The Gilligan’s Island theme song may be the most recognizable TV tune in the world. Or at least, a couple generations ago, that was likely the case, when the world had far fewer channels and far more Gilligan’s Island reruns than it does today.
It may be hard to believe now, for younger generations who haven’t grown up on the reruns, but Gilligan’s Island was a massive hit for children growing up during the 1960s who watched it in prime time – but it was probably an even bigger hit for the kids of the 1970s and 1980s who devoured the plentiful reruns that often turned up on TV stations during the late afternoons and evenings and weekends, when kids were often in charge of the remote.
So it stands to reason that sooner or later, this blog, The TV Professor, would get around to examining it. Sure, Gilligan’s Island probably would have been a hit with or without a clever TV theme song – but with it, viewers were putty in Gilligan’s Island creator Sherwood Schwartz’s hands.
So just sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of how a TV theme song was created, that started from the mind of Mr. Schwartz, a TV writer who wanted to create his own TV series...
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
- How Gilligan’s Island, the show, came about…
- Fun, Crazy Factoid Before We Get Into How the Gilligan’s Island Theme Song Came About
- The lyrics to the song “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle”
- Who Wrote the Gilligan’s Island theme song?
- A Little About Sherwood Schwartz
- A Little About George Wyle
- A Little About the Wellingtons
- A Little about the Eligibles
- A Little About Gerald Fried
- After the Gilligan’s Island TV Pilot Was Finished
How Gilligan’s Island, the show, came about…
Sherwood Schwartz never really says in his book how he stumbled upon the idea of Gilligan’s Island. He doesn’t describe coming up with the idea in the shower, for instance. I personally like to imagine that Sherwood was on a beach vacation somewhere, and maybe a coconut fell out of a tree, onto his head. That would seem fitting.
But as Schwartz explained in book, Inside Gilligan's Island: From Creation to Syndication, when he was explaining the concept of Gilligan’s Island to TV executives, one of the suits, CBS president, James T. Aubrey, liked the premise, sort of. Aubrey thought the show should be called Gilligan’s Travels. The idea being that the Skipper and Gilligan would take passengers to new places and adventures every week. Aubrey thought that the show would need a lot of explanation and exposition each week to explain why these characters were marooned on the island (but a story about a captain and his sidekick taking people to a different place every week... that somehow wouldn’t require much explanation?).
Schwartz told Aubrey that the theme song at the beginning of the show would explain everything.
And it certainly did, and in fact, it may have been the promise of an informative TV theme song that was responsible for the network executives feeling confident in the series and giving Gilligan’s Island the greenlight to be added to the CBS TV schedule.
Fun, Crazy Factoid Before We Get Into How the Gilligan’s Island Theme Song Came About
So before Sherwood Schwartz created the TV theme song and directed the first episode of the series, he filmed a TV pilot for Gilligan’s Island, one that didn’t get very far. And for that failed TV pilot, Schwartz hired none other than John Williams to compose the music for Gilligan’s Island. Williams went with some original calypso theme music.
And, yes, Williams is THAT John Williams – the one who wrote the scores for Star Wars, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a slew of other films.
Not surprisingly, the music is pretty great. The lyrics, which were presumably written by Schwartz, and the singing, also courtesy of Schwartz, was arguably, not so much.
So why didn’t Schwartz use Williams’ music for the actual TV series? Because ultimately, the island that the land lubbers took off from was Hawaii, and Calypso music is associated with the Caribbean. See, say what you want about the realism of Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood Schwartz took this show pretty seriously, at least in some ways.
The lyrics to the song “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle”
So, now, before we go any further, here are the lyrics to, yes, “The Ballad of Gillligan’s Isle,” which seems a little high-fallutin, and it’s no wonder plenty of people just call it, “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island.” But Schwartz went with, “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle,” and to be fair, in the song, they call it an “isle” versus “island.” It’s probably easier to sing “isle” than “island.”
But we digress… Here are the lyrics:
Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship.
The mate was a mighty sailin' man,
The Skipper brave and sure.
Five passengers set sail that day
For a three-hour tour,
A three-hour tour.
The weather started getting rough,
the tiny ship was tossed.
If not for the courage of the fearless crew,
The Minnow would be lost,
The Minnow would be lost.
The ship set ground on the shore of this
Uncharted desert isle
The Skipper too,
The Millionaire and his Wife,
The Movie Star,
The Professor and Mary Ann,
Here on Gilligan's Isle.
