There was a point in time where the theme music for a television show was as iconic as the program itself. Viewers would tune in not just for the running storylines and catch phrases, but also for the theme song. The music would set the tone for the show, and the repetition of the theme each week also added to the connectivity between each episode. One of the most recognizable themes in TV history also has an intriguing story that contains conflict, legal drama, and (an item of great importance to us at the Library of Congress) copyright! The show was “Dragnet”, and as its main character Joe Friday would say, we would like to present “just the facts.”
The two main players in our story are film composers Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995) and Walter Schumann (1913-1958). According to Nora Ramsey, a Reference Librarian at Syracuse University Libraries where the Miklós Rózsa Papers are held, the famous four-note motif was originally composed by Rózsa for the 1946 film, The Killers. In 1951, the same sequence of notes appeared in the “Main Title” theme music for the radio and television drama, “Dragnet,” composed by Walter Schumann. The music became the subject of a copyright lawsuit when Abeles & Bernstein, lawyers representing Robbins Music Corporation, the publishers of Rózsa’s score for The Killers, sent a cease and desist letter to Schumann’s representatives at Capitol Records on November 16th, 1953. When Schumann challenged this letter, Abeles & Bernstein informed Miklós Rózsa they would be filing for a copyright infringement on his behalf on January 4th, 1954 for Dragnet‘s “Main Title.”
Rózsa’s lawyers argued that Walter Schumann was present during the recording of The Killers in 1946. Universal Pictures produced documentation that placed Walter Schumann on the set during this time. This evidence was used to establish that Schumann had heard the melody and, whether he meant to or not, copied the theme. At this point during the trial, Walter Schumann claimed that he received permission from Rózsa to use the motif, which would be a strong defense against Rózsa’s claim. (One should not fail to mention at this point that Schumann attended law school at the University of Southern California in the 1930s). While the case was in session, the lawsuit and Schumann’s counter-suit received publicity from musicologists who pointed out that the four-note theme can be found in several pieces throughout history.
The problem was complicated by the success of a 1953 recording of the “Dragnet” theme by Ray Anthony and his Orchestra. It sold over 500,000 copies in the U.S., reaching number 3 on the Billboard chart. It was also the first television theme in history to make it into the top 10 of the British charts. The catchy “dum-dee-dum-dum” motif’s new rendition by Anthony caught on with listeners, and the royalties had to go somewhere. The question was, where should they go?
Rózsa and Schumann were each highly successful composers at the time of this lawsuit. Rózsa’s career in Hollywood gained him tremendous fame: he received 17 Oscar nominations and won the award three times for his music for the films Spellbound (1945), A Double Life (1947) and Ben-Hur (1959). Schumann served as musical director of the Armed Forces Radio Service following the outbreak of World War II. He worked with most of the major acts of the war on all the radio shows AFRS produced during this time. After the war, he returned to Los Angeles and worked in the movie and television industry as a composer and arranger, mostly on several Abbott & Costello films. In 1949, Schumann was asked to compose a new theme for a police detective show about to make its debut on the NBC Radio network.
In 1955, a settlement between the two publishers concluded the case by allowing both Rózsa and Schumann and their publishers to share the royalties for the four note theme “Main Title,” which was later titled “Danger Ahead.” The “Dragnet March,” which was everything other than the four-note theme, remained the intellectual property of Walter Schumann. It took several years for the decision to be enforced, made evident on recordings published after 1955 that list either Walter Schumann or Miklós Rózsa as the composer— but never both.
Schumann passed away in 1958, but the “Dragnet” theme would live on. Ed Norton would often go “Dum-de-dum-dum!” whenever he and Ralph Kramden found themselves in trouble on “The Honeymooners.” A variation of the theme is used as a jingle for Tums antacid, and the same motif is often used at sporting events. The music group “The Art of Noise” recorded a version of the theme for the 1987 film, “Dragnet,” which starred Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd, earning the group the 1987 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
If you enjoyed learning about the theme to “Dragnet,” then we encourage you to explore the following titles in the NLS Music Collection. You can access many of our materials any time using Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access. To borrow music-related talking books on digital cartridge or hard copies of braille scores, please contact the Music Section either by phone at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]. Are you curious about copyright? If so, you can visit the website of the United States Copyright Office. Finally, if you have a favorite theme from a TV or radio show, please share it with us in the comments below!
