"Schoolhouse Rock" premiered 50 years ago and defined a generation (2023)






An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of McCaffrey & McCall's creative director. It's George Newall, not George Newell. This version has been fixed.

“Schoolhouse Rock” helped teach civics to a generation of children with “I'm just an account” and grammar with “conjunction union”, among many other classics.

But the Saturday Morning short film series, which debuted 50 years ago this month, began with more modest goals: One father, frustrated that his children knew the lines to rock songs but couldn't multiply them, said asked a co-worker in his ad. agency if you can help by putting the multiplication table in the song.

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The agency became an ABC client and when it came up with “three is a magic number”, the timing couldn't be better to launch the idea for television. The network, under pressure from the Federal Communications Commission and parents irritated by violent cartoons and incessant ads for sugary cereal, has recently begun to lean toward more educational programming.


ABC's head of children's programming was a young executive named Michael Eisner. He greenlit "Schoolhouse Rock" after hearing jazz musician Bob Dorough's "Three Is a Magic Number" and seeing storyboards for the accompanying educational cartoon. That episode would premiere in January 1973.

At the time, an advocacy group called Action for Children's Television was pushing the television industry to clean up children's programming, Eisner recalled in a recent phone interview.

“They were a real problem for all three networks, who were massively promoting children's programming, violent programming, Saturday morning programming,” said Eisner, who would become president and CEO of The Walt Disney Co. "And I got into this situation and actually had to go to Washington to testify before the FCC."


In an era when Saturday morning television was dominated by cereal ads and "wall-to-wall cartoons of monsters," in the words of the founder of Action for Children's Television, the three-minute "Schoolhouse Rock" educational cartoons provided a welcome relief for parents.

Half a century later, it is their children, now middle-aged members of Generation X, who keep classics such as “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, get your adverbs here!”

Eisner said people in their 40s and 50s mention "Schoolhouse Rock" in conversations with him more than any other show or movie, including Paramount Pictures blockbusters like "Saturday Night Fever" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." ", which were produced when he was president of the studio.

"It's what they can still sing, what I can but won't," he joked.

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The series, which ran into the mid-1980s and was revived in the 1990s, won four Emmy Awards.


People magazine wrote in aprofile 2016of Dorough, who would become the musical director of "Schoolhouse Rock", "Bob Dorough probably had more of an impact on grammatical fluency than anyone else in the 20th century."

Disney, ABC's parent company,announced this monththat ABC will air a 50th anniversary song from "Schoolhouse Rock" on February 1, hosted by Ryan Seacrest and featuring the Black Eyed Peas, Kal Penn and Shaquille O'Neal.

An unlikely origin story

One day at the McCaffrey & McCall advertising agency, the company's president, David McCall, the one whose children couldn't multiply, was talking to creative director George Newall. According to NewallobituaryIn last year's New York Times, McCall told her that while her kids struggled with math, "they can sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones." Neall connected his boss with Dorough, who came up with "Three is a magic number". An art director from the agency, Tom Yohe, did the animation.


Eisner said the network had already begun rolling out other educational programming, but had no expectations when it agreed to meet with the people who would become the creators of "Schoolhouse Rock."

“I was doing this as a favor,” he said. "And it was just a matter of putting two and two together, which was listening to something a little bit modern, like 'Sesame Street' was."

Another participant in that meeting was Chuck Jones, the cartoon animator who directed "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies." According to a 2000 Los Angeles Timesobituaryof Yohe, who would team up with Newall to produce more than 40 episodes of "Schoolhouse Rock," Jones told Eisner, "Buy it!"

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Out of that meeting came a strategy to cut some commercials and run the series between Saturday morning cartoons.

In "Three Is a Magic Number", Dorough sings a series of verses to help children with their multiplication tables, along with examples of what makes the "3" so special, such as:


The past and the present and the future

The heart, the brain and the body.

Three wheels are needed to make a vehicle called a tricycle.

Dorough, who grew up in rural Arkansas and Texas, relied on his accent when he pronounced "vee-HICK-ul" and "try-SICK-ul".

“I kept looking for an idea that went way beyond the multiplication table, and it occurred to me that three is the magic number,” Dorough told the Los Angeles Times in 1997.

“Schoolhouse Rock” started with math but spread to other subjects including civics, grammar and science. One of the most famous episodes, "I'm Just a Bill", was written by jazz composer Dave Frishberg and sung by jazz trumpeter and vocalist Jack Sheldon. It begins with a bill of Congress in human form sitting dejectedly on the Capitol steps, wailing:

I'm just an account.


Yes, I'm just a ticket.

And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill.

Eventually, he learns that the House of Representatives and the Senate have approved it, and the President has signed it into law.

"Oh yeah!" exclaims the bill, as the confetti falls.

"I'm Just a Bill" has been spoofed many times, including on"The Simpsons”, with original vocalist, Sheldon, singing the part of a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the burning of flags. (The anthropomorphic amendment, less diplomatic than the original bill, angrily declares that “these liberal monsters are going too far.”)

Countless children of that era learned the preamble of the US Constitution at a rock school.episodewritten and sung by Tony Award-winning lyricist Lynn Ahrens. “It is worth sitting in front of the TV all morning to watch one that sets the Constitution to music,” wrote Carol Rinzler in a1976 New York Times essaychildren's shows on Saturday mornings.


And, of course, there were the unforgettable grammatical melodies, including "conjunction union,”“Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, get your adverbs here!” y"Unpack your adjectives.”

half a century of permanence

Pete Browngardt, executive producer and director of "Looney Tunes Cartoons" for Warner Bros. Animation said it recently looked at some storyboards for "Schoolhouse Rock". “They just sell the idea perfectly,” he told The Washington Post. “You could say this is a flash sale. He had the art style. He had a great concept. And the songs were fantastic."

The series has had remarkable staying power in popular culture over the past half-century. Atlantic Records released a 1996 album featuring artists who covered "Schoolhouse Rock" songs, including Blind Melon's "Three Is a Magic Number" and Moby's "Verb: That's What's Happening".


Dorough disse ao The Postin 2013 they continued to play songs from "Schoolhouse Rock" in their jazz shows.

“He used to play very modern music, but then one of the bartenders, who must have been in his 25s or 30s, would say, 'Your voice sounds familiar,'” Dorough said. After explaining the reason, the waiter would say: “Ah! Can we have one, please?'”

In the late 1980s, Yohe, the animator of "Schoolhouse Rock", showed a compilation of videos from the show at an educational symposium at Dartmouth College, whose students came of age when the show first aired. Himtold the New York Timesin 1994, “I went there and showed the films, and the biggest auditorium on campus was packed on a Saturday night. There were 900 kids gathered there, singing along to every song."

Eisner said it's hard to know when something like "Schoolhouse Rock" will take off.

“Things become part of the culture, usually by accident; you can never predict that,” he said. “Anything that you think is going to become part of the culture is likely to fail. So I think it's the message, I think it's the music, it's the melody. Why are the Beatles still so popular? Or Neil Diamond? Or Elton John? Or Frank Sinatra? It's the magic of the creative moment."

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