New York Series: “Car 54, Where Are You?”

If you grew up in the early 1960s, or watched Nick at Nite in the late 1980s, you probably remember this theme song:

An ear worm if there ever was one, the theme song to Car 54, Where Are You? is one of the greatest in television history and one that traverses four of New York City’s boroughs in just 16 seconds of the 29 second theme song. Meanwhile, Officer Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross) and Officer Francis Muldoon (the legendary Fred Gwynne) are playing checkers on the dashboard of the titular Car 54.

For a run of 60 episodes, starting on September 17, 1961, Car 54, Where Are You? was the start of a career for a few of the actors on the show, and served as one of the early examples of portraying police, fire and even the military in more comedic situations than had been the custom on TV and in cinema.

The cast also included Al Lewis as Officer Leo Schnauser; Charlotte Rae as Sylvia Schnauser; Nipsey Russell as Officer Dave Anderson and Paul Reed as Captain Paul Block. Guest stars were a staple of the show, and featured notable names including Tom Bosley, Hugh Downs, Hal Linden, Charles Nelson Reilly, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jean Stapleton and many more.

Car 54, Where Are You? aired on Sunday nights from 8:30–9:00 p.m. on NBC, following Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and preceding Bonanza. The show wrapped up on April 14, 1963 after two seasons.

Created by Nat Hiken and with theme song and lyrics composed by John Strauss, Car 54, Where Are You? had multiple directors, including Hiken, Al De Caprio, and Stanley Prager. The show was filmed on location and in the Bronx at Biograph Studios, which burned down in 1980 and now is the home of the New York Department of Sanitation. The show was nominated for four Emmys, winning one for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy for Nat Hiken in 1962.

In order to renew the show for a third season, NBC wanted to negotiate a part ownership deal for the show. Hiken would not agree to the deal and the show’s sponsor, Proctor and Gamble, could not convince CBS into taking the show over, where there was no room on the schedule. Hiken had become burnt out with writing, directing, and overseeing the show, and becoming exhausted with issues on the show, he ended the show after the second season and never worked on anothre series again. Not maintaining the success of the first two years – where the show placed in the top 20 of shows each week – led to cancellation in 1963. Hiken would pass away a few years later at age 54.

car 54 where are you

An early show that made light of the boys in blue, viewers did find enjoyment in the show, as seen in Nyack, NY where a patrol car was stolen from the police station parking lot was given the nickname “Car 54.” Not every police officer liked the show, leading one high-ranking New York police official, speaking anonymously, said he’d have liked to see the show cancelled as he believed it made all policemen look morons. “Being a policeman is a grim and humourless business, not at all funny,” he was quoted as saying.

Still, while being set in the fictional 53rd precinct in the Bronx, Car 54, Where Are You? was filmed at a studio in the Bronx’s real-life 48th Precinct, where the captain of the 48th made the show aware that he and his men found the show amusing and enjoyed it in their squad room.

Gwynne and Lewis would go on to greater fame in The Munsters, and Gwynne would write children’s books while extending his acting career into the early 1990s with his memorable role in My Cousin Vinny.

Joe E. Ross would provide vocals on a popular Milt Jackson jazz track, “The Oo-Oo Bossa Nova” on the album Jazz and Samba, a reference to Officer Toody’s trademark catch phrase “Oo-Oo.”

In the early 1980s, the show’s theme song is parodied as “Mario, Where Are You?” in an Atari commercial for Mario Bros. video game.

The lyrics to the theme song include five calls to respond to that lie in and outside the 53rd precinct: a hold up in the Bronx, fighting in Brooklyn, a traffic jam that spans from Harlem to Jackson Heights in Queens (a stretch of 7 miles), a missing child report and the head of state of the U.S.S.R. arriving at the future JFK Airport who presumably needs a police escort a mere 17 miles away. Can Muldoon and Toody really be expected to handle all these crises at the same time? Of course not, but the myriad of duties these two and their station are needed for expresses a positive view of the police in the early 1960s, keeping the role comical yet respectable. But was Car 54, Where Are You? an early form of copaganda, or just a light-hearted look at an integrated precinct in the melting pot of New York City?

The line “Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild” is the only part of the theme song that reference real events (although a cross-borough traffic jam is not out of the question), dating to September 1960, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev flew into Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport) to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

car 54 where are you

Debuting in the 1960 when merchandising became a key part of any major network show, there were multiple comic books based on Car 54, Where Are You?, as well as a board game, a car model, and puppets of Toody and Muldoon.

The Car 54, Where Are You? board game

A reboot of the show took place on the big screen in 1994 when Orion Pictures released what would be a bomb in Car 54, Where Are You? Starring David Johansen (of New York Dolls and Buster Poindexter Fame) as Officer Toody and John C. McGinley as Officer Muldoon, they were joined by original-series cast members Al Lewis and Nipsey Russell, and accompanied by Fran Drescher, Rosie O’Donnell, Daniel Baldwin, Jeremy Piven, Tone Loc, The Ramones and Penn and Teller. Among the reasons the movie bombed – the movie was filmed as a musical, but most numbers were later cut, leaving the movie to the dustbin of Hollywood.

A Car 54, Where Are You? comic book

A classic television show set in the Bronx, Car 54, Where Are You? serves as an early TV show set in the Bronx with a legacy that goes beyond its memorable theme song.

Car 54, Where Are You?” theme-song lyrics

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?

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