— Greg Denevan, Berwyn, MD.
The instrumental was called “The Syncopated Clock” and was written in Arlington, Virginia in 1945 by a composer (and former Army Intelligence officer) with the name Leroy Anderson. But before we get to that, let’s examine television in the 1950s.
Back then, television was a content-hungry medium. TV stations needed flickering images that they could broadcast into viewers’ homes. Much of this content has been piled up in a magical place called Hollywood: old movies.
But big studio executives weren’t sure they wanted to show their old movies on TV. They saw television as a competitor that drew viewers out of the cinemas. As a result, many TV stations have had to fill their programs with foreign films, films from smaller US studios, or films produced by the US government.
Eventually, an agreement was reached between the Hollywood studios and the television networks that allowed the networks to purchase and broadcast films made before 1948. The cinema floodgates were opened.
CBS took the lead. In 1951, its flagship station, WCBS, debuted in New York City with a nightly movie offering that showed an old movie every night at 11:10 p.m Richard K Doan was the program manager at the time and claimed to have named the program “The Late Show” and chosen its theme music: “The Syncopated Clock” by Anderson.
Anderson was a Pops powerhouse. Not pop, as in pop music, but bangsas in the light orchestral music popularized (popularized?) by Arthur Fiedler the 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, both of whom were very musical. He grew up in Cambridge, Mass. and studied music at Harvard. The musical arrangements he wrote there drew Fiedler’s attention to him. 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 him to Iceland, where he served as a translator and interpreter.
In 1943, Anderson was sent to Officer Candidate School and then posted to the Pentagon as chief of Scandinavian military intelligence. He moved to Arlington with his young family. Upon learning that Anderson was back in the United States, Fiedler invited him to be a guest conductor at the Boston Pops Harvard Night concert.
While Anderson lived in Arlington, a title stuck in his mind. Many composers incorporated the steady, rhythmic ticking of a clock into their works. But Anderson later wrote: “No one had described a ‘syncopated’ clock and this seemed to present an opportunity to write something else.”
The result was The Syncopated Clock, a charming piece punctuated by a block of wood. On May 28, 1945, in his army uniform, Anderson conducted the premiere at Boston’s Symphony Hall.
Anderson recorded The Syncopated Clock with his own orchestra in 1950. WCBS programmers took notice of the record, which they made the theme song of The Late Show. It also graced other CBS film programs: “The Late, Late Show” and “The Early Show,” the latter of which aired weekdays at 4:30 p.m. on Washington’s Channel 9. (Old Westerns were common.)
Anderson wrote, “From the very first show, CBS was inundated with phone calls for the name of the theme, and both CBS and I found ourselves with a hit: they own the show, I own the theme music.”
Anderson was on a roll. In 1952 his “Blue Tango” sold 2 million copies. His “Sleigh Ride” (with texts by Mitchell community) is a seasonal staple. Answer Man’s favorite Anderson composition has to be The Typewriter, which uses an actual manual typewriter for percussive effects.
TV stations continued to mine the mother vein 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, broadcasters developed their own TV movies. CBS has a “Late Show” and a “Late Late Show,” but these are talk shows, not movie programs.
Leroy Anderson died in 1975. Although he had many hits, he insisted on never writing one.
“All a composer can do is write what he feels and do it as well as he can,” Anderson once said. “Whether it’s popular depends on the public.”