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The Legacy of Schoolhouse Rock!

In this Stitcher Premium bonus episode, Grammar Girl delves into the history of Schoolhouse Rock! and what made it the legacy it is today.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Schoolhouse Rock! logo

HH: “Schoolhouse Rock!” was a short animated program that taught concepts like math, civics, and of course, grammar. It ran on ABC Saturday mornings during cartoons from 1972 until the early 80s. “Schoolhouse Rock!” began when David McCall of the advertising agency, McCaffrey & McCall in New York, realized his child could sing all the rock songs of the day, but was struggling to remember the multiplication tables they were learning in school. McCall tasked fellow ad man, George Newell with the job of finding someone who could put math to music and not be boring about it. Here's George:

George Newell: And I did know a fellow named Bob Dorough. And Bob came up to our agency, we have a meeting, and David said, “Tell them what you want to do.” And Bob said, “Okay, I'll be back in 3 weeks,” and in 3 weeks he came back with the song "3 is a Magic Number." And the genius of the song is that instead of just—there used to be when I was a kid a thing on the radio called the singing lady, and she just sang these things, but Bob put them in a context. And it takes three legs to make a stool. It takes three of this, three of that—

"3 is the Magic Number" plays

GN: ...before he got into the counting, there was a man and woman had a little baby. There were three in the family—three is a magic number. And just, you know, we just looked at one another astonished.

"3 is the Magic Number" plays

HH: Newall went right to the art department and found his partner, Tom Yohe, who ran the department at the agency. He asked Yohe to create sketches to match the lyrics of their new tune. The ad agency had the ABC account, actually their biggest account. They knew ABC was looking for some educational programming, so they created a storyboard of what the song could look like as a cartoon. ABC loved the idea and the drawings. They signed on to run the shorts under one condition: Yohe had to illustrate them.

HH: So you said you guys looked at each other after you heard "3 is the Magic Number," and I imagined magic happening like, “Huh, this could be a thing.”

GN: It was! Everybody, you know—I'm about to get tears in my eyes. This guy is—Bob is from Arkansas, and he had this incredible southern drawl, and he had a really nice soft voice. It was a moment that struck us all. And the rest is history.

HH: The show just saw its 45th anniversary and is known all over, even being referenced by President Obama when asked in an interview how government could work better.

Male Interviewer: When they get back in session, do you believe you know the way to get things done for the American people so that we don't have another shutdown of the government that effectively punishes everybody else except the lawmakers ?

Barack Obama: There is a very, simple way of doing this. Which is, you know, maybe you're not old enough to remember “Schoolhouse Rock!”—

MI: Oh, I remember it.

BO: Remember how the bill gets passed?

"I'm Just a Bill" plays

GN: The songs are all different. Some of them, the music carries them. And in others, it's the art—it's Tom's cartooning that carries it. And a good example of that is "I'm Just a Bill."

"I'm Just a Bill" plays

And that was written by Dave Frishberg. But it's a very straightforward song—there's no gimmicks to it. But the character that Tom designed was just so memorable. It's used constantly.

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