Brown, Bill. Ballad of Jed Clampett (banjo). Bill Brown teaches how to play the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme on five string banjo as played by Earl Scruggs without the use of music notation. (DBM03219)
____ Hill Street Blues Theme. Bill Brown teaches an early intermediate arrangement of the theme from “Hill Street Blues” on piano without the use of musical notation. (DBM04447)
____ Linus and Lucy. For piano. Bill Brown teaches how to play Linus and Lucy by Vince Guaraldi (originally written for the television special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” but generally known as “The Peanuts” theme) without the use of music notation. Includes demonstration and backing tracks. Advanced level. (DBM03304)
____ Peter Gunn. Bill Brown teaches how to play both the rhythm and lead guitar to the Ventures version of the Peter Gunn theme music without the use of music notation. Level 2. (DBM02941)
____ Pink Panther. Piano by ear. (DBM01756)
____ Theme from MASH. Learn to play a fingerstyle solo guitar version of the theme from MASH in the style of Edgar Cruz without the use of music or tab. (DBM02481)
Give it all You’ve Got. Anecdotes from Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, the team that wrote theme songs for the television series Bonanza and Mr. Ed, as well as award-winning songs like “Que Sera, Sera,” “Mona Lisa,” and “To Each His Own.” (DBM00625)
Henson, Jim. The Muppet Show Theme: Piano. Theme song from The Muppet Show television series. For piano, voice and guitar. Line by line and bar over bar formats with chord symbols. (BRT37232)
Jones, Quincy. Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones. Portrait of the award-winning musician, composer, producer, and businessman who began his career at age eighteen playing backup for Billie Holiday in Seattle, then touring with Lionel Hampton’s band. Incidents from Jones’s career and family life are interspersed with commentary from his ex-wives, children, and such old friends as Ray Charles. Jones composed the themes to “Sanford and Son,” “Roots,” and “MadTV.” (DB 53304)
McPartland, Marian. Dave Grusin. Known primarily as the composer of the musical scores for “Tootsie” and “On Golden Pond,” Dave Grusin is also a successful producer and performer. During this interview he plays his own “Theme from St. Elsewhere,” and Marian McPartland joins in for a melodic duet of “I Remember April.” (DBM01251)
Whorf, Mike. For Whom Writing Music is a Picnic. Interview with George Duning, one of Hollywood’s most prolific writers of theme and background music. (DBM00556)
Aznavour, Charles. She: Dance, Theme. From the London Weekend Television series “Seven Faces of Woman.” Words by Herbert Kretzmer. Music by Charles Aznavour. For voice and piano; chord symbols included. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM24089)
Glee Songbook: Easy Piano. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM35450)
Grusin, Dave. Saint Elsewhere. Piano and chords. Bar over bar format. (BRM35202)
Mancini, Henri. The Pink Panther. Theme song from the Mirisch-Go and Every production, “The Pink Panther,” a United Artists release; arranged by Dan Coates. Read more about Mancini in this blog post from our colleagues in the Music Division at the Library of Congress. Would you like even more Mancini? Here is an “Off the Record” interview from 1986, housed by the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting And Recorded Sound Division. (BRT37088)
Pheloung, Barrington. Inspector Morse: Morse on the Case. Composer’s orchestral score of Morse on the Case in bar over bar format. (BRM36732)
Post, Mike. Hill Street Blues Theme. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM33027)
Schumann, Walter. Dragnet March and Dragnet Ahead. Arranged for accordion by Bruno Camini. Transcribed into music braille by Guy R. Sherman. Bar over bar format. (BRM33829)
Seventy-one-derful Pops: the New Blockbusters for Top Trumpets. Includes the theme to “Hawaii Five-O.” Single line format. (BRM33059)
Young, Victor. Blue Star: The “Medic” Theme. Words by Edward Heyman. Music composed by Victor Young. For voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM33855)