The old CBS movie schedule used “The Syncopated Clock” as the theme music



I recently remembered a TV show from the 1950s called “The Early Show”. It aired around 4 p.m. daily during the week in Washington. It featured very distinctive theme music at the beginning and end. My next oldest brother would sit and listen to music, then mind his other business. He was really mesmerized by it. It was a very catchy song. I would like to know the name.

Greg Denevan, Berwyn, MD.

The instrumental was called “The Syncopated Clock” and it was written in 1945 in Arlington, Virginia by a composer (and former Army intelligence officer) named Leroy Anderson. But before we get to that, let’s explore television in the 1950s.

Television was then a content-hungry medium. Television stations needed scintillating images that they could broadcast into viewers’ homes. Much of this content was crammed into a magical place called Hollywood: Old Movies.

But the heads of the big studios weren’t sure they wanted their old movies on TV. They thought TV was a competitor, siphoning off movie theater viewers. Thus, many television stations had to fill their schedules with foreign films, films from small American studios or films produced by the American government.

Eventually, an arrangement was made between Hollywood studios and television stations allowing broadcasters to buy and show films made before 1948. The cinematic floodgates were opened.

CBS took the lead. In 1951, its flagship station, WCBS in New York, launched a late-night movie offering, showing an old movie every night at 11:10 p.m. Richard K. Doan was the program director at the time and he claimed to have named the program – “The Late Show” – and chosen its theme music: Anderson’s “The Syncopated Clock”.

Anderson was a pop powerhouse. Not pop, as in pop music, but jumped upas in the light orchestral music popularized (popsularized?) by Arthur Fiedler Boston Pops. In fact, Fiedler was among those who encouraged Anderson to devote his life to music.

Anderson was born in 1908 to Swedish immigrants who were both very musical. He grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and studied music at Harvard. The musical arrangements he wrote there caught the attention of Fiedler. Soon Anderson was arranging music for the Boston Pops.

Anderson was drafted in April 1942. When the Army learned that Anderson had studied Swedish, Danish, German, Icelandic and Norwegian at Harvard, they assigned him to the Counter Intelligence Corps and sent to Iceland, where he served as a translator and interpreter.

In 1943, Anderson was sent to officer candidate school and then assigned to the Pentagon as head of the Scandinavian Department of Military Intelligence. He moved his young family to Arlington. When Fiedler learned that Anderson was back in the United States, he invited him to be the guest bandleader at the Boston Pops Harvard Night concert.

It was while Anderson was living in Arlington that a title had lodged itself in his mind. Many composers had incorporated the steady, rhythmic ticking of a clock into their works. But, Anderson later wrote, “No one had described a ‘syncopated’ clock and it seemed to offer an opportunity to write something different.”

The result was “The Syncopated Clock”, a charming piece rhythmed by a block of wood. On May 28, 1945, Anderson, dressed in his army uniform, conducted his premiere at Symphony Hall in Boston.

Anderson recorded “The Syncopated Clock” with his own orchestra in 1950. The record caught the attention of WCBS programmers, who made it the theme song for “The Late Show”. It also graced other CBS movie schedules: “The Late, Late Show” and “The Early Show,” the latter airing weekdays at 4:30 p.m. on Washington’s Channel 9. (Old westerns were common.)

Anderson wrote, “From the very first broadcast, CBS was inundated with phone inquiries for the theme name and CBS and I ended up with a hit: they show, I get the theme music.”

Anderson was on a roll. In 1952, his “Blue Tango” sold 2 million copies. His “Sleigh Ride” (with lyrics by Mitchell Parish) is a staple of the season. Anderson’s favorite composition from Answer Man has to be “The Typewriter,” which uses an actual manual typewriter to punchy effect.

Television stations have continued to exploit the mother lode of old films. When Baltimore’s WBFF Channel 45 launched in the early 1970s, its call letters stood for “Baltimore’s Finest Features,” said the local television historian. Tom Buckley. But over time, the networks developed their own made-for-TV movies. CBS has a “Late Show” and a “Late Late Show,” but they’re talk shows, not movie programs.

Leroy Anderson died in 1975. Although he was very successful, he insisted he never wanted to write one.

“All a composer can do is write what he feels and do it the best he can,” Anderson once said. “Whether it’s popular depends on the audience.”


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