How 'Schoolhouse Rock!' Works


How 'Schoolhouse Rock!' Works
On Saturday mornings, the three-minute long musical vignettes of "Schoolhouse Rock!" educated children about math, grammar, science, history and finance. ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

Good morning, sleepyhead. It's Jan. 6, 1973. Time to grab a blueberry Pop-Tart, sit too close to the TV and watch cartoons.

It may seem like a normal Saturday, but something important is about to happen. Between your favorite ABC series like "Super Friends" and "The Road Runner Show," you're going to spend three minutes learning about multiplication [source: Hesse]. On the weekend. In your PJs. Without even knowing it.

It's called "Schoolhouse Rock" and it's going to change the way children learn. "Schoolhouse Rock" is an interstitial programming series, which is a fancy term for short videos between regular-length shows. It's the brainchild of a New York City advertising executive who got the idea to make learning multiplication tables easier by pairing them with music kids hear on the radio. That idea became a song, that song became a few frames of storyboard, and a few meetings later, it became ABC's first foray into educational programming [source: Newall and Yohe].

Each Schoolhouse Rock video is animated, three minutes or less, and full of catchy music and lyrics that will be stuck in your head for decades to come. The concept is themed in seasons — Multiplication Rock, Grammar Rock and more. It will run in the Saturday morning slot through the middle of 1985, then return for a few years in the mid-1990s. With a few changes here and there, the original creators, singers and songwriters will be there for the show's birth, death, resurrection, and the many tributes and celebrations in the decades that follow.

But right now, the only thing between you and the premiere of a pop culture icon is a few feet of shag carpet and one of the catchiest theme songs of all time:

As your body grows bigger

Your mind grows flowered

It's great to learn

'Cause knowledge is power!

It's Schoolhouse Rocky

That chip off the block

Of your favorite schoolhouse

Schoolhouse Rock!

[source: Schoolhouserock.tv]

How 'Schoolhouse Rock!' Began

How 'Schoolhouse Rock!' Began
An original painted production cell of "Ready or Not" from the Multiplication Rock series counting by fives was part of a 1997 exhibit at Cal State Fullerton. Kari Rene Hall/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In the early 1970s, David McCall, co-owner of New York ad agency McCaffrey & McCall, took his family on vacation to a dude ranch in Wyoming. Along the way, it struck him that his son, who was having trouble memorizing multiplication tables in school, knew every word of the Rolling Stones songs on the radio. Was there a way to combine math and the sounds of the '70s [source: Nobleman]?

Back at the office, McCall ran the idea by George Newall, who was then a co-creative director at the agency. Newall thought the idea had legs, so McCall asked one of the agency's jingle writers to create a song. What came back didn't feel quite right, so Newall, who was also a jazz pianist, reached out to Bob Dorough, another jazz pianist and composer who'd written engaging songs about everyday items like mattress tags [source: Newall and Yohe].

"I don't know how I lucked out," the 93-year-old Dorough says. "Apparently [McCall] tried other songwriters but most of them wrote down to kids. When I met McCall, he said, 'Here's my idea. Give it a try. But don't write down to the kids.' When he said that, I got a chill. I have a high opinion of children."

Dorough went home and spent some time with his daughter's textbooks. He returned a few weeks later with "Three is a Magic Number," an insanely addictive ditty that covered everything from the symbolism of threes (faith, hope, charity; heart, mind, body) to shapes, addition and multiplication that ran less than three minutes. Everyone at McCaffrey & McCall was completely blown away [source: Newall and Yohe].

McCall, who was on the board at the Bank Street College of Education in New York, asked the organization to try out "Three Is a Magic Number," which was still just a song at this point, in multiple school districts in and outside the city. The feedback from teachers and students reinforced his hunch: They had something really special on their hands [source: Newall and Yohe].

"Three Is a Magic Number" inspired Tom Yohe, an art director at McCaffrey & McCall, to start storyboarding. With the help of Radford Stone, who was the agency's senior V.P. account supervisor for ABC, McCall, Newall, Dorough and Yohe pitched the song-storyboard package to Michael Eisner, who was then the vice president for children's programming at ABC. Eisner invited one more person to the meeting: animator Chuck Jones, who created Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Pepe le Pew and many other iconic cartoon characters. He also produced, directed and wrote the screenplay for Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" [source: Newall and Yohe].

