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'Schoolhouse Rock' of Ages

In Jan. 1973, Schoolhouse Rock debuted on ABC,
proving learning can be fun. Feel old yet?

by Chanel A. Lee


The response is almost Pavolvian. Say the words "Conjunction Junction" to any
American between the ages of 22 and 34 and watch their eyes light up in recogni-
tion as they finish the sentence, "What's your function?"

Schoolhouse Rock premiered on ABC on Jan. 6, 1973, and the three-minute
animated shorts were seen by millions of children. But no one could predict that
a group of catchy musical lessons leading into the commercial breaks of Saturday-
morning cartoons would strike a chord with the kids who would grow up to clamor,
"Here we are now, entertain us."

Advertising honcho David McCall first birthed the idea for Schoolhouse Rock
when he noticed his son could memorize rock lyrics yet struggled with multiplica-
tion tables. McCall shared the brainstorm with his coworkers, creative directors
Tom Yohe and George Newall, and the trio later hooked up with jazz pianist/
composer Bob Dorough.

Dorough's vivid lyrics and Yohe's storyboards caught the attention of ABC's VP of
children's programming Michael Eisner (even before becoming the CEO of Disney, he
knew a good cartoon when he saw one), who greenlit the project. "Multiplication
Rock" came first, followed by "Grammar Rock," "America Rock," "Science Rock," and
"Scooter Computer & Mr. Chips." However Rock wasn't to roll on forever. In the
early '80s, despite Rock's multiple Emmy awards, ABC began preempting it with
music videos and, after Schoolhouse was officially canceled in 1985, Mary Lou
Retton exercise spots filled the void left behind.

Fan response to the show's demise seemed minimal. Then, in 1990, a group of
Dartmouth students invited Yohe and Newall to a symposium on education. "I said,
'You're gonna get about 10 kids in here,'" Yohe recalls. "'No one remembers
this.'" Imagine his shock when students filled the largest auditorium on campus
and turned the symposium into a joyous music-fest.

In 1992, Schoolhouse returned to ABC, presented "Money Rock" the next year, and
suddenly became synonymous with Gen-X cool. "Conjunction Junction" was featured
in 1994's slacker opus Reality Bites; Schoolhouse Rock Rocks, a CD of Schoolhouse
covers by bands like Blind Melon, was released by Atlantic in 1996; and
Schoolhouse
Rock,
a 4 CD boxed set of all the original songs, came out that same
year from Rhino.
Also, live-action productions have been mounted in San Francisco,
Chicago, and New
York City.


It would be a mistake, however, to regard Schoolhouse as merely a cool nostalgia
trip. "Telegraph Line" has introduced the nervous system to many a medical student
and "I'm Just a Bill" has proven useful to lobbying organizations. Which raises
the question, What did we ever learn from Menudo?


- Entertainment Weekly, 11/99.

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