David Kahn

Duluth native and TV theme song writer David Kahn. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Nearly every baby boomer is familiar with the theme song to Leave it to Beaver, the still-popular television sitcom from the 1950s and 1960s, but few people know that the song was written by a Duluth native. Dave Kahn wrote that and other television theme music and probably hundreds of pieces of music used on television and in the movies.

Dave was born David Kohn in Duluth on October 14, 1910. His parents were Frank and Bessie Kohn, both of whom were born in Russia. Frank came to the United States in 1897, moved to Minnesota, and found work with the DM&IR railroad, first in Two Harbors and then in Duluth. Bessie came to the United States around 1900 with her parents, Abraham and Lena Slonim, and several brothers and sisters. Frank and Bessie were married in Duluth in 1903, and lived for years in a house at 521 East Seventh Street. They had three sons: Morris, born in 1905; David, born in 1910; and Wilber, born in 1921.

Both Morris and Dave demonstrated musical talent at an early age. They both attended Franklin School and studied violin at the Bradbury School of Music in Duluth. They performed locally as early as age six, Dave often being referred to in the local newspapers as “the well-known little violinist.” Dave attended Central High School but apparently did not graduate. He played saxophone in the school band as a sophomore.

Dave left Duluth around 1929 for a career as a musician. He traveled around the country in the 1930s, playing with bands such as the Glenn Lee Orchestra, Pinky Tomlin, Clyde McCoy, and the Dorseys. Morris, in the meantime, had moved to New York City and was working as a musician there. About 1932, Dave married Anna Mae Deal. They would be married for sixty-three years until her death in 1995.

Dave was living in Los Angeles when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps on September 29, 1942. After the war, he began working as an orchestrator for some low-budget films, such as My Pal Trigger (1946), Night Train to Memphis (1946), and The Long Night (1947), and as orchestrator and composer of music for films such as Sioux City Sue (1946), The Gallant Legion (1948), and Hills of Oklahoma (1950). Dave was gaining a reputation as a skilled composer, and in 1952 he was hired to write some music for the TV series Hopalong Cassidy, with William Boyd and Edgar Buchanan. He continued to compose for movies through the 1950s and got more jobs in the burgeoning television industry.

In 1955, he was hired to come up with a theme song for the new show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for which he arranged a version of Charles Gounod’s song, Funeral March of a Marionette. In addition to the now-familiar theme music, Dave wrote background music for many episodes of that show. He also wrote the theme music for the television shows Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (“Riff Blues”), Flight, and Overland Trail (starring William Bendix and Doug McClure).

In 1957, he was asked to write a theme song for a new series called Leave it to Beaver. As Dave related in a 2004 interview, recorded when he was ninety-four years old, he was simply told in 1957 that it would be a show about kids—he hadn’t met any of the actors nor had he seen a pilot of the show when he wrote the theme, which he titled Toy Parade. The show as well as the song have endured over the years; in 2003 the music was used in an Old Navy commercial.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Dave continued to work as music editor or music coordinator and write episode music for a large number of television series, including Petticoat Junction, The Addams Family, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Simon & Simon. He also served as music editor for movies such as Electra Glide in Blue (1973) and Animal House (1978). In 1984, Dave and his music crew were nominated for an Emmy award in the category Outstanding Film Sound Editing for a Series for Simon & Simon.

Dave Kahn died on July 3, 2008, at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, at the age of ninety-seven.

Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.