February 24, 1986 12:00 PM

In the summer of 1984, when most of his fellow Harvard Law School grads were settling into their first preposterously well-paid jobs, Steven Gottlieb made what some people would regard as a preposterous decision. “I had spent years telling myself I was going to be an entrepreneur,” says Gottlieb, now 28. “That summer I realized it was time to fish or cut bait.”

Gottlieb fished and came up with a vinyl whopper. Television’s Greatest Hits, a two-album collection of classic TV-theme music that Gottlieb compiled, recorded and marketed, has sold 225,000 copies and become one of the few independently distributed records ever to crack Billboard’s Top 100. “My goal wasn’t to make a killing,” says the neophyte producer, who, with the album typically retailing for a profitable $16.95, is doing quite well nonetheless. “The charge is not the money, but succeeding.”

After a short introduction from veteran announcer Don Pardo, Television’s Greatest Hits unfolds as an imaginary sunrise-to-sign-off viewing day that starts with Captain Kangaroo and The Little Rascals, cruises through Mr. Ed, Bonanza and 77 Sunset Strip, and winds down with the Tonight Show and the National Anthem. Though the record has built-in appeal to anyone who watched TV in the ’50s and ’60s, Gottlieb says he has little in common with all those conspicuous consumers who were born when TV began its boom. “I didn’t watch much TV when I was a kid,” he says. “I usually lose at Trivial Pursuit. Well, maybe now I’d have an edge.”

Gottlieb, raised in New Rochelle, N.Y., holds a B.A. in literature from Yale as well as his law degree. His late father was an entrepreneur who launched a successful gift and houseware business from his home. Today Gottlieb, who is single, runs his one-man company out of a studio apartment on Manhattan’s Central Park South. Surprisingly it’s a business built on an idea that he admits is not original.

“There have been hundreds of TV-theme collections,” he says. “It’s the kind of idea people have at cocktail parties every day of the week. But nobody ever did it right. It was always seen as strictly a TV sound-track album, for TV fanatics only. What I’m selling is pop culture, Americana, American musical kitsch. These songs are part of the American landscape.”

Gottlieb spent ten months scouring the landscape to put his collection together. “I tracked down every show and searched for the music,” he recalls. “I thought [the shows’ production companies] would have master tapes stored away somewhere. Unfortunately television is not a great medium for preserving music.” He was unable, for example, to find a usable tape from The Lone Ranger TV show and had to make do with recordings from the old radio series. The original tapes from Star Trek, Gottlieb learned, had been destroyed in a flood. “It was like detective work,” he says. “I had to follow every lead, and when I’d hit a dead end, I’d hunt for another clue.”

Of the 65 songs in the Greatest Hits collection, 30 eventually had to be completely re-created, often using scratchy videotape sound tracks as a guide. The project, which cost $250,000, most of it invested by friends, was almost scrapped when Gottlieb realized that re-creations would be unavoidable. “I knew I was dealing with the American subconscious and people weren’t going to be easy on me,” he says. “The re-creations had to be perfect.” Luckily, says Gottlieb, the Los Angeles producer and session musicians hired to make the duplications thought the project was a hoot. “The musicians loved it,” he says. “Everyone wanted to be the guy who did the drums on Hawaii Five-O or the sax lick at the beginning of My Three Sons.” Some sound effects, including the famous whistle from The Andy Griffith Show, had to be artificially re-created. Gottlieb says the producer “auditioned a lot of whistlers, but the synthesizer was better.”

Alas, even Gottlieb admits that Greatest Hits isn’t perfect; everyone, he says, “has a favorite theme song that’s missing.” Among the missing are the musical signatures of Bewitched, Car 54 Where Are You? and The Untouchables, to name a few. But where others see a flaw, the entrepreneur sees an opportunity. Says Gottlieb, “That means there’s a built-in market for Volume II.”

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