Walter Schumann

Active - 1947 - 1955  |   Born - Oct 8, 1913   |   Died - Aug 21, 1958   |   Genres - Comedy, Crime, Mystery, Western, Thriller

Share on

Primarily known as an arranger and conductor, Walter Schumann enjoyed one of the greatest musical successes in the history of television with a single motif: the Dragnet theme, which has been described as the most familiar four-note musical theme in all of Western music, after the opening of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony." Born in New York in 1913, Schumann took piano lessons for a time while growing up, but otherwise showed no special aptitude for or interest in music. It was while attending college in California that he formed a dance band for the entertainment of his classmates, and found himself so taken with the idea of a music career that he abandoned his intention of attending law school. He studied arranging and conducting, and was good enough by the end of the 1930s to be employed by Eddie Cantor. Schumann served with the Armed Forces Radio Service during WWII, and conducted the orchestra in the touring production of Irving Berlin's This Is the Army. After the war, he went to work for Universal Pictures, where he scored a series of comedies starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and also parts of the Ma and Pa Kettle series of films. It was during 1949 that Schumann hooked up with producer/actor Jack Webb, who was getting a new radio program called Dragnet on the air, and wanted a distinctive title-theme and body of background music for the show. Schumann delivered a four-note motif that went over the titles and the climax of the script, and an accompanying body of music. The resulting "Dragnet (Theme and March)" became the most widely known piece of music ever written for television, so much so that audiences recognized its connection with the program instantaneously. In years to come, on programs such as The Honeymooners and in movies by the Three Stooges, among many other elements of popular culture, the mere quotation of the theme was enough to get laughs -- Art Carney's Ed Norton, with his head inside neighbor Ralph Kramden's ice box hunting for a snack, is surprised by Kramden, pauses a half-beat, and goes "Dum-de-dum-dum," and everyone in the audience gets the joke; as recently as the 1990s, the theme was being quoted in a national television advertising campaign for the over-the-counter medical remedy Tums.

The Dragnet theme became a hit record by bandleader Ray Anthony on Capitol Records during the summer of 1953, and it was at that point that the accusation of plagiarism surfaced against Schumann. As it turned out, the four-note Dragnet theme was identical to material used in a cue called "Danger Ahead," which had been composed by Miklos Rozsa for a movie called The Killers, which had been produced on the Universal lot in 1946, at exactly the same time that Schumann was working there. A successful lawsuit by Rozsa's publisher resulted in Rozsa's name being added to the writing credit for the Dragnet theme ahead of Schumann's, and Rozsa's publisher also took over ownership of the copyright to the Dragnet theme. The latter has subsequently proved to be the single most profitable piece of music in Rozsa's output, according to his son, Nicholas, bringing in more revenue each year from its use on the air than the composer's music from Ben-Hur, Spellbound, Quo Vadis, The Thief of Baghdad, or any of the other feature films that he scored in a five-decade career. Much of Schumann's remaining career was linked to Dragnet, for which he was the resident composer and conductor, and for which he won an Emmy for Best Original Music in 1955. Schumann wrote the music for the 1954 feature film Dragnet and also supervised the scoring of one major outside project, Charles Laughton's film Night of the Hunter, during the middle of the decade. Additionally, his compositions and arrangements turned up as incidental music and featured songs on albums by a wide range of artists, from Bob Crosby to Stan Freberg, and he also wrote the music for some additional television productions, most notably Steve Canyon. Schumann's health declined during the late '50s, and he passed away in 1958, at the age of 44. The Dragnet theme, however (which never would have been associated with the series, and wouldn't be recognized by a fraction of the people who now know it, if not for Schumann), has long outlived him -- Webb used it in the opening credits of the revived late-'60s version of the series, and it has become familiar to two subsequent generations of television viewers.

Movie Highlights

See Full Filmography