For your listening pleasure, I found three links, the first of which is the version everyone remembers:

And then there is a second, earlier version, in which the Professor and Maryanne get no billing. Really! I, like many others, liked Maryanne better than Ginger, and the Professor was one of my life role models. According to Wikipedia, Russell Johnson, the actor who played the professor, insisted that any science statements he made on the show had to be accurate:

Trivia question of the day: What was the Professor's name (the character, not the actor)?

I always assumed the castaways were traveling from a Hawaiian port, but listening to the original theme music, one would have to assume they were in the Caribbean:

Theme number four evokes a sense of place, but it evokes a place nowhere near Earth...Star Trek.

I appreciate the original theme well enough, but I thought that the theme for "Star Trek: The Next Generation" caught the majesty of space a bit better than the original series. None of the other spinoff series ever came close, but I can listen to the movie soundtracks for hours. For the purists, I found a Youtube of the original series, shown below:

Number five on my list is a theme song that takes me to two places. The first is Lake Tahoe, one of my favorite local destinations, and the other is my youth. My grandparents NEVER missed "Bonanza", and so that music has the ability to turn me into a six-year-old child spending a night at the grandparent's ranch (the two acre ranch was in south Ontario, California; how many southern Californians can remember when Ontario had ranch properties?).

The map that burns up at the start of the theme song is actually oriented with North pointing to the left. Carson City and Virginia City are actually east of Lake Tahoe. Wow, if the family still owned that ranch, they would be billionaires....

That's it for Part one of this exploration of television theme songs that evoke a sense of place. We do have an extra bonus theme song for a place that you all thought didn't really exist at all: Bedrock!

Well, it does exist. I saw it this summer. It's in the extreme western end of Colorado, in the Paradox Valley. I did not see any dinosaurs, or Fred or Wilma. It is conceivable that some dinosaurs would be found nearby, entombed in the Mesozoic rocks that form the local cliffs.

Part 2 will be posted shortly. In the meantime, what shows would you add to this list?


Brian Romans said...

the theme song to Barney Miller is my all-time favorite ... it's funky and bluesy and quality enough to stand on it's own.

Sping said...

A bit of trivia for the non trek fans. The theme from Star Trek TNG was taken from Star Trek The Motion Picture (the first movie).

Randy A. said...

Some more trivia:
The "Flintstones" movie and the sequel both filmed the "Bedrock" scenes at Vasquez Rocks, a county park just north of L.A.
The opening credits for Gilligan's Island showed a quick flash of the "Minnow" setting sail from a harbor -- which was actually Alamitos Bay, Long Beach.

Malcolm V L said...

The TNG theme is too triumphant for this aging cynic. When I was little I would dream of being the xenogeologist that Picard had along on his missions.