February 17, 2011
John Strauss, Composer of `Car 54' Theme, Dies at 90
By MARGALIT FOX
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?
Ask almost anyone over 50, and the song pours buoyantly forth, evoking one of television's best-loved comedies.
The lyrics, by Nat Hiken, the show's creator, capture New York in all its frenzied geography. But they would never have been as singable - or as enduringly etched in public memory - had they not been set to John Strauss's jaunty march-time tune.
Mr. Strauss, an Emmy-winning composer and music editor who wrote the theme music for "Car 54, Where Are You?" and "The Phil Silvers Show" (familiarly known as "Sergeant Bilko"), died on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 90 and a longtime Los Angeles resident.
The cause was complications of Parkinson's disease, his son, Larry, said.
Mr. Strauss received an Emmy for sound editing in 1978 for his work on the TV movie "The Amazing Howard Hughes," and a Grammy in 1984 for producing the soundtrack album of the film "Amadeus."
But it was for "Car 54" that he remained best known. Broadcast on NBC from 1961 to 1963, the show opens with its stars, Fred Gwynne and Joe E. Ross, blithely cruising the city in their squad car (they can be seen playing checkers on the dashboard as they drive), oblivious of the catastrophes erupting throughout the city.
Melodically, the opening bars of Mr. Strauss's theme song recall the start of the second movement of Mozart's G major Piano Trio (K. 564). As the song ends, the title question hangs in the air in plaintive treble.
John Leonard Strauss was born in New York on April 28, 1920, and began piano lessons as a boy. After Army service in France and North Africa in World War II, he studied composition with Paul Hindemith at Yale.
"The Accused," a one-woman opera by Mr. Strauss with a libretto by Sheppard Kerman, was broadcast in 1961 on "Camera Three" on CBS. Centering on the Salem witch trials, the opera was conducted by Julius Rudel and sung by the soprano Patricia Neway.
Mr. Strauss's marriage to the actress Charlotte Rae ended in divorce. His partner afterward, Lionel Friedman, died in 2003. (Mr. Hiken died in 1968.)
Besides his son, Larry, Mr. Strauss is survived by three grandchildren.
His film credits, as music editor, include "Take the Money and Run," "Bananas," "Hair," "The Blues Brothers," "Zoot Suit" and "Ragtime."
Mr. Strauss was the music coordinator on "Amadeus," in which he also appeared briefly on screen as a conductor, complete with powdered wig.