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Space Age Music Maker

Walter Schumann

  • Born 8 October 1913, New York City, New York
  • Died 21 August 1958, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Although the mellifluous Voices of Walter Schumann are familiar to thrift-store frequenters, what most of us remember him by the four-note intro to his theme for the TV series, "Dragnet." We've all heard these notes so many times that the "Dum Duh-Dum-Dum" motif has become synonymous with law enforcement and any other form of authority.

Schumann himself had an early run-in with the law. In his case, it was as a student at the University of Southern California Law School, which he quit to devote his energies to turning his college dance band into a full-time gig. Although the band eventually went by the wayside, Schumann quickly found success in the music business. In the late 1930s, he worked with such diverse talents as Eddie Cantor (on his radio show) and Andre Kostelanetz.

When the U.S. entered World War Two, Schumann joined the Army, where he became the musical director of the Armed Forces Radio Service and had the opportunity to work with many of the most popular acts of the time. He conducted the stage orchestra that accompanied the very successful tour of Irving Berlin's patriotic revue, "This is the Army." After the war, he returned to L.A., where he worked the motion picture and television studios, primarily as a conductor and arranger.

Most of Schumann's television and film work has long been forgotten, although he did score the Charles Laughton-Robert Mitchum cult favorite, "The Night of the Hunter." His theme for "Dragnet," Jack Webb's long-running series about the deadpan, "Just the facts, Ma'm" L.A. police detective, Sgt. Joe Friday, however, won him an Emmy in 1955 and has been reused and sampled thousands of times.

In between his studio work, Schumann pursued a love of choral music. He collaborated with the poet Stephen Vincent Benet on musical version of Benet's Pulitzer Prize-winning poem, "John Brown's Body," that was produced on Broadway. He recorded a number of albums for Capitol and RCA Victor with his group, the Voices of Walter Schumann. Much of this music falls in the same category as Jackie Gleason's string albums: professional and predictable. Here and there, however, you can find a cut worth a second listen, such as their interpretations of "In a Little Spanish Town" or David Rose's "Holiday for Strings." Schumann and his group appeared on "The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show" for its first season, but were dropped in favor of more musical guest spots.

The real gem for space age pop fans is his album, Exploring the Unknown, a delicious sample of space fantasy. Selections of original choral pieces by Schumann are interspersed with descriptive passages narrated by Paul Frees. In a day when no one pays much attention to another launch of the Space Shuttle, the sense of awe at the possibilities of space travel displayed in Exploring the Unknown is truly refreshing.

Schumann died suddenly in 1958 from complications resulting from undergoing one of the first open heart surgeries in the U.S..


  • The Voices of Walter Schumann, Capitol T 297
  • Exploring the Unknown, RCA Victor LPM-1025
  • Night of the Hunter soundtrack, RCA Victor LPM-1136
    reissued on Bear Family CD 16263
  • Not A Word Was Spoken, RCA Victor LPM-1266
  • The Voices of Christmas, RCA Victor LPM-1411
  • Scrapbook, RCA Victor LPM-1465
  • When We Were Young, RCA Victor LPM-1477

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