Schoolhouse Rock

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Schoolhouse Rock

The Schoolhouse Rock series of animated musical shorts that ran on the ABC network on weekend mornings from 1973 to 1985 dazzled a generation of young viewers raised in front of the television. Vibrant, catchy, exuberant, fast-paced, and entertaining: they were also educational and instructive about basic grammar, mathematics, science, and American history.

David McCall, president of New York's McCaffrey and McCall advertising agency, conceived the series. He had observed that his young son had trouble learning his multiplication table but easily and happily recounted the lyrics and music of popular songs. Working with his agency colleagues, McCall commissioned some songs about mathematics and presented them to Michael Eisner, then vice-president of children's programming at ABC (and future chairman of the Walt Disney Corporation), and Chuck Jones, famed for his Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Road Runner cartoons. ABC bought the series and General Foods sponsored it. The first animated shorts, a series of songs with titles such as "Zero My Hero" and "Three Is the Magic Number," appeared in January 1973. In the early 1970s, Saturday morning cartoons became an institution and the networks were under pressure to run programming that was perceived as having social value. In 1974, the FCC established guidelines for children's programming in an effort to improve their educational content. In this regard, Schoolhouse Rock's timing was perfect.

Over the next 12 years, ABC aired over 41 of these animated musical pieces, running as many as seven different spots in one weekend. The spots were broken into five subject areas: multiplication, grammar, American history, science, and computers. For the "Multiplication Rock" series, the creative team wrote songs concerning the multiplication products from zero to twelve (excluding one), while "Grammar Rock" informed viewers of the parts of speech. "America Rock" was created for the American bicentennial in 1976 and its songs detailed the American Revolution, the Constitution, the westward expansion, racial diversity, and women's suffrage. Later series included "Science Rock" and "Scooter Computer & Mr. Chips."

The series won four Emmy Awards, making McCaffrey and McCall the first advertising agency ever to win the coveted television prize. Advertising art directors working at McCaffrey and McCall, as well as at the Young and Rubicam agency, created most of the designs, and many of the songs were penned by copy and jingle writers. The language of advertising drove the three-minute spots, featuring vivid images supported by a catchy tune and continuous repetition of a key message. As a method for teaching a generation raised on television, Schoolhouse Rock was anticipated somewhat by the animated segments interspersed between live action sequences on the Public Broadcasting System's successful Sesame Street television program, which debuted a few years earlier. But in style, look, feel, and tone, the series was unique in children's programming.

The creative team that grew out of McCaffrey and McCall created all but a few of the original pieces during the 1970s. The design, colors, and lyrics of the spots were in tune with the aesthetic and the ethic of this era—more so than many of the Saturday morning cartoons and advertisements alongside which they ran. Visually, they were more faithful to the work of underground comic-book artist R. Crumb and the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine (1968) than to cartoons by Walt Disney or Hanna-Barbera. The Schoolhouse Rock images were bright, colorful, simple, and playfully psychedelic. The colors were earthy, the hip lyrics accessible and vernacular, and the jazzy music had a rock and roll edge. The tone was optimistic and the outlook diverse. The spots presumed that everyone was capable of learning simple mathematics and grammar, and celebrated American history and civic life. The animated spots included refreshingly non-stereotyped people of color, a rarity in the medium.

Among the more renowned Schoolhouse Rock pieces was "Con-junction Junction" which asked, "Conjunction junction, what's your function?" while a manic train conductor linked various colored boxcars as an illustration of the conjunction's grammatical role in "Hookin' up words and phrases and clauses." In another well-known spot, a young boy visiting the Capitol spots a "sad little scrap of paper" that turns out to be a bill under consideration by Congress. "Bill" pines to become a law and plaintively sings his predicament to the boy: "I know I'll be a law some day / At least I hope and pray that I will / But today I am still just a bill." Bill then musically explains to the boy the precise legislative process he must endure to become a law.

As the Reagan administration deregulated broadcasters' duties in the area of children's programming in the early 1980s, there was less pressure to include educational pieces during commercial air-time. Production of the program was discontinued in 1985 and ABC took the series off the air. However, in the early and mid-1990s, as the generation that was raised on Schoolhouse Rock grew up to become Generation X, the series experienced a resurgence. College students led a national petition drive to bring it back on the air, and in 1993 ABC began re-running the spots and commissioning new ones. That same year, the musical stage show, Schoolhouse Rock Live, opened, eventually running on Broadway and across the country. The original songs were re-released on CD and, in 1996, were also re-recorded by popular musicians of the day and released as Schoolhouse Rock Rocks. The animated spots themselves were released on video. An "Official Guide" was published by some of the creators in 1996 and Schoolhouse Rock T-shirts and other popular paraphernalia began to appear.

Schoolhouse Rock was not only one of the many inventive and original cultural phenomena of the 1970s, but unique as a cultural creation that a generation returned in force to retrieve.

—Steven Kotok

Further Reading:

Engstrom, Erika. "Schoolhouse Rock: Cartoons as Education." The Journal of Popular Film and Television. Vol. 23, Fall, 1995, 98-104.

Yohe, Tom, and George Newall. Schoolhouse Rock! The Official Guide. Hyperion, New York, 1996.