It is a truism that our memories are often triggered in a variety of ways related to our senses. We see someone or something that reminds us of an experience in our past, or we catch a familiar scent or taste, possibly something as simple as warm cinnamon rolls, that brings back fond memories of another time.
For me, the sense that seems to most often inspire memories is my sense of hearing — especially as it relates to music. I was thinking about that again recently when I ran across an album of old TV show themes, because many of them – especially those from the shows of the early 1950s – immediately transported me to the days of my childhood.
When my family got our first TV set, I suppose we were like anyone with a new toy — we wanted to play with it as much as possible. Unfortunately, the programming that was available wasn't always of a quality that would be appreciated by modern viewers, who have a choice of countless video streams. However, to us it was almost magic — even if it did revert to a test pattern late at night.
One of the earliest shows with a distinctive theme song was an oater from the world of radio (which is where a lot of early TV shows originated) called The Lone Ranger, which made its debut in 1949 starring John Hart and Jay Silverheels. (Clayton Moore took over the lead role in it's third season.) As almost everyone knows, a portion of The William Tell Overture was used for the unforgettable theme song, and it was probably the first exposure to classical music for a lot of viewers. I remember the show well, although I always felt like Tonto was a more interesting character than the Ranger himself.
The Lone Ranger was okay, but a show that I was even more crazy about as a kid was a sober police procedural that probably set the pattern for every cop show from then to now. Making its first appearance as a pilot in 1951, followed by a regular weekly spot in 1952, Dragnet was a sensation. It took place in modern-day Los Angeles, and starred Jack Webb as a humorless detective sergeant named Joe Friday, who went about his job in a no-nonsense way that seemed to strike a chord in America at the time. I know that it certainly did with me, and when the show opened every week I was always smack in front of the TV set because I didn't want to miss the thrilling first notes of the theme song, followed by Webb's monotone voice, reciting, "This is the city…". Good stuff, even if it seems dated now.
And finally, who could forget I Love Lucy and it's enormously familiar theme song? When the show debuted in 1951 it soon became a viewing habit for families all over America, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were transformed into huge stars. Although it wasn't the first comedy show to feature a beleaguered husband and his kooky wife, it was the show that struck gold with the formula, and it garnered ratings that are still difficult to believe. For example, when little Ricky Ricardo was born, that episode was watched by 72% of TV homes.
The success of the show – and the couples' wise bargaining for ownership and film rights – enabled them to build a TV production empire they named Desilu, and at it's height it was responsible for an enormous segment of the entire industry. They were the first TV millionaires… but not the last.