As if Disney+ didn’t already have everyone’s favorites, “Schoolhouse Rock” officially made its big debut on the popular family friendly streaming service on June 19, 2020. Only the first season was available, and it wasn’t clear if the other six seasons would eventually be released. But even with only just the first season coming out, “Schoolhouse Rock” just might take over the 21st century too.
Have you ever realized how much information you’ve actually retained just by remembering songs like “I’m Just a Bill,” “Three is a Magic Number,” and “Conjunction Junction?” Back then, you probably didn’t realize how much you were actually learning when singing along with the popular Schoolhouse Rock songs as a child. Or maybe you didn’t realize how much information your children were retaining watching them grow up with “Schoolhouse Rock.” Either way, these catchy jingles were easy to get stuck in your head, and it was never something to be bothered by.
But how did “Schoolhouse Rock” start? This interstitial programming series had its viewers learning their multiplication tables within three to five minutes between the typical Saturday morning cartoon shows. Back in the early 1970s, David McCall, co-owner of New York ad agency McCaffrey & McCall, realized something as he was taking his family to a dude ranch in Wyoming. His son was having a difficult time with his multiplication tables but knew every word to the Rolling Stones’ songs. That sparked the idea to combine the sounds that defined the 70s with school concepts of all kinds.
When McCall returned to his office, he hit up George Newall, a co-creative director at the agency, to see if they could get one of their jingle writers to whip up something. It didn’t really hit the mark, so Newall reached out to Bob Dorough. Newall was a jazz pianist who knew Dorough because he was also a jazz pianist and composer, known for catchy jams about everyday items.
What came next from Bob Dorough blew the entire ad agency away. Dorough had taken a few weeks to study his daughter’s textbooks and had come up with “Three is a Magic Number,” associating symbolism of threes with the math of threes. The bop was incredibly simple, catchy, but informative.
“3 Is a Magic Number”
Together, David McCall, George Newall, Bob Dorough, and Tom Yohe (art director at the ad agency) collaborated with Radford Stone, the agency’s senior V.P. account supervisor for ABC, to pitch the idea to Michael Eisner, the vice president for children’s programming at ABC. Eisner brought in animator Chuck Jones, creator of iconic cartoon characters Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, and Pepe le Pew, and history was made.
On Saturday morning, January 6, 1973, “Schoolhouse Rock!” debuted on ABC. The first four songs that aired were “Three is a Magic Number,” “The Four-Legged Zoo,” “Elementary, My Dear,” “My Hero, Zero,” all written and performed by Dorough. Bob Dorough then became Schoolhouse Rock’s show director, writing all the songs on the “Multiplication Rock” season, earning him a Grammy nomination in 1974.
The second season of “Schoolhouse Rock” was “Grammar Rock.” This is when the popular “Conjunction Junction” aired. Newall heard Lynn Ahrens, former copy department secretary at the ad agency, playing the guitar during her lunch break and asked her to hop on the project. She wrote “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing” and “Interjections.”
By the mid-1970s, the third season of “Schoolhouse Rock” was produced. The theme of this season was “America Rock” or “History Rock,” as otherwise known. This album featured “No More Kings,” “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” “Mother Necessity,” and “Three-Ring Government.” The most popular song “I’m Just a Bill” aired this season and was written and performed by Jack Sheldon and written by Dave Frishberg. They had also written and recorded “Conjunction Junction” on the same day.
“I’m Just a Bill”
At the end of the 1970s, the “Science Rock” season aired, featuring songs “A Victim of Gravity,” “Interplanet Janet,” and “Telegraph Line.” “A Victim of Gravity was written by Ahrens, but performed by The Tokens, who had the hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” back in 1961.
These first four seasons of “Schoolhouse Rock” that took over Saturday mornings on ABC during the 1970s developed a consistent workflow for how the entire production was created. Songwriters would pitch ideas to the creative team, and then when approved, would take between a couple to a few weeks to write and produce the songs. Then, once approved by Dorough, the songs would actually get reviewed by a consultant at the Bank Street School of Education. The final approval would be by ABC.
However, things got a little weird for the last season of “Schoolhouse Rock.” In the early 1980s, the “Scooter Computer & Mr. Chips” season aired. It was supposed to cater to and ease children’s fears of computers. It didn’t hit as hard as the other seasons had due to the confusion behind song titles and the fact that Scooter Computer was a boy and not a computer. Trying to explain computer terms such as BASIC language, bytes, and data processing just wasn’t as classic as the previous seasons.
What’s crazy is that the “Schoolhouse Rock” creators didn’t truly understand the impact their animations had on young viewers until the show got booted in 1985 by “ABC Funfit.” The show had changed Saturday mornings for so many families, and it was not quiet that “Schoolhouse Rock” was dearly missed.
By the late 1980s, a University of Connecticut student petitioned for ABC to put the show back on Saturday mornings. By 1993, ABC put the re-runs back on, adding two new songs to “Grammar Rock”: “Busy Prepositions” by Bob Dorough and “The Tale of Mr. Morton” by Lynn Ahrens. They added a new season “Money Rock” featuring songs “$7.50 Once a Week” by Dave Frishberg and “Tyrannosaurus Debt” by Tom Yohe.
Over the course of these two decades, the witty catchy tunes of “Schoolhouse Rock” derived from funk, jazz, and doo wop. Paired with simple but eye-catching visuals, the repetition of the seasons of this production iconically changed the way children learned. But “Schoolhouse Rock” didn’t just cater to children. Government and lobbyist groups would use “I’m Just a Bill” to train new staff members, and medical schools used “Telegraph Line” to help their students understand the nervous system.
In 1993, a stage version of the show, “Schoolhouse Rock Live!,” was performed in the basement theater of a vegetarian restaurant in Chicago. The show sold out for months, made it to an off-Broadway run in New York, and is survived through the Theatrebam Chicago group, who still tours and performs throughout the country. Ahrens and Newall came back together for Walt Disney’s production of “Schoolhouse Rock Earth” in honor of Earth Day, and the show also got featured on Saturday Night Live in 2014.
It’s no doubt that these songs will still slap in every department until our history is so outdated that the 20th century seems like the very 1st. On April 23, 2018, Bob Dorough passed away at 94-years-old. It must be crazy to be able to look back at your life and see your work become timelessly popular over the course of generations around the nation. And even so, I could only wish that Bob Dorough got to see what’s coming up for “Schoolhouse Rock” now.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on April 16, 2020.