And then we were treated to more lyrics at the end of each episode! That’s a rarity in TV theme history…
Now, this is the tale of our castaways,
They're here for a long, long time.
They'll have to make the best of things,
It's an uphill climb.
The first mate and his Skipper too
Will do their very best
To make the others comfortable
In their tropic island nest.
No phone, no lights, no motor car,
not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Crusoe,
It's primitive as can be.
So join us here each week my friends,
You're sure to get a smile,
From seven stranded castaways
Here on Gilligan's Isle!
Of course, as every Gilligan’s Island fan knows, in the first season of the series, those lyrics said, “And the rest,” instead of, “The Professor and Mary Ann,” until Bob Denver went to the studio and insisted upon the change.
Who Wrote the Gilligan’s Island theme song?
That would be Sherwood Schwartz and George Wyle. Schwartz wrote the lyrics, and George Wyle put the words to music.
A Little About Sherwood Schwartz
Schwartz probably doesn’t need much introduction to any serious Gilligan’s Island fan, but we’ll give offer up a quick biography.
Sherwood Schwartz was born in 1916 and spent the 1940s working on radio shows, writing for stars like Bob Hope. By the 1950s, Schwartz had transitioned into television, crafting jokes for big names such as Red Skelton. By the 1960s, however, Schwartz was itching to do more. He had a play come out in 1960 called “Mr. & Mrs.,” which didn’t exactly set the world on fire (it ran for just a few nights in Chicago) but was later adapted for a Bob Hope and Lucille Ball special in 1963.
It was 1964 when Schwartz hit it big, of course, with Gilligan’s Island.
In December of 1963, papers started reporting about how Schwartz had a new series called Gilligan's Island, "spotlighting six ill-assorted characters shipwrecked in the South Pacific." Six? Not seven? Well, that's what the newspapers, at that point, were saying.
Bob Denver and Alan Hale, Jr., had been cast as, of course, Gilligan and the Skipper, and Natalie Schafer was set to play Mrs. Howell. Her husband was going to be Eddie Andrews. If you’re watched a lot of TV from the 1960s and 1970s, you've seen him. Usually going by Edward Andrews, he was in a slew of TV series as a character actor. He played Jack Tripper's grandfather in 1982. He was at various times, in Bewitched, The Bob Newhart Show, Quincy, M.E., Sanford and Son and a slew of other shows. Well, let's add a photo here.
Andrews would have made a fine Mr. Howell, but landing Jim Backus, voice of Mr. Magoo and all-around talented character actor, was a major coup, and it’s now impossible to think of anyone else in the role. As for how Backus found his way to Gilligan's Island, Sherwood Schartz was a writer for a season for the series, I Married Joan. That was a 1952-1955 sitcom starring Jim Backus, and so they likely had worked together, or were at least familiar with each other, before Gilligan’s Island.
But we digress (again). Anyway, as noted, it was Sherwood Schwartz who wrote the lyrics to “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle.”
A Little About George Wyle
George Wyle wrote the music for “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle.” He was born Bernard Weissman in 1916 – and changed his name once he got into radio. The producers said that they wanted him to have a name that was easier to pronounce.
Wyle spent the 1930s performing at clubs in the Catskill Mountains and in the pit orchestra in "Hallzapoppin," a Broadway hit musical during the late 1940s. In 1946, he moved to Los Angeles and wrote the theme song and became the musical conductor for The Alan Young Radio Show. (Alan Young would go onto star in the TV classic, Mr. Ed.)
So how did Wyle get involved in Gilligan’s Island? In one of Sherwood Schwartz’s memoirs, he says that he called a close friend, George Wyle. There’s no mention of how they met, but Schwartz recounted that he needed the song written and recorded on the cheap, and he thought his pal could help him.
Schwartz said that he needed a terrific song to be recorded with an orchestra and singers, but there was no money in the budget to pay for anything.
Wyle reportedly said: “What are friends for?”
Schwartz said that the orchestra musicians, thanks to a strong union, would have to be paid. But he figured the singers, they would ask to do for free – but if the show went anywhere, they would get paid in residuals. Wyle felt that he could find some people to sing under those conditions. And that’s how he found – the Wellingtons.
A Little About the Wellingtons
George Patterson, Ed Wade, Rick Jarrard and Kirby Johnson, all from Illinois, made up the band, The Wellingtons. Long before moving to Los Angeles, they sang together at their church in Champaign, Illinois, and throughout high school.