"We played Bob's demo tape and presented our storyboard, frame by frame," Newall and Yohe write in "Schoolhouse Rock!: The Official Guide." "At the song's end, Mike turned to Chuck and said, 'What do you think?' Chuck's reply: 'Buy it!'" [source: Newall and Yohe].

And just like that, a bunch of ad agency execs and a jazz musician were headed straight into Saturday morning television.

The History and Music of 'Schoolhouse Rock!'

The History and Music of 'Schoolhouse Rock!'
Jazz pianist Bob Dorough was instrumental in the show's creation and wrote much of the songs and music. Kevin Yatarola/Getty Images

Schoolhouse Rock! debuted on ABC Saturday morning television over the weekend of Jan. 6 and 7, 1973. To celebrate, Newall and his wife, Boni, hosted a Saturday morning premiere party in their Manhattan apartment for everyone involved [source: Newall and Yohe].

Before the idea grew into an animated short series, McCall's original concept was an album called "Multiplication Rock," so that became the theme of the show's inaugural season. The first four songs to air were "My Hero, Zero," "Elementary, My Dear," "The Four-Legged Zoo" and "Three Is a Magic Number," all written and performed by Dorough.

The creators decided that each number should get its own song, but Dorough learned this after he'd already combined 4, 6 and 8 into one song. He was trying to figure out how to separate them out when he took a hiking trip with his daughter, Aralee, and her friend, Lisa. It was there that he got the idea for "The Four-Legged Zoo," which follows a class trip to the zoo. Dorough's voice is accompanied by a chorus of kids, including Aralee and Lisa, on the song's final recording.

Dorough, who quickly became the show's musical director, wrote all songs on the "Multiplication Rock" season and sang on all but two. He asked fellow jazz singers Grady Tate and Blossom Dearie to sing on "Naughty Number Nine" and "Figure Eight," respectively [source: Newall and Yohe].

Every song on the "Multiplication Rock" season, from "My Hero, Zero," to "Little Twelvetoes," was made into an album. It garnered Dorough a Grammy nomination in 1974, but "Sesame Street Live" took home the statue that year [source: GRAMMYs]. "Schoolhouse Rock!" itself had eight Daytime Emmy Awards nominations between 1974 and 1997 and won four times [sources: Newall and Yohe, IMDB].

The second season of "Schoolhouse Rock!," themed "Grammar Rock," aired between 1973 and 1974. It includes one of the most popular and widely recognized "Schoolhouse Rock" songs of all time, "Conjunction Junction," which was written by Dorough and performed by Merv Griffin's former trumpet player, Jack Sheldon. Newall came up with the visual concept of the rail cars hooking together.

In this season, Lynn Ahrens made the switch from copy department secretary at McCaffrey & McCall to full-time songwriter after Newall overheard her playing guitar during her lunch break at the agency and asked to her contribute. The result was "A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing." Ahrens went on to write 15 more songs for "Schoolhouse Rock," including "A Victim of Gravity," "Interplanet Janet" and "Interjections" [source: Newall and Yohe].

Speaking of which, the little girl who says, "Darn! That's the End!" at the close of "Interjections" was Lauren, Yohe's 6-year-old daughter [source: Newall and Yohe].

In keeping with the bicentennial excitement of the mid-1970s, the show's creators themed the third season "America Rock." Also called "History Rock," the season covers emancipation from British rule ("No More Kings), the Revolutionary War ("The Shot Heard 'Round the World"), early inventors ("Mother Necessity") and governmental check and balances in "Three-Ring Government," which didn't air until 1979 because of concern over offending politicians. My, how times have changed.

But the most popular song from that season was "I'm Just a Bill," which was performed by Sheldon and written by jazz composer and performer Dave Frishberg. It covers the long, exhausting process of a bill becoming law and was recorded the same day as "Conjunction Junction" with the same band, including Frishberg on piano and Sheldon on trumpet [source: Newall and Yohe].

If you remember seeing a cartoon Isaac Newton getting hit on the head with an apple, that's "A Victim of Gravity" from the "Science Rock" season, which aired between 1978 and 1979. This 50's-style song was written by Ahrens and performed by The Tokens, whose hit "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" came out in 1961. In this season, Ahrens also penned "Interplanet Janet," who's "a solar system Ms. from a future world," and a song about the nervous system called "Telegraph Line" [source: Newall and Yohe].

