February 22, 2011
Car 54 Composer John Strauss Dies
Grammy-, Emmy-winner had diverse music career by Jon Burlingame
LOS ANGELES— Composer John Strauss, who wrote the themes for TV's Car 54, Where Are You? and The Phil Silvers Show, and who later won a Grammy for producing the soundtrack album for Amadeus, died Monday, Feb. 14, after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 90.
While his fame largely rests on his memorable 30-second theme for comedic New York cops Toody and Muldoon (played by Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne) in Nat Hiken's 1961-63 sitcom – and to a lesser extent his music for Silvers' turn as Sgt. Bilko in Hiken's 1955-59 military-con-man comedy – Strauss was an accomplished musician who also wrote two ballets, an opera for television and other classical works.
Recalling the origins of the Car 54 theme in 1995, Strauss recalled that producer-creator Hiken "came to me with words, and more or less of an idea of what he wanted. We actually worked together on the tune, to an extent. I knew that he wanted something simple and tuneful, so we worked on it untl we got it in the shape that he liked."
Hiken's lyrics – "There's a holdup in the Bronx, Brooklyn's broken out in fights, there's a traffic jam in Harlem that's backed up to Jackson Heights, there's a Scout troop short a child, Khrushchev's due at Idlewild, Car 54, where are you?" – are among the most famous ever written for a TV theme. "We were going to write more lyrics and never got around to it," Strauss remembered.
Hiken was "a distant relative" of Strauss' wife, actress Charlotte Rae, when they first met in 1955. "We started talking, he realized the musical background I had, and he asked me if I would help out on the first of the shows that we did together, which was The Phil Silvers Show. There wasn't a lot of music to deal with, it was enjoyable, and I began to learn the ins and outs of music for film," Strauss said.
Strauss later applied his early TV experience to work as a music editor on nearly two dozen films and more than a dozen TV-movies and series. He served as music editor on an early Francis Ford Coppola film, You're a Big Boy Now (1966); on a pair of Woody Allen films, Take the Money and Run (1969) and Bananas (1971); on several Milos Forman films including Hair (1979), Ragtime (1981) and Valmont (1989, to which he also contributed original music); and on films where his classical training was especially critical, notably Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and The Pirates of Penzance (1983).
He did three films with director Elaine May: as music editor on The Heartbreak Kid (1972), composer on Mikey and Nicky (1976), and supervising music editor on Ishtar (1987).
Strauss was also music editor on such TV series as Charlie's Angels, Starsky & Hutch, L.A. Law and the short-lived, song-driven 1990 experiment Cop Rock; and the Oliver Stone-produced miniseries Wild Palms. He won a 1978 Emmy for film sound editing for the miniseries The Amazing Howard Hughes, and received another Emmy nomination for his work as a sound editor on The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.
His work on the Oscar-winning Amadeus brought him the most post-Car 54 fame. He served as music coordinator and supervising music editor on the Milos Forman film and produced its best-selling soundtrack album – winning the 1984 Grammy for Classical Album of the Year, shared with conductor Neville Marriner.
Strauss has a cameo in the film as a conductor and wrote the brief piece that The Count shows to a young Mozart, who mocks the effort, according to Strauss' son Larry, a Los Angeles-based author.
Strauss also arranged music for the Arthur Penn Western Little Big Man (1970) and served as music supervisor on such music-driven films as The Blues Brothers (1980), Zoot Suit (1981) and the Chopin biopic Impromptu (1991, for which he also arranged music).
He was born April 28, 1920, in New York and earned a teaching certificate from the Dalcroze School of Music in 1943. He served in France and North Africa during World War II, then studied composition with leading American composers Paul Hindemith and Quincy Porter at Yale, earning a master's degree in music theory in 1951.
During the early 1950s, Strauss taught in the music and dance departments at New York's High School for the Performing Arts, where he met the soon-to-be-famous choreographer Robert Joffrey. He wrote two ballets for Joffrey: the two-scene Scaramouche (1952) and the three-movement Umpateedle (1953). Later he wrote Garcia Lorca Songs, which was performed at the Spoleto Festival.
His most prestigious television assignment was The Accused, an "operatic monodrama" written for CBS's Camera Three in 1961 with a libretto by Sheppard Kerman. A half-hour, one-woman opera based on the Salem witch trials, it starred Patricia Neway, whose "emotional acting and expression" was praised by The New York Times. The Chicago Tribune called it "completely satisfying... dramatic and moving, inspired by the harshness of 17th-century Salem's witch hunts, yet full of the richness of one woman's faith in her own innocence."
He also worked in the New York theater, orchestrating the Vernon Duke-Ogden Nash score for The Littlest Revue (1956) and contributing some music of his own; and adding a song to the 1965 Broadway musical Pickwick.
Strauss wrote arrangements for his wife's 1955 album Songs I Taught My Mother, and collaborated with her on various cabaret shows through the years. They divorced in 1975, and Strauss subsequently became life partners with artist Lionel Friedman. "They were strong advocates for gay rights, and were arrested during a protest at the Los Angeles office of then-Gov. Pete Wilson," their son Larry said. "They also took part in national marches for gay and lesbian rights, and participated in the making of the AIDS memorial quilt." Friedman died in 2003.
In addition to his ex-wife and son, Strauss is survived by three grandchildren. Services will be private.
©2011 Jon Burlingame