Every “Andy Griffith Show” episode begins with Andy and Opie heading to the fishing hole as opening credits roll — but imagine how empty that sequence would be without the familiar theme song being whistled along the way.
Thanks to the creativity of Earle Hagen, that tune — appropriately titled “The Fishin’ Hole” — and other music he composed has become just as big a part of the show as its characters and plot lines, while arguably enhancing the effectiveness of both.
Hagen provided music for 249 of the 268 episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show,” which included not only creating its catchy theme but lending his whistling skills to that tune.
The composer, who worked on a number of television shows and died in 2008 at the age of 88, had attended the Mayberry Days celebration one time several years before that. Now Hagen’s wife Laura is filling the void at this week’s festival celebrating the TV series that was a big part of his life.
“He loved ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ he loved Andy Griffith,” she said during a telephone interview earlier this week. “He was just so ingrained in that show.”
Hagen, a trombone player, performed with the big bands of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman early in his career.
Bringing characters to life
As a dedicated musician who later crossed over into what was then the growing medium of television in the early 1950s, Hagen recognized the importance of music in the production process. This also was understood by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, whose films are greatly enhanced by the dramatic or classical music they relied on to help propel the story.
Hagen brought that philosophy to his TV work, most notably “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“He used to say that the music is about bringing the characters to life and the story to life,” Laura Hagen said. This was not aimed at overshadowing the script or characters, but highlighting them.
“And he was very good at that,” Mrs. Hagen said.
In addition to the theme song, Earle Hagen’s magic is woven throughout the Griffith show’s fabric.
“He also composed pieces to different characters,” Mrs. Hagen said, such as the “Barney’s manhunt” music that heightening the tension when the Mayberry deputy was tracking down a desperate criminal.
“All these different compositions he did to express the characters,” she said of how Hagen used music to set the mood for various scenes. “And he loved doing that.”
Hagen’s work on “The Andy Griffith Show” also reflected his resourcefulness, since unlike big-budget movies, TV shows have tended to be confined to tight budgetary and shooting schedules.
Such limitations faced by “The Andy Griffith Show” producers in the early 1960s led to Hagen quickly improvising theme music for the program rather than seeking outside talent to write and perform it, including whistling the tune himself.
After Executive Producer Sheldon Leonard heard what resulted and liked it, he matched the song to the opening footage of Andy and Opie traipsing to the lake — and the rest is history.
“When he created the theme,” Mrs. Hagen recalled of her husband’s composition, “he thought it should be something simple that people could whistle.”
Many “Andy Griffith Show” fans might be unaware that there are words to the opening theme, which has become firmly entrenched in Mayberry lore and one of the reasons behind its longevity.
“And maybe it’s because of the simplicity,” Mrs. Hagen said of the song, which she also believes is why “The Andy Griffith Show” has remained popular for so many years.
Mayberry Days embraced
At some point, the sheet music for “The Fishin’ Hole” fell into the hands of Emmett Forrest, who amassed a huge collection of Andy Griffith memorabilia that formed the basis for the local museum established in the hometown star’s honor.
When Earle Hagen attended Mayberry Days about 15 years ago, Forrest had him autograph the sheet music.
“He was the grand marshal for the parade (that year),” Laura Hagen said of Earle, “and I got to come with him — that was my introduction to Mayberry Days.”
And though her husband has died, she is maintaining the family’s ties to the event by participating in it whenever she can.
“This will be my third or fourth time,” Hagen added of this week’s gathering, which she appreciates being able to attend for multiple reasons.
“First of all, the atmosphere, and going back in time,” she said of the simpler, more peaceful existence Mayberry Days promotes.
“I enjoy the people, and the cast members who are able to show up,” Mrs. Hagen continued.
Along with greeting the fans, she has relished the chance to mingle with other Mayberry celebrities over the years such as Elinor Donahue (Ellie Walker), Betty Lynn (Thelma Lou) and Maggie Peterson (Charlene Darling).
And her husband’s memory is always a big part of the proceedings, said Mrs. Hagen, who loves to discuss his involvement with a major piece of television history.
“I love to share who Earle was.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.