From the beginning of the show through the end of the "Science Rock" season in 1979, songwriters pitched ideas to the creative team. If accepted, most songs were written within a two- to four-week period. Once Dorough signed off, the lyrics were vetted by a consultant at the Bank Street School of Education. After that, ABC would take a look as well. Once everything was approved, the features were animated by hand [source: Nobleman].

But during the "Scooter Computer & Mr. Chips" season, which aired from 1983 to 1984, things were a bit different. ABC program executive Squire Rushnell commissioned the theme based on the idea that children were afraid of computers. This time, the creative team assigned subjects to songwriters, including Frishberg, Ahrens and Dorough, featuring recurring characters Scooter Computer (a skateboarding kid) and Mr. Chips (a roller skating computer) [source: Newall and Yohe].

This final season of "Schoolhouse Rock's" original run isn't as beloved as those that came before it. There's a significant amount of confusion over song titles (for example, "Software" is also called "Software and Hardware") and the fact that Scooter Computer is a boy, not a computer. The songs, which included references to BASIC language, bytes and data processing, quickly became outdated [source: Newall and Yohe].

"Schoolhouse Rock" rocked along until 1985, when its timeslot was replaced with "ABC Funfit" starring Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton. It was only then that the creators started to understand how much of an impact the show had on its young viewers. It had become a generational touchstone for the Saturday morning cartoon crowd. And the viewers missed it when it was gone [source: Newall and Yohe].

In the late '80s, a student at the University of Connecticut started a petition asking ABC to bring "Schoolhouse Rock" back into the Saturday morning rotation. ABC took notice and resurrected the show in 1993, re-running all the favorites and adding two new "Grammar Rock" songs — "Busy Prepositions" by Bob Dorough and "The Tale of Mr. Morton" by Lynn Ahrens. A new season called "Money Rock" featured songs like "$7.50 Once a Week" by Dave Frishberg and "Tyrannosaurus Debt" by Tom Yohe. It aired from the fall of 1994 through 1996 [source: Newall and Yohe].

How 'Schoolhouse Rock!' Made Learning Fun

How 'Schoolhouse Rock!' Made Learning Fun
"I'm Just a Bill" debuted as part of America Rock, the third season of the Schoolhouse Rock series. Kari Rene Hall/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Remember, "Schoolhouse Rock" was created by advertising executives. In the beginning, they'd leave their day jobs and design storyboards on their kitchen tables at night.

The roots of the show were guided by the same principles that applied to selling a product or service. "'Schoolhouse Rock' has always been defined by the disciplines of advertising," Newall and Yohe write in "Schoolhouse Rock!: The Official Guide." "Vivid concepts artfully framed in a very limited amount of time."

Of course the show creators weren't the first to come up with the concept of learning through music — chants and songs have been a means of memorization for thousands of years [source: Rappaport]. But Newall and Yohe mixed songs with modern music like jazz, folk and doo wop, and paired it with images that reflected the world kids saw around them.

That combination of the short, attention-grabbing visuals plus popular music set the stage for fun lyrics that packed a deceptively powerful punch. Through them, the eyes and minds of children were wide open for weighty topics like immigration ("The Great American Melting Pot"), global warming ("Report from the North Pole") and women's rights ("Sufferin' 'til Suffrage).

The repetition of the short videos every Saturday for months at a time cemented songs and concepts in children's heads. They're the ones who can recite the preamble to the Constitution thanks to Ahrens' lyrics in "Preamble" (it's almost word for word from the historical document), plus the folk music feel and visuals like "Right On!" in big yellow capital letters superimposed below the historical signatures [source: Newall and Yohe].

And just like the catchy commercial jingles that are stuck in your brain forever, entertainment and education melded into memorization. Adults began to take notice. Long before there was a way to record the program, government and lobbyists groups requested cassettes of "I'm Just a Bill" to train staff members. Medical schools did the same for "Telegraph Line" to help students understand the complicated inner workings of the nervous system.

