Every Saturday morning between 1973 and 1985, a classroom of
imagination defying enormity was assembled on ABC, run by a small cadre of
renegade Madison Avenue ad men. Class sessions were short but
intense-squeezed between episodes of Scooby Doo and LaffOlympics
and Underoos met the dress code. No one assigned homework, no one
slapped your knuckles with a yardstick, no one beat you up for your milk
money. The institution of learning was called Schoolhouse Rock, and
if you can recite the Preamble of the Constitution by rote and know the
function of a conjunction, you probably attended faithfully.
The series of animated cartoon shorts-41 segments in all-used appealingly goofy characters, catchy tunes and repetition (airing as often as seven times each weekend) to teach Fruity Pebbles consumers about multiplication tables, the parts of speech, American history, science and computer mechanics. Schoolhouse Rock's genesis took place in 1971 when David McCall, chairman of big-time New York ad agency McCaffrey & McCall, noticed that his son could sing every Beatles and Stones lyric ever recorded but couldn't handle simple multiplication tables. His solution was simple: Link math with contemporary music and the kids will breeze through school on a song. To implement his idea, McCall turned to his agency's creative staff, who passed the songwriting chores over to a traditional Broadway jingle house with less than brilliant results. Fortunately, agency co-ercive director George Newall suggested they hire Bob Dorough, a Texas jazz musician with a knack for infectious grooves. The composer/pianist accepted the mission with great enthusiasm, plowing through his daughter's arithmetic books and plunking out notes until he'd created the soothing ballad "Three Is a Magic Number."
McCall loved the results, but being an advertising executive, he demanded statistical proof that the world at large would love it too. Only after test audiences (consisting of elementary-school students and university professors, who verified the accuracy of each song released) gave the tune a thumbs-up did McCall approve the release of "Three Is a Magic Number" as a phonograph record, which, along with several other songs, eventually was released by Capitol Records under the title Multiplication Rock.
The ad men hoped to secure a workbook tie-in deal to go along with the record, but when that fell through, they decided to do an animated adaptation using their own money. M&M's other creative director, Tom Yohe, sat down at his kitchen table to draw up some storyboards, and "Three Is a Magic Number" was transformed into sound and motion for the sum of "$15,000 or some ridiculous amount like that," says Schoolhouse Rock producer Radford Stone.
The next major hurdle involved finding a market for the spot. At the time, ABC was devoting a lot of time to fretting about the naughtiness and violence of their programming and had begun to buckle under parental and political pressure to clean up their act. Of particular concern was the commercial content of its Saturday-morning lineup. Enter Radford Stone proposing a series of educational and otherwise socially redeeming cartoons.
ABC's head of children's programming at the time, a guy named Michael Eisner (yes, that Michael Eisner), and his animation advisor, Chuck Jones, fell prey to the charms of "Three Is a Magic Number." They gave the agency the go ahead to produce segments for the rest of the multiplication tables-with the bulk of animation provided by Phil Kimmelman & Associates, a production company specializing in animation for advertising. The network, however, didn't want to surrender advertising revenue every time they taught a few million kids the answer to three times six. McCaffrey & McCall had a solution. They convinced another one of their clients, General Foods, to sponsor Schoolhouse Rock, thus giving GF the good name and ABC the big bucks. In a further triumph of innovative business strategies, Eisner instructed Hollywood animation studios like Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. to cut three-minute modules from their shows. That way, ABC could use the extra time to run the Schoolhouse Rock segments, and when the shows went into syndication, the three-minute modules could be restored. The studios grumbled, but even then Michael Eisner had the muscle to push his wishes through. With all the behind-the-scenes deals out of the way, Schoolhouse Rock premiered on the weekend of January 6-7, 1973, with "My Hero Zero," "Elementary, My Dear," "Three Is a Magic Number" and "The Four-Legged Zoo."
George Newall remembers the original recording sessions with fondness, remarking, "Going to those sessions was wonderful, because in those days, real guys came in and played real instruments, and New York had the best session players in the world. Nowadays, instead of a roomful of musicians, you've got three guys standing around with Proteus modules."
Grammar Rock succeeded Multiplication Rock, drilling the parts of speech into youngsters' heads. Joining the creative team for the new segments was Lynn Ahrens, a secretary at the ad agency. One day, Newall spied her walking through the office with a guitar case, and when he asked her if she played, she performed for him on the spot impressing him so much that the agency made her a copywriter. Not long after, she wrote and sang on "A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing" and several other classic SHR spots. Since then, Ahrens has gone on to earn five Tony nominations for her work on the Broadway musicals Once on This Island and My Favorite Year.
By 1976, a patriotic fervor had gripped the nation. Kids were hoarding bicentennial quarters and riding around on red, white and blue Huffys. Schoolhouse Rock responded with segments about American history, which they produced underthe banner America Rock, and which ABC, for reasons mysterious, called History Rock. The lessons became more ambitious, now addressing such topics as Colonial military prowess ("The Shot Heard 'Round the World"), the concept of Manifest Destiny ("Elbow Room"), and women's rights ("Sufferin' Till Suffage").
