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.
“I’m Just a Bill”
The bill featured in the short (which Wikipedia notes would probably not be constitutional) was likely inspired by a 1972 railroad crossing accident in Clarkstown, New York, in which five children were killed and 44 others injured (several lost limbs) after a school bus failed to stop at the crossing. The driver claimed he didn’t see or hear the train, and the train’s engineer was unable to stop in time. The tune was parodied on The Simpsons and Family Guy, among other pop culture references. And the Bill makes a cameo appearance in a later 1990s Schoolhouse Rock! short (“Tyrannosaurus Debt,” Money Rock).
Other highlights from America Rock included “No More Kings,” about the arrival of the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock to establish the original 13 colonies—and featuring a colorful caricature of an evil King George III. There were also tunes about the American Revolution (“The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”), women winning the right to vote (“Sufferin’ Till Suffrage”), the branches of government (“Three Ring Government”), great inventions (“Mother Necessity”), and the importance of welcoming immigrants (“The Great American Melting Pot”).
Plus, this season set the words of “The Preamble” of the Constitution to music (slightly altered to scan better), thereby ensuring that my entire generation could recite those portions by heart well into adulthood. Some of the tunes are, shall we say, problematic from a 21st-century perspective, most notably “Elbow Room,” a catchy tune about Westward expansion that pretty much elides over all the injustices inflicted on the Native American inhabitants of those lands. In 2002, two more shorts were added: “I’m Gonna Send Your Vote to College,” about the electoral college, and “The Campaign Trail” (originally recorded as “Presidential Minute”).
Next came Science Rock, which originally aired in 1978-79. These shorts cover the human digestive process (“The Body Machine”), the circulatory system (“Do the Circulation”), energy production and consumption (“The Energy Blues”), the human skeleton (“Them Not So Dry Bones”), electricity (“Electricity, Electricity”), and the nervous system (“Telegraph Line”). “A Victim of Gravity” was a clever send-up of the hit musical (and subsequent 1978 film) Grease.
The clear standout tune from this fourth season is “Interplanet Janet.” The titular Janet is actually an anthropomorphic comet with wings and a rocket tail for a skirt, who takes us on a tour of the Solar System—snagging the Sun’s autograph for good measure. Just three months after it first aired, Pluto reached the part of its orbit that skirts closer to the Sun than Neptune on February 7, 1979, making the lyrics identifying the dwarf planet as farthest from the Sun technically inaccurate until 1999. And of course, the discovery of the dwarf planet Eris in 2005 resulted in Pluto being demoted to a dwarf planet, too—a controversial choice that still incenses a lot of people. But that’s science for you!
Those four seasons represent what one might call the golden age of Schoolhouse Rock! But the advent of the home computer in the 1980s prompted a fifth mini-season, Computer Rock, which originally aired from 1982-84. The characters Scooter Computer and Mr. Chips introduced young viewers to the basics of hardware and software and how computers can calculate statistics. Finally, there was Money Rock, which aired from 1994-1996. Those shorts featured tunes about savings and interest, taxes, budgeting, the US national debt, and the stock market, among other topics. Finally, Earth Rock (2009) was released direct to video; it was never broadcast on television. (“Interplanet Janet” makes a cameo in “Solar Power to the People.”)
McCall died in 1999, Yohe in 2000, Tucker in 2013, and Dorough in 2018. So with Newall’s passing, we’ve lost all five of the core people responsible for bringing this incredibly influential series to life and inspiring generations of children. After Eisner joined Disney, he acquired Schoolhouse Rock in 1996, including the more recent segments. The entire collection is available for streaming on Disney+. So you can throw a pizza party with all your Gen X friends this weekend in Newall’s honor, enthusiastically singing along to your favorites—because knowledge is power!