"Luckily, our voices changed at the same time in the same way,” Johnson told a reporter.
They were all students at the University of Illinois and continued performing together, active in their glee club. They also formed an official group, belting out tunes at sororities and festivals in the area. After graduating college, the four of them pooled their money, bought a “fifth-hand” station wagon and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s.
As Patterson recalled to a reporter at the end of that decade, "We lived in an old rooming house, which has since been condemned, and watched all the supermarket sales."
But they preserved and were soon discovered by the comedian and actor Donald O’Connor, who performed with the Wellingtons at the famous Coconut Grove, a nightclub that opened in 1921 and closed in 1989. Working with O'Connor led to the Walt Disney Company hiring the Wellingtons in 1963 to sing a cover of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” which had been a huge hit during the 1950s. Disney was rerunning the series as part of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, an extremely popular TV series that lasted from 1961 to 1969 and then continued under various titles including The Wonderful World of Disney.
And that success led George Wyle to talk to the Wellingtons, who were still performing with Donald O’Connor, at least intermittently, in Vegas.
The four men sang the theme song and then later actually appeared in a Gilligan’s Island episode in 1965, playing a rock band modeled after the Beatles, in the episode, “Don’t Bug the Mosquitoes.”
A Little about the Eligibles
The Eligibles also sang the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. When the series switched to color episodes in the second season, Sherwood Schwartz hired a second band to perform the number.
No idea, but the song likely needed to be rerecorded once “and the rest” was removed from the lyrics and replaced with, “The Professor and Mary Ann,” and maybe it was cheaper to bring in The Eligibles.
Similar to The Wellingtons, The Eligibles consisted of four singers: Ron Hicklin, Ron Rolla, Bob Zwirn, Stan Farber.
Presumably, they called themselves that because they were all, when they started their group, eligible bachelors. In 1960, a newspaper columnist wrote of the four 22-year-olds: "By the bye, three of the Eligibles are phonies. They're married. Only one, Ron Rolla, is really, eligible."
Hicklin, Zwirn and Farber had all married in the late 1950s.
They also, like The Wellingtons, shared a similar career path. They were all from Renton, Washington, singing together since they were 10. They performed together in high school, calling themselves the Smooth Shavers, and for two years at the University of Washington. They then all dropped out and moved to Hollywood during the summer of 1957 but were advised to get more training. So they did, practicing singing in the day and working odd jobs at night.
Hicklin, second tenor, worked at the city's Valley Animal Shelter. Stan Farber, first tenor, was a bus boy at a restaurant. Bob Zwirn, baritone, worked in a photo lab. Rona Rolla, bass, sold records at a store in Hollywood. In January 1958, however, they all quit their jobs to look for singing gigs, and they were, slowly but surely, successful enough that they didn’t starve.
And then, apparently, they were drafted, or going to be, and so according to at least one 1959 account, they all enlisted in the California Air National Guard at the same time. Somewhere around that time, Capital Records signed them up to do an album and they recorded a couple songs before going into service.
By the early 1960s, the Eligibles were struggling. They at least weren’t being written about as they had been in 1959 and 1960, and many years later, Ron Rolla (or at least someone claiming to be him) in 2003 stated on a website that he left the band in 1963, which would suggest that he didn’t sing the Gilligan’s Island theme song, and that it was done by Hicklin, Zwirn and Farber.
In any case, singing the Gilligan's Island theme song doesn’t seem to have taken their careers to a new level. According to Rolla’s 2003 comment, he married and did some singing on the side but ended up going into the film production business.
Zwirn did some acting, most of which doesn’t appear on IMDB.com, but is mentioned in various newspaper archives in the 1970s. He did have a voice credit in the 1989 movie The Little Mermaid, but what voice he did, The TV Professor is not sure.
But Stan Farber and Ron Hicklin, according to a 1967 article in The Indianapolis News, eventually became part of a group called Candy Store Prophets and were singing for the first season of The Monkees.
Hey, hey, they were the Monkees.
A Little About Gerald Fried
Gerald Fried didn’t do any work on the Gilligan’s Island TV theme song, in the early days of Gilligan’s Island, but he ought to be mentioned because he was a composer for the series – and he worked on the theme song later, post-Gilligan’s Island when the series had reunion movies. So we can’t leave him out.
