Iconic shorts that set school subjects to music turns 50
From the first notes of the intro (As your body grows bigger/Your mind must flower/It’s great to learn/’Cause knowledge is power!) children of the ‘70s and ‘80s and beyond will recognize the irresistible, educational earworms that make up Schoolhouse Rock. But who would think to set multiplication tables or the legislative process to music? Fifty years ago, that’s just what David McCall, Bob Dorough, and George Newall did. Their series changed the landscape of children’s animated programming, earning them four daytime Emmy wins and a further four nominations.
McCall, frustrated that his sons could memorize the lyrics to Rolling Stones songs but not their multiplication facts, complained to Newall, one of the creative directors at his ad agency. He wondered if the subject in question could be set to music. This set Newall on a search for just the right musician to put a tune to the times tables. His quest led him to Dorough, a prolific and quirky jazz musician who had once written a song based on the “Do not remove under penalty of law” written on the mattress tag. Their song writer acquired, they gave him the assignment. Two weeks later, he came back with “Three is a Magic Number,” which blew Newall and McCall away.
The song was so catchy and inspiring that the agency’s art director and cartoonist, Tom Yohe, started drawing up characters and scenes. Though their original plan was to try and produce an educational record album, it soon became clear that they had much more on their hands. This creative team presented their series of short films to then-director of children’s programming at ABC, Michael Eisner, who just happened to be meeting with legendary animator Chuck Jones at the time. Newall recounted the story to The New York Times in 1994: “After we played the song and Tom showed them the storyboards, Eisner looked at Jones and said, ‘What do you think?’ “And Jones said, ‘I think you should buy it right away.’”
After the initial series about multiplication, the group produced songs about grammar, civics, science and computer technology. They also expanded their team to include Lynn Ahrens and Jack Sheldon.
Ahrens had been working at the agency as a secretary, work that she found incredibly boring, so she started bringing her guitar to work. Between tasks she would play and write songs. This caught the attention of Newall, who asked her to write a song for Schoolhouse Rock. She wrote “The Preamble,” a song that set the beginning of the Constitution to music. Ahrens sang the version that went on the air in October 1975. She wrote or performed on songs throughout the rest of the original series. In a 2014 interview with Noblemania, Ahrens credited this chance for everything that came after in her work. “That opportunity led to a career as a copywriter, followed by freelance careers as a TV writer, a jingle writer, a television producer of many network shows for young people and ultimately a musical theatre writer. It all started there.”
Jack Sheldon, a performer from the Merv Griffin Show, lent his distinctive voice to songs like “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill.” Despite his many years as Griffin’s sidekick, his voice is perhaps most well-known from these performances.
The original five series ran from 1973 to 1984. The Walt Disney Company acquired Schoolhouse Rock in 1996 with their purchase of ABC. The show returned in the early 1990s with a series about money, and again in the early 2000s with shorts about the electoral college, voting for president, and a full series about the environment. These songs were not broadcast on TV and were only available through DVD or iTunes. Reruns of the original five series played on broadcast television until 2000, when they were removed from the air shortly before the show’s 30th anniversary and a special DVD release.
A musical theatre adaptation of the show, titled Schoolhouse Rock Live!, premiered in 1993. It featured a collaboration between artists Scott Ferguson, Kyle Hall, George Keating, Lynn Ahrens, Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg, and Kathy Mandry, utilizing some of Schoolhouse Rock’s most famous songs.
Disney is running a Family Singalong in celebration of this milestone anniversary. This will be the fifth installment of the Singalong series and is hosted by Ryan Seacrest. It airs on Feb. 1 on ABC and will be available to stream on Hulu and Disney+ later in the month. All of the original episodes are available for streaming on the platform as well.
Performances during the special include:
Black Eyed Peas — “Three Is A Magic Number”
Derek Hough and Hayley Erbert — “Figure 8”
Jason Biggs and Jenny Mollen — “I’m Just a Bill”
Julianne Hough – “Interplanet Janet”
The Muppets and Fortune Feimster — “Unpack Your Adjectives”
NE-YO — “Verb: That’s What’s Happening”
Raven Symoné and Kal Penn — “Interjections”
Retta — “Ready or Not, Here I Come”
Shaquille O’Neal and Boys & Girls Club of Atlanta — “Conjunction Junction”
The stars from Disney’s Broadway productions of Aladdin, The Lion King, Newsies, and Hercules—
“A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing”.
Anton’s top 10 Schoolhouse
1. Three is a Magic Number
2. Conjunction Junction
3. Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here
4. The Preamble
5. I’m Just a Bill
6. Body Machine
8. The Shot Heard Round the World
9. Sufferin’ til Suffrage
10. Electricity, Electricity
Honorable Mention: Tyrannosaurus Debt, part of the “Money Rock” series