Americans are still using "Schoolhouse Rock" as a way to educate and communicate. President Barack Obama referred to "I'm Just a Bill," during a CNN interview in 2013. Inside joke-y references come up in pop culture all the time, in shows like "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy," movies like "Reality Bites" and "School of Rock," and even Nike commercials [source: Hodge].

'Schoolhouse Rock!': The Later Years

'Schoolhouse Rock!': The Later Years
"Schoolhouse Rock" made a huge impact on the kids of Generation X who grew up watching cartoons like "Conjunction Junction" and "Interplanet Janet." Kari Rene Hall/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In a way, the end of "Schoolhouse Rock's" TV run was just the beginning of its second life as a Gen X icon [source: Newall and Yohe].

In 1993, "Schoolhouse Rock Live!," a version of the show adapted for the stage, opened in the basement theater of a vegetarian restaurant in Chicago. After playing to sold-out crowds for months, it had an off-Broadway run in New York, then returned to Chicago, where it ran until 1997. Under the group Theatrebam Chicago, it still tours the country, exposing a new generation of children to the anthology, including "Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla" and "Great American Melting Pot" [source: Schoolhouse Rock Live!].

In 1996, Atlantic Records even produced a tribute album called "Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks," which includes Moby's cover of "Verb: That's What's Happening" and "No More Kings" by Pavement.

In 1997, a 25th anniversary collection of VHS tapes was released, featuring each season separately [source: Amazon].

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment created "Schoolhouse Rock Earth" in advance of Earth Day in 2009. The 12-song DVD brought Dorough, Ahrens and Newall back together — plus new talent including singer/songwriter Jack Johnson — for songs focused on climate change, recycling, rainforests and carbon footprints [source: Lambert].

To mark the show's 40th anniversary in 2013, the Kennedy Center hosted a sing-a-long featuring Bob Dorough that drew more than 2,000 people — the largest audience to gather at the center's Millennium stage at that time [source: Nobleman].

"Schoolhouse Rock" has even gotten airtime on another groundbreaking TV show, "Saturday Night Live." In 2014 SNL did a parody of "I'm Just a Bill" to poke fun at the prolonged political process [source: Time]. But that wasn't the first. Sixteen years earlier, a "Conspiracy Theory Rock!" cartoon aired as part of the show's "TV Funhouse" cartoon segment. It didn't appear in subsequent reruns of the show, sparking controversy in later years as to whether or not it'd been banned by NBC, but, those claims were proven false [sources: Lacapria, Friar].

While there's no question "Schoolhouse Rock" put education through music videos on a national stage, it also laid the groundwork for others to do the same. In 2017, "Flocabulary," a learning program that teaches educational content through hip-hop videos, takes the same method into the classroom on subjects ranging from math and science to life skills and financial literacy.

"'Flocabulary' started in 2005 on the simple premise that it's easy to memorize rap songs but difficult to remember the definition of a vocabulary word like 'obsequious'," says co-founder and CEO Alex Rappaport. "'Schoolhouse Rock' and 'Flocabulary' are way points along the history of learning through music. 'Schoolhouse Rock' sounds like something that was on the radios in the '70s and Flocabulary is the kind of music kids hear today. A big part of what we do is motivating students that learning is fun. 'Schoolhouse Rock' did that for a generation of kids on Saturday mornings."

Though Rappaport says the company wasn't inspired by "Schoolhouse Rock," it does garner comparisons. In October 2005, MTV's Kurt Loder said, "Anyone who remembers 'Schoolhouse Rock' will love 'Flocabulary'" on MTV News. "That's when we knew this was going to work out," Rappaport says. "Now we go to conferences and say, 'Hey, do you remember "Schoolhouse Rock"?' and I guarantee nine out of 10 teachers start singing 'Conjunction Junction.' It's an instant trigger for that memory."

Author's Note: How Schoolhouse Rock! Works

As a child of the early '70s, I grew up on "Schoolhouse Rock!" I have probably said or written the phrase "Knowledge is power!" thousands of times between the Saturday mornings of my youth and now. But until I wrote this piece, I didn't realize how lucky I was to be exposed to something that assumed kids were smart instead of dumbing down the content. Besides chatting with 93-year-old Bob Dorough before he flew to London for a few jazz gigs, my favorite part of writing this piece was learning how important it was to the creators that children be treated with respect.

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Sources

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