Last updated on July 8, 2022
Schoolhouse Rock, the series of 41 cartoon shorts that used catchy tunes and repetition to teach kids watching Saturday morning cartoons about math, American history, grammar and science, began as a brainstorm of David McCall when, in 1971, he noticed that his son could sing popular song lyrics but couldn’t handle simple multiplication tables. His solution was simple: Create a catchy way to learn math by fusing it with contemporary music and, he reckoned, the kids would be able to memorize their math through songs.
McCall was chairman of the New York ad agency McCaffrey & McCall, and he put the problem to his underlings. They suggested he hire Bob Dorough, a Texas jazz musician known for creating catchy music to create the songs. Dorough was willing to give the idea a shot, and he plowed through his daughter’s math books, making up tunes on his piano until he’d created the trippy ballad “Three Is a Magic Number.”
McCall loved Dorough’s song, and the tune was eventually released as a record by Capitol Records under the title Multiplication Rock. A workbook deal fell through, but Tom Yohe, McCaffrey & McCall’s creative director, thought that the songs would go well with animation, so, after doodling some pictures, which McCall once again loved, they put together a 3 minute film to accompany “Three Is a Magic Number”, which they showed to ABC’s head of children’s programming, Michael Eisner. Eisner was receptive to the idea and gave McCaffrey & McCall the go ahead to create films for the rest of the multiplication tables. General Mills was brought on as the sole sponsor of Schoolhouse Rock.
Eisner also demanded that the big animation studios of Hollywood that made their Saturday morning cartoons cut 3 minutes from each show so that the animated shorts could be run. The studios were not too eager to comply, but after prodding by Eisner that it made good business sense, the relented.
Schoolhouse Rock premiered on the weekend of January 6-7, 1973, with the play list being “My Hero Zero,” “Elementary, My Dear,” “Three Is a Magic Number” and “The Four-Legged Zoo.” The shorts were aired for 12 years, ending in 1985. 1The information for this piece came from the omnipresent Wikipedia and the totally great School House Rock Site.