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October 19, 2009
Composer Vic Mizzy Dead at 93
Addams Family, Green Acres tunesmith enjoyed success in TV, film, big band by Jon Burlingame
Vic Mizzy, composer of the iconic themes for television's The Addams Family and Green Acres, died Saturday, Oct. 17, at his home in Los Angeles, Ca. He was 93 and died of age-related illness.
Mizzy's themes for those, and other, 1960s sitcoms are indelibly etched on the memories of baby-boomers. He was able to capture the quirky charm of those shows with his own offbeat sensibility. Perhaps more than any other TV composer of that era, he infused his own wit and funny personality into the music of those shows.
He was one of the last of the great tunesmiths of classic television.
Mizzy's TV career in the 1960s and '70s was actually a grand second act for the composer, who enjoyed many song hits before, during and after World War II. He had a colossal hit with "My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time," sung by Marion Hutton in the 1945 Abbott & Costello film In Society but turned into a number-one smash by Doris Day, singing with the Les Brown Band.
His earlier hits with lyricist partner Irving Taylor included "There's a Faraway Look in Your Eye," sung by the Andrews Sisters with Jimmy Dorsey's band in 1938; "Three Little Sisters," also by the Andrew Sisters, in 1942; and "Take It Easy," for Guy Lombardo's band, in 1944.
With lyricist Mann Curtis, he also had chart hits with "Pretty Kitty Blue Eyes," sung by the Merry Macs in 1944; "The Whole World Is Singing My Song," by Doris Day with the Brown Band in 1946; "Choo'n Gum" by Teresa Brewer in 1950; "The Jones Boy," by the Mills Brothers in 1954; and others.
Mizzy was born Jan. 9, 1916, in Brooklyn. He played the accordion and the piano as a youth, and while attending New York University switched from pre-med to music. He studied the Schillinger system of composition which, in later years, he credited with enabling him to write scores quickly.
With Taylor, he appeared on radio's Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour but won a Fred Allen-hosted collegiate amateur radio show that enabled Mizzy to become, he said, "the youngest member of ASCAP" during the early 1930s. They began writing "special material" for Broadway performers.
Their songwriting success wasn't really interrupted by World War II because, although both men enlisted in the Navy, they continued to write tunes. Mizzy eventually partnered with Curtis and became organist at a chaplain's school that enabled him to avoid combat overseas. After the war, he married popular radio singer Mary Small.
Although Mizzy's songs had found placement in movies (notably "My Dreams..." and "No Bout a Doubt It" in In Society), he had his first Hollywood experience on the Esther Williams MGM vehicle Easy to Love (1953), for which he wrote "Didja Ever." But the era of Tin Pan Alley songwriters was nearing an end, and Mizzy managed to make the transition from songwriter to score composer.
David Levy, head of programming at NBC in the late 1950s, was a friend, and started Mizzy on his television career with the theme for the summer 1960 drama series Moment of Fear. His dramatic, nerve-jangling theme in a minor key (on Harry Betts' 1962 collection The Jazz Soul of Doctor Kildare) will be a surprise to those who only know Mizzy's sitcom themes.
He also penned music for the Shirley Temple Storybook (the "Enchanted Melody," also on Betts' LP, is a sweet tune that harks back to Mizzy's earlier songs) and The Richard Boone Show, as well as themes for Klondike (the 1960 Alaska gold-rush show) and Kentucky Jones (1964, a warm signature for the Dennis Weaver drama).
It was on The Addams Family (1964-66) and Green Acres (1965-71) that he won lasting fame. In both cases, he helped design the main-title sequences – for Addams, he was on the set helping coordinate the finger-snapping of the actors, while for Green Acres he conceived, and helped direct, the American Gothic sendup of the final frames, as Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor tap their pitchfork in time to the music.
On Addams, he also played the harpsichord and sang (overdubbing his own voice three times) the song – the notoriously cheap Filmways didn't bother to replace Mizzy's voice, although they did loop Lurch actor Ted Cassidy's into the "neat, sweet, petite" midsection.
His underscores were as funny as his themes. He wrote themes for Gomez (John Astin), Morticia (Carolyn Jones) and Lurch (Cassidy) that suggested aspects of their bizarre characters that surprised even creator Charles Addams (who later wrote "all of these melodic inventions are ingenious [and] mark Mr. Mizzy as the dynamic and original composer that he is").
For Acres, Mizzy assembled an eight-man band that included legendary harmonica player Tommy Morgan. "Vic was one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet in the recording business," Morgan said Monday. "He was totally supportive of musicians. We would sometimes record two episodes on a Monday, and we got two separate checks for it. He's the only man I've ever been around who did that."
Morgan played the bass harmonica – rarely, if ever, heard on television prior to that – as well as, sometimes, fuzz-tone and electric harmonica, he said. "We used bass harmonica on the main title," he recalled. "That, and Bill Calkins on electric bass clarinet. The blended sound of the two bass instruments was the sound of Arnold the Pig," he added.
That brand of musical thinking was unique to Mizzy, who had an uncanny knack of translating his own wit and quick-thinking sense of humor directly into music. Addams Family lasted just two seasons (but forever in reruns), while Green Acres lasted six seasons, and Mizzy wrote all the music for both. He also owned the copyrights on both, enabling him to license them later for use in commercials (including a recent M&Ms spot that featured the Addams Family theme).
The late 1960s also saw plenty of other less famous, but no less amusing, sitcom themes: Phyllis Diller singing The Pruitts of Southampton ("howdja do, howdja do, howdja do"), Red Buttons singing The Double Life of Henry Phyfe, Mizzy himself singing Captain Nice, leading the band on the The Don Rickles Show and others. The 1970s saw the theme for Temperatures Rising and TV-movie scores including Hurricane and Terror on the 40th Floor (both 1974).
In the meantime, Mizzy's feature-scoring career heated up. He scored The Night Walker (1964) and The Busy Body (1967) for William Castle and no fewer than five Don Knotts vehicles including The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Relucant Astronaut (1967) and The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968). The heist film The Caper of the Golden Bulls, and the California satire Don't Make Waves (both 1967) gave Mizzy a chance to stretch beyond the usual comedic structures.
Mizzy never really retired. His portfolio included a piano concerto and country-western ballet; music for commercials for Ford and Dodge; and later TV scores for Quincy and Delta House. He remained active and was often seen at ASCAP events throughout the 1980s and '90s, never without a quip and often with a lovely lady on his arm. In 2003 he released Songs for the Jogging Crowd, a new collection of tunes that sent up the Southern California lifestyle.
Marc Shaiman, who adapted Mizzy's music in two Addams Family movies in the early 1990s, said "If it hadn't been for Vic Mizzy, and his theme – which is one of the strongest examples of how music and lyrics can make something timeless – no one would have thought to make a movie of this TV show two generations later. So here's to Vic Mizzy!"
Survivors include a daughter, Lynn Mizzy Jonas, of New York; a brother and two grandchildren.
©2009 Jon Burlingame
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