Gerald Fried was a journeyman composer, with his musical fingerprints on just about everything imaginable over the course of a six-decade career. He composed for movies, including Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. He composed the music for documentaries. He was awarded Emmy nominations for his music, and all in all, his work can be heard in 40 feature films and about three dozen TV movies and miniseries and various episodes of 40 TV series, including Star Trek, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and, yes, Gilligan’s Island.
According to Variety, because of Gilligan’s Island running in reruns pretty much forever, those episodes earned Mr. Fried more in royalties than anything else he ever worked on.
The actors on Gilligan’s Island famously received no royalties from the series.
Fried was interviewed in 2003 by the Television Academy and was asked about composing for Gilligan’s Island. He said that “it was easy work and fun to record.” He also said that it wasn’t exactly a challenge, but called it “enjoyable.” You get the sense from the interview that Fried wanted to remind people that he had a vast body of work beyond Gilligan’s Island, but he also didn’t want to trash the beloved series either.
After the Gilligan’s Island TV Pilot Was Finished
A TV screening audience was assembled, and the reviews were enthusiastic. Schwartz wrote in his book that the president of CBS Television, James T. Aubrey said to him: “Congratulations. I still hate your [censored] show, but the audience seems to love it, so we're putting it on.”
Aubrey also still felt that castaways should go to other places and have adventures, and so the two men came up with the compromise that if the ratings faltered, Schwartz would have the castaways leave the island and have adventures elsewhere. So here you thought it was Gilligan’s fault they were stuck on the island, or the scriptwriters, but it was actually the TV audience’s fault. As long as TV audience enjoyed the premise, those castaways weren’t going anywhere.
At least, for three years they went nowhere. By then, Aubrey was no longer the president of CBS, and William S. Paley was – and he famously cancelled Gilligan’s Island to make room for Gunsmoke on the TV schedule.
But in a way, Gilligan’s Island had its revenge, because it never really went away. During the 1970s, there were two Saturday morning cartoons, The New Adventures of Gilligan and Gilligan’s Planet, neither of which featured the famous TV song. But in the 1978 TV movie (a two-hour movie split into two one-hour part 1 and part 2 specials), Rescue From Gilligan’s Island, the same theme song was used (apparently the one with the Eligibles), with virtually no adjustment from the original cut, except that when the TV audience saw the castaways, we saw footage of them all looking 15 years older.
And then, Rescue From Gilligan’s Island was so popular, there was another TV movie the following year, The Castaways of Gilligan’s Island, and then in 1981, the world was given The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. I was 11 years old then, and even I knew things were getting bonkers.
As for the theme song, Sherwood Schwartz kept it in the final reunion movie, but by now, the lyrics had to be changed. He presumably rewrote those lyrics, too, while Gerald Fried handled the composing duties, and you have to admire how easily he tweaked them.
The lyrics for The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island went as follows:
The ship set ground on the shore of this uncharted desert isle,
where they were rescued one fine day but it took a long long while.
It took a long long while.
The Howells built a hotel here where the members rate their stay. With Gilligan, the Skipper, too, the millionaire, and his wife, the movie star, the professor and Mary Ann, here on Gilligan's Isle.
And it ended with:
Now this is the tale of our castaways and their delightful port of call. You're welcome to come back each week -- to get away from it all.
To get away from it all.
Where Gilligan, the skipper too, the Howells and the rest will try to make you comfortable in this tropic island nest. No planes, no lights, no motor cars or one good luxury. Without all those problems, in our society.
In our society.
So join us each week my friends, you're sure to get a smile, by staying at the castaway, here on Gilligan's Isle.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. The castaways remained on the island – but at least they were no longer stranded from civilization – but the series was finally off the air. That's too bad, or good, depending on your point of view. Sherwood Schwartz, in his autobiography, said that he was hoping to do at least one more follow-up: Murder on Gilligan's Island.
Schwartz said it would have have been a two-hour film in which one of the castaways would be "supposedly murdered." That “supposedly” is kind of a relief, suggesting that maybe Schwartz wasn’t actually planning to kill off a character.
As Schwartz envisioned it: "A group of famous detectives would come to the hotel on the island to solve the mystery. I wanted to use four or five famous detectives from literature, or four or five famous TV detectives."
Yeah, well, that would have been… something.
Where you can watch Gilligan's Island (at the time of this writing, anyway): As my Generation X peers know, Gilligan's Island used to be everywhere. Now, not so much. But you can still find episodes on Sunday afternoons on the cable channel, MeTV.
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