Ars readers of a certain age grew up in the 1970s and 1980s watching Saturday morning cartoons and singing along to Schoolhouse rock!, a series of playful animated shorts that set multiplication tables, grammar, American history and science to music. We were saddened to learn that George Newall, the last surviving member of the original team that produced this hugely influential series, has passed away at the age of 88. According to The New York Times, the cause of death was cardiac arrest. Next year the series will be 50 (!)
Newall was the creative director at McCaffrey and McCall advertising agency in the early 1970s. One day, the agency’s president, David McCall, complained that his young sons couldn’t multiply, but somehow they remembered all the lyrics to hit songs by the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. He asked Newall if it was possible to set the multiplication tables to music. Newall happened to know a musician named Ben Tucker who played bass at a venue Newall frequented and told him about the challenge. Tucker said his friend Bob Dorough could “set anything to music”—in fact, he’d once written a song about the mattress label urging new owners not to take it down under penalty of the law.
Two weeks later, Dorough Newall presented “Three is a Magic Number”, the song from the pilot episode of Schoolhouse rock! Everyone at the agency loved the tune, including art director and cartoonist Tom Yohe, who made a few doodles to accompany the song. That one song – intended to be part of an educational record album – turned into a series of three-minute short videos. (Today, we just put them on YouTube, which is where you can indeed find most of the classic fan favorites.) They pitched the series to ABC’s director of children’s programming, Michael Eisner (future Disney chairman and CEO). Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones was also at the meeting and was so impressed that he advised Eisner to buy the series in the room.
And Schoolhouse rock! was born. The pilot episode debuted on September 2, featuring an extended version of “Three is a Magic Number” that was never re-aired and was not included in the final home media releases.
“Three Is A Magic Number”
Dorough sang this and many of the other songs in the first season (Multiplication Rock). Famed jazz singer Blossom Dearie sang “Figure Eight,” a slow number about multiples of eight accompanying a cartoon in which a little girl is skating on a cold winter’s day. Jazz drummer and singer Grady Tate did the vocals on “I Got Six” and “Naughty Number Nine”.
The latter featured a portly cat version of pool hustler Minnesota Fats, playing a nine-ball game to torment a mouse. This short was initially rejected by ABC because it violated the cigarette smoking law, which banned cigarette advertising, because the puss shark was smoking a cigar everywhere. But the network quickly relented after being assured that the cat was a villain and therefore unlikely to encourage children to smoke. Other classics from this season include ‘My Hero Zero’, ‘Elementary, My Dear’ (about a multiple of two) and ‘Lucky Seven Sampson’.
Multiplication Rock was a runaway success, so ABC quickly ordered a second season, Grammar rock, which originally aired in 1973-74. This season expanded the pool of vocalists, with songs performed by Lynn Ahrens, Zachary Sanders, Jack Sheldon and Essra Mohawk, in addition to Dorough and Dearie.
Grammar rock was another great success – and also my childhood favorite, especially “Interjections!”, “Conjunction Junction” and “A Noun’s a Person, Place, or Thing.” Newall wrote “Unpack Your Adjectives” and “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here”, with Dorough and Ahrens dividing the rest of the songwriting duties for that season. (Newall ended up writing 10 songs in all Schoolhouse rock!) Two more shorts were added in the 1990s: “Busy Prepositions” and “The Tale of Mr. Morton” (focusing on the subject and predicate of a sentence).
As the United States geared up for its bicentennial celebrations, ABC commissioned a third season, focusing on American history and the structure of the United States government. America rock originally aired in 1975-1976 and gave the world what is arguably its most famous and popular short film, “I’m Just a Bill” (performed by Sheldon and his son John), following an animated bill from Congress while it makes its way through the complicated process of becoming a law.