I can’t express highly enough how important the series Schoolhouse Rock! was to my childhood. A series of 3-minute animated musical shorts that originally aired on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in the seventies, it was a truly successful concept because the songs in the shorts were well-written enough (both lyrically and melodically) and the animation was clever and funny enough to not only be entertaining but also have educational value. I can’t tell you how many times those songs came into my mind while I was in school and how helpful they were to me. For example, I memorized the multiplication tables from 1 to 12 because of those songs and that made many of my math problems go by a lot quicker. Especially since my family owned all the songs on home video. One of the reasons why the series of musical educational shorts was so successful was because the creators behind them had a background in advertising, rather than children’s programming. Which meant they had a lot of experience conveying ideas in a short amount of time in super simple ways that anyone can understand. That combined with the talents of genius songwriters like Bob Dorough and Lynn Ahrens made the series a phenomenon that ran on the air from the seventies all the way to the nineties.
Schoolhouse Rock! was the brain child of David McCall, an advertising executive at the company McCaffrey and McCall whose son was struggling with learning multiplication tables but had no problem memorizing the songs of rock bands like the Rolling Stones. As a way of helping his son as well as all struggling students, McCall hired songwriter and jazz musician Bob Dorough to write a multiplication-themed educational song, which became “Three Is a Magic Number,” and McCaffrey and McCall illustrator Tom Yohe designed and animated the accompanying visuals.
Upon the suggestion of television producer Radford Stone, McCall pitched the idea to ABC as a series for television with “Three Is a Magic Number” serving as the pilot. ABC vice president and future Disney CEO Michael Eisner liked the idea, especially when Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones (who Eisner took with him to the pitch meeting) expressed enthusiasm for the series. Chuck Jones had his own educational series on ABC at the time called Curiosity Shop (1971-72) and that series served as the television debut of “Three Is a Magic Number.” It later aired as the official debut episode of Schoolhouse Rock! in 1973, along with other animated educational shorts which aired on ABC that decade like DePatie-Freleng’s Time for Timer and The Bod Squad, although Schoolhouse Rock! lasted the longest and was by far the most popular.
With Tom Yohe and George Newall as creative directors and Bob Dorough as musical director, the series took off with more multiplication-themed shorts airing that same year, all written by Dorough who sang the vocals for “Three Is a Magic Number” as well as most of the Multiplication Rock songs, minus “I Got Six” and “Naughty Number Nine” which were sung by jazz vocalist Grady Tate, and “Figure Eight” which was sung by the angel-voiced jazz vocalist Blossom Dearie.
The three-minute episodes were hits with audiences, and the popularity of the Multiplication Rock series led to the Grammar Rock series, which featured songs about nouns, verbs, conjunctions, interjections and more, as well as the introduction of singers who would become Schoolhouse Rock! mainstays like the lovely-voiced Lynn Ahrens, a former secretary whose talent the team literally discovered when they saw her guitar case and asked her to play a song (Ahrens has since went on to write songs for musical theatre), in addition to Merv Griffin Show house band member Jack Sheldon (who is probably most famous as the voice of Bill in “I’m Just a Bill”) and acclaimed singer-songwriter Essra Mohawk.
After Grammar Rock, they introduced America Rock (which aired just in time for America’s bicentennial in 1976), featuring songs about subjects like the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War and the Constitution, and then Science Rock, featuring songs about subjects like the Solar System, human anatomy and electricity. This was followed by Schoolhouse Rock!‘s first recurring characters Scooter Computer and Mr. Chips who were introduced in 1982 and taught you about computers, although those episodes became dated quickly and were out of circulation in 1985, but they are included as bonus features on the 30th anniversary DVD and are available to watch on Disney+ with all the other episodes of Schoolhouse Rock! under the season title Computer Rock.
1985 was also the year that new episodes stopped being produced, but the team reunited to make new Grammar Rock episodes in 1993 called “Busy Prepositions” and “The Tale of Mr. Morton,” both animated by J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, and in 1994 they created a season titled Money Rock, featuring songs about things like debt, taxes and money management. I hold these episodes from the nineties in high regard as well because they are just as clever and catchy.
In 1996, the same year that Disney acquired ABC (and as a result the rights to Schoolhouse Rock!), the final new episode made for television aired and in 2000 the series left ABC for good. But the series lives on in VHS and DVD compilations, for which the animation and music teams occasionally collaborate on brand new animation and some straight-to-video episodes, including eleven new episodes in 2009 in a DVD called Schoolhouse Rock: Earth aka Earth Rock, featuring subjects about the environment.
I rarely call anything required viewing, but I think every kid should watch this series. It was a life saver in my school years. But I also still hum those songs to this day so their value was musical as well as educational. And as someone who hated school, I’ll take anything that makes that experience go by faster.