"Mother Necessity," in particular, proved a logistical nightmare. Says Bob Dorough, "We used all of our Schoolhouse Rocksingers, and we had to record 20 seconds in Los Angeles, then fly to New York to record another five seconds there, and so on." The result was a mixed jumble of melodies linked by a two-line chorus. Not that the spot wasn't as influential on society as the rest of SHR. A Radio City Music Hall show celebrating the nation's utter greatness saw the Rockettes dancing behind projected scenes from SHR, including an image culled from "Mother Necessity"-a towering smokestack with Tom Yohe's name painted boldly up its side. "Each letter was about the size of my head," reports Yohe.
Perhaps even more memorable was "I'm Just a Bill," in which a depressed little scroll of paper is dragged through the labyrinthine legislative process by which a bill becomes law. Not surprisingly, a number of government agencies and lobbyists asked for copies to educate their own staffs.
Although no one found any controversy in times tables or parts of speech, ABC did have a problem with one America Rock segment, "Three Ring Government," which dealt with the system of checks and balances among the three branches of government. Skittish in dealings with the FCC, ABC didn't want to risk insulting bureaucrats with "Three Ring's" circus motif, and the segment didn't air until several years after it had been produced.
Science Rock followed next, exploring such topics as the human circulatory system, depletion of the Earth's energy resources, and electrodynamics. One song frequently requested on this series was "Telegraph Line," about the nervous system. "Most of the requests came from medical schools," Tom Yohe recalls, "which doesn't give me a lot of confidence in our medical system. They wanted to show it to first-year medical students. It explained in a very simple, graphic way how the nervous system works."
The final Schoolhouse Rock series, Scooter Computer and Mr. Chips, was something of a departure from the previous format. The four segments feature SHR's only recurring characters, Scooter Computer (a fairly dorky-looking skateboard rat) and Mr. Chips (a roller-skating terminal about as clunky as the kind Matthew Broderick used in War Games). Its only reason for being, according to Radford Stone, was "the misapprehension that children have a phobia about computers." Stone barely considers Scooter part of SHR, and, in fact, none of the SHR creative team seem to recall who contributed what to Scooter. And since the Schoolhouse Rock archives, including the animation cels, were destroyed after it went off the air, no one is sure what the Scooter segments' official titles are. "No one remembers them," says Stone.
Over the course of its 12-year run, Schoolhouse Rock received many accolades from parents, professional educators and television insiders, even winning four Emmys for Outstanding Children's Programming. But by 1985, ABC's commitment to quality children's television had waned. Those attentive to such matters might have seen it coming, for during the previous year, ABC had begun sneaking spots that featured Tiger Beat faves Menudo in place of Schoolhouse Rock segments. And by 1985, ABC had become smitten with the dentally-endowed Mary Lou Retton and replaced Schoolhouse Rock altogether with Retton's exercise spots. Mary Lou only lasted a year ("Kids don't want to sit there eating their Sugar Frosted Flakes and suddenly break a sweat," opines Yohe), but the reign ofSchoolhouse Rock was over. Over, at least, temporarily.
In 1987, Golden Book Video released Schoolhouse Rock on tape. But things weren't quite the same. Actress Cloris Leachman and a litter of annoying, singing children now introduced the timeless segments, and to make room for Cloris and the gang, some spots, including "Three Ring Government," "The Good Eleven" and "Little Twelve Toes" were not included on the videos. Tom Yohe deeply regrets the omissions. Regarding Cloris Leachman, he says, "She's just hideous. She is the antithesis of what we wanted to do."
In reference to the Golden Book Video releases in general, Dorough states, "The quality is poor and there is also some new, inappropriate and inferior material not written by me and more or-less sung by Cloris Leachman and some kids." Dorough also makes a point of noting that he "hasn't gotten any royalties from these videos yet."
Fortunately, the news gets better. Last year ABC once again made room for Schoolhouse Rock in their Saturday morning lineup, initiating the minds of another generation. And orders have been placed for three new segments. "Busy P's," which fills us in on the part of speech long missing from Grammar Rock-prepositions-premiered in October 1993. December saw the introduction of "The Tale of Mr. Morton," a Lynn Ahrens composition about subject and predicate. A third, currently untitled segment promises to teach kids the value of the dollar. "It was originally supposed to be about the deficit," says George Newall, "but it was too complicated a subject to take on. It's too bad, really. I was thinking about all the PR possibilities. We could have taken it to Washington and maybe taught Bill Clinton something."
Newall likens the recording sessions for the new spots to a "lovefest." The old creative team, from Tom Yohe and Bob Dorough to Jack Sheldon and the original backup singers, were reunited to work on something that began as a side project and evolved into one of the best-known and best-loved television series ever. "More kids saw Schoolhouse Rock than ever watched Sesame Street," says Newall with an amazed laugh. "And the big irony is that it was all done by a bunch of ad guys in their spare time."