'Gilligan's Island' at 50: A Classic Comedy's Surprising Musical Legacy

Joal Ryan
·Contributor

Gilligan's Island is 50 years old. Its music is timeless.

"'Just sit right back, and you'll hear a tale...' The catchy theme from Gilligan’s Island is etched in the memories of generations of Americans, including mine!" Rick Bogard, music professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said via email. "The familiar five-note intro is sure to send me to the television to watch another rerun of one of the favorite shows of my childhood."

Indeed, "The Ballad of Gilligan's Isle," written by sitcom creator and executive producer Sherwood Schwartz and George Wyle at the behest of network execs who worried audiences wouldn't understand how a shipmate (Bob Denver), a skipper (Alan Hale Jr.), a millionaire (Jim Backus), and the rest came to be stranded together on an uncharted island, is oft-cited as a TV favorite. (It was named the greatest theme song of all-time in our 2013 Yahoo TV reader poll.)

Over the course of three seasons and 98 episodes, plus a long-"lost" pilot, Gilligan's Island, which premiered Sept. 26, 1964, showed itself capable of being more than a one-hit wonder. (It even eventually inspired a musical.) Here's a look at five other Gilligan gems and curiosities:

1. The original theme song from the original pilot

It's calypso-y, and it's not as catchy as the theme song we came to know and get stuck in our heads, but it's not charmless, either. Its biggest asset is its backstory: The music was composed by the thirtysomething John Williams (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jaws). The song, with lyrics by Schwartz, made its belated public debut in 1992 when TBS aired the previously unaired pilot. (Take note: In this version, the S.S. Minnow's sightseeing tour was supposed to last six, not three, hours.)

2. "Let Me Entertain You"

One of the big changes from the pilot to the show's launch was the ditching of the two female secretary characters (played by Kit Smythe and Nancy McCarthy) in favor of one movie actress (Ginger Grant, played by Tina Louise) and one fresh-faced farm innocent (Mary Ann Summers, played by Dawn Wells). The Ginger-Mary Ann dynamic launched a thousand debates, while Ginger singlehandedly gave the island pizazz — and an excuse to build a stage, host the occasional play or beauty pageant (as in Season 2's "Beauty Is as Beauty Does"), and let Miss Grant do her best Marilyn Monroe, which was pretty good. Since Monroe never recorded "Let Me Entertain You," it's possible Ginger was actually doing her best Ann-Margret, who covered the tune from Gypsy in 1963. 

3. "Don't Bug Me" and "He's a Loser"

The Archies didn't need guitar plugs, amps and mics, and neither did the Mosquitoes, the shipwrecked band from Season 2's "Don't Bug the Mosquitoes." If you're expecting realism from Gilligan's Island (or from the Archies, for that matter), then you've got the wrong show, if not the wrong primetime decade. Your enjoyment of these two enjoyable bubblegum pop pieces likewise will be enhanced if you ignore the blatant mockery of the Beatles and Beatlemania. Remember: It was 1965; blatant mockery was the only weapon the mainstream media had to (try to) stave off youth culture.

4. "You Need Us"

With all respect to the Mosquitoes, it's the Honeybees who steal the show in "Don't Bug the Mosquitoes" (which is the dramatic point, such as it was, of the episode). Louise, who recorded an album in the 1950s, It's Time for Tina, is in fine whispery voice. Wells sounds wonderful as well because, according to her, she's not singing. (We couldn't find an original, first-hand source to confirm one of the Internet's favorite bits of trivia: that "What the World Needs Now Is Love" singer Jackie DeShannon was Wells's vocal stand-in.) And then there's Natalie Schafer, as the moneyed Lovey Howell, who works it as few 65-year-olds have ever worked it on the pop stage. 

5. "To Be or Not to Be"

"My introduction to both Hamlet and the opera Carmen was through a Gilligan's Island episode," author Karen Lynn Allen once wrote in a blog post that rings true for, well, anyone who was introduced to both William Shakespeare's Hamlet and the opera Carmen through Gilligan's Island. By the day's standards, Season 3's "The Producer" is nothing less than an extravaganza, featuring three songs, including Gilligan's soliloquy, and direction by the pioneering filmmaker Ida Lupino. The episode represents a high note for a series that liked to sing quite a bit.

Here are the top five things to do while stranded on Gilligan's Island: