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 whimsical animated shorts setting the 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 died at 88. The cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest, according to The New York Times. The series turns 50 (!) next year.
Newall was a creative director at McCaffrey and McCall advertising agency in the early 1970s. One day, agency President David McCall bemoaned the fact that his young sons couldn’t multiply, yet 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 mentioned the challenge to him. Tucker said his friend Bob Dorough could “put anything to music”—in fact, he’d once written a song about the mattress tag admonishing new owners not to remove it under penalty of law.
Two weeks later, Dorough presented Newall with “Three is a Magic Number,” the song featured in 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—meant to be part of an educational record album—turned into a series of short three-minute videos. (Today we’d just put them on YouTube, and you can indeed find most of the classic fan favorites there.) 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 in the meeting and was so impressed 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 cut of “Three is a Magic Number” that has never been re-broadcast and wasn’t included in the eventual home media releases.
“Three is a Magic Number”
Dorough performed this and many of the other tunes in the first season (Multiplication Rock). Famed jazz singer Blossom Dearie performed “Figure Eight,” a slow-paced song about multiples of eight accompanying a cartoon showing a little girl ice skating on a cold winter’s day. Jazz drummer and vocalist Grady Tate performed the vocals on “I Got Six” and “Naughty Number Nine.”
The latter featured a portly cat version of pool hustler Minnesota Fats, playing a game of nine ball to torment a mouse. This short was initially rejected by ABC because it violated the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, prohibiting cigarette advertising, because the kitty pool shark smoked a cigar throughout. But the network soon relented after being assured that the cat was a villain and therefore unlikely to encourage kids to smoke. Other classics from this season include “My Hero Zero,” Elementary, My Dear” (about multiples of two), and “Lucky Seven Sampson.”
Multiplication Rock was a smashing 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 smashing 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 splitting the rest of the songwriting duties for that season. (Newall eventually wrote a total of 10 songs for Schoolhouse Rock!) In the 1990s, two more shorts were added: “Busy Prepositions” and “The Tale of Mr. Morton” (focused on the subject and predicate of a sentence).
As the United States was gearing up for its bicentennial celebration, ABC commissioned a third season focused on American history and the structure of the US government. America Rock originally aired in 1975-1976 and gave the world what is arguably the most famous and popular of the shorts: “I’m Just a Bill” (performed by Sheldon and his son John), following an animated congressional bill as it makes its way through the convoluted process of becoming a law.