On the morning of Saturday January 6, 1973, Schoolhouse Rock premiered with a set of three-minute shorts that played between regularly scheduled cartoons: “My Hero, Zero,” “Elementary, My Dear,” “Three is a Magic Number,” and “The Four-Legged Zoo.” Over the next 13 years, those and other episodes of Multiplication Rock, Grammar Rock, Science Rock, and America Rock made things like a beleaguered bill awaiting ratification a cultural touchstone for a certain generation.
Schoolhouse Rock returned to the air with both old and new episodes for a stint in the ’90s, a set of additional episodes were included in a direct-to-video release in 2009, and, starting in 1996, Schoolhouse Rock Live! took the show on the road. Let’s look back on the original run of catchy tunes that are still worth watching.
1. The series was originally called Scholastic Rock, but the name had to be modified when the publishing company Scholastic, Inc. hired a lawyer who insisted they change it. The publishing company that produced the clips retained the name Scholastic Rock Inc.
2. All of the songs were vetted by an educational consultant from Bank Street School of Education.
3. The show was a success from the start, ultimately winning four Emmys. Meanwhile, as creators Tom Yohe and George Newall wrote in their official guide to the show, “various governmental and lobbyist groups requested cassettes of ‘I’m Just a Bill’ to use in their training programs for staffers. The University of Michigan Medical School and Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons called to ask for ‘Telegraph Line’ to help introduce the nervous system to first-year medical students.”
4. The idea for the show first occurred to David B. McCall, then president of McCaffrey and McCall Advertising, while he was on vacation with his family at a dude ranch in Wyoming. His son was struggling with learning the multiplication tables but, as McCall noticed, had no trouble at all memorizing Rolling Stones lyrics. Upon returning to the office, he called on jazz pianist Bob Dorough to compose a jingle about mathematics. Dorough wrote “Three is a Magic Number” and the team, along with Yohe, who drew the storyboards, presented the idea to Michael Eisner, then Vice President for Children’s Programming at ABC. Eisner bought the cartoon right then and there.
5. Dorough, who wrote the music and lyrics and performed many of the songs during the series run, received a Grammy nomination for Multiplication Rock, which was released as a record in 1973 by Capitol Records featuring songs about the multiplication tables 2-12.
6. In the song “Lucky Seven Sampson,” the titular rabbit skips past a graffiti-filled wall. If you look closely, what’s written are all references to people who worked on the cartoon. “Phunky Phil,” for example, is animation director Phil Kimmelman. Similarly, in “The Preamble,” all the names in the voting booth are people who worked on the song. Animator Sal Faillace had ultimate control over whom the cartoon characters voted for. Naturally, they voted for him and director George Cannata. One of these instances of not-so-hidden names ended up on a much larger screen. The factory smokestack in “The Great American Melting Pot” is labeled “Yohe” in honor of the co-creator. When that scene, along with others from America Rock,ended up as part of the backdrop for the Rockettes’ “America Spectacular” show, Yohe’s name got introduced to a whole new audience.
7. Similarly, in “The Good Eleven,” cartoon versions of many of the creators appear in the video. George Newall is biking in blue and Tom Yohe appears at the end in a red bowtie.
8. When Dorough first wrote the music for “Figure Eight,” his wife thought it was too good to be used for Schoolhouse Rock, but none of the subsequent tunes were met with much enthusiasm so he returned to the originally charming melody.
9. Before settling on “Verb, That’s What’s Happening,” the original idea for a verb song was, “A World Without Verbs,” a gloomy look at how nothing would ever happen in a world without action words.
10. In “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here,” all three generations of adverb merchants are voiced by Dorough, and his vocals were sped up to achieve the higher pitches.
11. Family members of the producers were an obvious choice to voice the various kid characters that appear on different songs. “Interjections!” features Yohe’s son, Tom Jr., as Reginald, and his six-year-old daughter added the adorable “Darn, that’s the end!” to close the song. Yohe himself is the cackling King George on “No More Kings.”
12. The show was made for kids but, in at least one instance, the cartoons got a little risqué. At the end of “The Shot Heard Round the World,” a group of diverse cartoon Americans gather into the shape of the country but at least one, a lady in Southern California, is totally nude.
13. The airing of “Three Ring Government” was delayed for several years because executives at ABC were concerned that the FCC and Congress would resent being compared to a circus and threaten their broadcast license renewal.
14. Lynn Ahrens, who wrote and sang some of Schoolhouse Rock’s most recognizable tunes, had a rather fortuitous, unconventional start. McCaffrey and McCall hired her as a secretary when she was just 22, right out of college. Bored with her daily typing tasks, Aherns often brought a guitar to the office to play during down time. One day, producer George Newall heard her strumming and asked her to try writing a song for the series. “The Preamble” was a hit that launched her career, which eventually included award-winning work on Broadway and for movies.
15. The original series run lasted from 1973 to 1985, and then in 1987, Golden Book Video released Schoolhouse Rock on tape. The format had been changed to accommodate the different structure and, according to some of the original creators, these changes were not an improvement. Each segment was introduced by actress Cloris Leachman sort-of-singing to a group of kids. “She’s just hideous. She is the antithesis of what we wanted to do,” Yohe said of Leachman in 1994. “The quality is poor and there is also some new, inappropriate and inferior material not written by me,” Dorough added.
Additional Source: “Schoolhouse Rock!: The Official Guide” By Tom Yohe and George Newall